CREDIT CARD HELP: The basic fundamentals of credit cards

Preventing and handling credit card debt

9 things you must know about debt consolidation

By Erica Sandberg

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Looking for a way to cope with overwhelming debt? Credit counseling agencies may offer some relief. Their debt consolidation programs, called debt management plans, can help you get back on track -- but they can also be unnecessary and even detrimental when done through a poorly run organization or for the wrong reasons.

Here's what you need to know about consolidating accounts through an agency.

1. It's a third-party payment system. Tired of juggling many different accounts? With a debt management plan, you make one payment to the credit counseling agency, which distributes the money to your creditors until they are paid in full. These agencies do not make loans, nor do they settle debts. Instead, they have preset arrangements with most financial institutions, many of which lower interest rates and fees, so more of your payment goes toward the balance rather than finance charges. However, if you just happen to have accounts with creditors that don't offer any concessions, that benefit is reduced.

2. Agencies range in quality. With something as precious as your finances, be exceedingly careful about who you work with. Look for a nonprofit credit counseling organization that belongs to either the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA). They ensure member agencies pass rigorous standards set forth by the Council on Accreditation or another approved third party, and that their counselors pass a comprehensive certification program. Even if they are members of such organizations, though, be picky. The agency should be organized, send payments and statements on time and offer strong consumer education and support. If it falls short, contact another branch.

3. All plans are basically the same. Financial institutions don't give preferential treatment to any one organization, nonprofit or otherwise. So while the agencies and employees vary, the plans are all structured the same way: Your counselor determines how much it will take to pay your creditors in full in three to five years. The payment is usually around 2.5 percent of the total debt, though in hardship situations, there is some wiggle room. You can stop the plan at any time, and you can also pay more -- and get out of debt faster -- when you have extra funds.

4. Before consolidation, counseling. Why consolidate bills if you can't pay for basic expenses or if there are better alternatives? You wouldn't, which is the reason consolidation begins with a counseling appointment where your entire financial situation is assessed. If you have enough cash left over after subtracting expenses from income, consolidation will be presented along with other options. When a counselor is knowledgeable and compassionate, these sessions can be enlightening and motivating. Not all are. If he or she acts bored, judgmental or pushy, request a different counselor.

5. Consolidation is not right for everyone. How do you know if debt consolidation would work in your favor? First, the bulk of your balances should be in unsecured debts, such as credit and charge cards, personal loans and, sometimes, collection accounts. If most of your liabilities include other types (tax debt, unpaid child support or old parking tickets, for instance), these plans won't help. Second, you should be confident that you can pay not just for a month or two, but for years. And third, you need to have just enough money for essential expenses, some savings and your debt. If you have too much cash left over, you're better off managing the accounts on your own.

6. It's simple, steady and efficient. While you're on the plan, your payment remains constant. You never have to wonder how much you should be paying each month, as it will be the same amount until all creditors are satisfied. When one account is satisfied, the others receive a larger portion of your payment, which speeds up the repayment process. Consolidation can also provide welcome respite from creditors calling about overdue accounts, as they generally stop when the plan begins. 

7. You still have work to do. Those you owe will still be sending you account statements, which you'll have to monitor and send in. Agency reports do not reflect the interest that you're still being charged, so if you don't submit them, the balance the agency reports will be wildly different from what your bank statements say. Many clients get a rude awakening when they think they're all paid off, only to find they still are in the hole for thousands.

8. No more charging until you're done. One of the agreements you make when consolidating your debts with an agency is that you will close the accounts and not get any new ones until you are debt-free. This can be a mighty difficult adjustment if you're used to whipping out the plastic on a daily basis. However, it does make sense. After all, if you are still charging while repaying, you're spinning your wheels. In case of emergency, you're allowed to leave one card, which is typically a general purpose account with a low or no balance that you can use anywhere.

9. Consolidation is not bankruptcy, but lenders may perceived it negatively. By consolidating, you're paying 100 percent of your obligations, which is quite different from discharging them in a bankruptcy or settling the debt. Still, your credit report can take a hit if your monthly payments are less than what you would normally pay. Also, while consolidation is not factored into a credit score, some creditors notate that you're paying through a third party, which can be a red flag to a lender or anyone else looking at the report.  "We look at it as a bankruptcy. It shows that they need help paying their bills," says Stuart Davis, a senior loan consultant for Princeton Capital out of Los Gatos, California. According to their underwriters, the plan needs to be complete before they will make a loan. On the other hand, most people who consolidate do so because they're already stumbling and missing payments, so making timely and consistent payments through the service can help their reports.

Clearly, consolidating debts through a credit counseling agency can be helpful, but you may also be able to achieve the same results on your own. How? Suspend charging and request rate reductions from each of your creditors. If they turn you down, make a few larger than average payments and try again. Then, review your budget to know exactly the amount you can afford to send every month. Plug the numbers into a good debt repayment calculator to know how long it will take to become debt free. Pay more to the accounts with the highest interest rate, and when one is paid off, add the payment the next most expensive debt. Finally, commit to living within your means and prepare for life's inevitable financial emergencies.

See related: Debt negotiation in three (not) easy steps, Negotiate debt payment plans before disaster strikes 

Updated: Oct. 9, 2015

CREDIT CARD HELP: The basic fundamentals of credit cards

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