Debt can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to panic as the payments pile up. If you feel like you’re buried under a mountain of debt and you’re struggling just to make minimum payments, debt relief may sound like salvation. Debt relief refers to a variety of strategies for providing the indebted person with a measure of respite.
Debt relief is real and it can help, but not all the options are good ones. Before you take on a debt relief plan, you should understand your situation and the available options, and choose the method that’s best for your situation.
Debt relief isn’t magic, and your debts will not disappear. Anyone who promises to eliminate your debts quickly and easily is almost certainly a scammer. Debt relief options can provide an easier way to pay your debts, but you will still have to pay. You will probably have to stop using credit cards or taking on new debt for some time. You may have to make some adjustments to your spending habits. Some debt relief options can reduce or eliminate debt, but they will also have a serious impact on your credit. You’ll have to assess the pros and cons of each option before making a choice.
Debt relief options fall into two broad categories. If you understand your debts and your finances and you believe that you can manage your debts yourself, you may choose a do-it-yourself approach. If you’re in over your head and feeling lost, you may prefer to seek outside help. Let’s look at some options in each category.
Do it Yourself
There are advantages to managing your debt relief program, especially if you understand your finances and you have the confidence to take on the challenge. You’ll be in control and you won’t have to pay someone or deal with externally imposed financial restrictions. If that sounds like something you want, consider these options.
One of the simplest ways to manage debt is to talk directly to your creditors. The earlier you do this, the better. As soon as you know you’ll have trouble making a payment, make the call. It’s painful, but initiating contact is a sign of good faith and that makes negotiation easier. Remember that your creditors don’t want to foreclose, repossess, or sell your debt to a collection agency. Most will be willing to work with you.
When you call a creditor, explain that you will have problems making a payment. Tell them why, especially if you’re facing circumstances beyond your control, like job loss or medical expenses. Ask if they can help. Creditors may offer to extend your loan term, which could lower your monthly payment. Some may have forbearance programs that allow stressed creditors to miss payments without damage to their credit.
👉 Many credit card companies have hardship programs to assist deserving customers. You won’t know if you don’t ask!
If your debt problems involve credit card debt or other high-interest debts, debt consolidation may be a viable debt relief option. You’ll take out a new loan at a lower interest rate and use it to pay several other debts. You can also consolidate debt by getting a balance transfer credit card with a zero-interest promotional period, transferring your debts onto it, and paying them off before the promotion expires. Either method will reduce your interest rate and combine several monthly payments into one, which makes it easier to keep track of your payments.
Debt consolidation is a good option if you still have reasonably good credit. If you don’t have good credit you may not qualify for low-interest loans or balance transfer cards with competitive terms. You’ll also need the discipline to keep up with the payments on the new loan.
⚠️ If you use a balance transfer card, it’s very important to pay your balances off before the promotional period expires and the interest rate rises.
📘 Learn more about debt consolidation: Debt Consolidation 101
Many people can get out of debt simply by handling their money more effectively. You’ll need to budget your money carefully and cut all unnecessary spending. You’ll have to avoid taking on any new debt. Increasing your income can help: consider asking for a raise, working more hours, or taking on a second job or a side hustle.
Once you’ve cut your spending and maximized your income, assess your debts, and adopt a strategy, such as the debt snowball or debt avalanche. These methods can help you get your finances under control and pay off your debts.
Do-it-yourself debt relief is not for everyone. If you’re truly overwhelmed by debt, you may not be able to get out of trouble on your own. If that sounds like you, there are other options to consider.
Look for Help
If your debts are out of control, or if you’ve tried the DIY approach without getting the results you wanted, it may be time to seek professional assistance. Consider these three possibilities.
Credit Counseling and Debt Management
Many companies and non-profit organizations provide credit counseling. Most credit counseling services offer a free initial session, and there’s no obligation to take on any other services. Credit counseling providers typically offer debt management plans. If you commit to a debt management plan, the service will negotiate with your creditors and try to get better terms. You will make a monthly payment to the credit counseling service and they will make the payments to the creditors. Debt management plans usually require you to close credit accounts, which can hurt your credit.
Not all credit counseling services are legitimate. Look for services that are accredited by the Financial Counseling Association of America or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. If you don’t feel comfortable working with a credit counseling organization, if they ask for an upfront payment, or you feel that you’re being pressured into adopting a plan, look for a different service.
📘 Learn more about credit counseling: Credit Counseling 101
Debt settlement companies will ask you to deposit your payments into a third-party account while they try to persuade the creditors to settle the debt for less than the original amount. Some creditors may be willing to settle, but the settlements will be reported and will harm your credit. The pause in payments while the settlement company negotiates may lead some creditors to sell your debt to a collection agency, which will hurt your credit and could leave you to deal with aggressive collectors.
⚠️ Many debt settlement companies are not legitimate, and the debt settlement industry is a leading source of consumer complaints. Do your research, and make sure you know exactly who you’re dealing with before considering a debt settlement company.
📘 Learn more about debt settlement: Debt Settlement 101
This is an extreme option and many people don’t want to consider it. That can be a mistake. Bankruptcy will do lasting damage to your credit, but it can wipe out many debts, get collectors off your back, and give you a fresh start. If your debts are completely out of control and you have few or no assets, bankruptcy can be an effective debt relief strategy.
Bankruptcy is not for everyone. Some debts, like child support, alimony, tax debt, and most student debt, cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. If your income is above the median for your state, you may not qualify for the simpler Chapter 7 bankruptcy. You may lose some assets.
👉 If you’re considering bankruptcy, you should talk to a qualified bankruptcy attorney. Many offer a free initial consultation, and you’ll get professional advice tailored to your situation.
📘 Learn more about bankruptcy: Personal Bankruptcy 101
Choose Your Debt Relief Strategy
Each of these debt relief options has advantages and disadvantages. To choose the right one you’ll have to assess your debts, your credit, and your financial status. If you’re considering working with a credit counseling service, a debt settlement company, or a bankruptcy attorney you’ll need to look carefully at the reputations and track records of the service providers in your area. It’s not an easy process, but if you make the right choices debt relief can make your financial burden easier to bear. None of these options will be right for everyone, but one of them could be right for you!