When credit card debt begins to outpace what you can pay and you’re considering debt consolidation, you’re not alone. In fact, 4 in 5 Americans report carrying some amount of credit card debt over on a monthly basis, unsure of what to do about it.
Finding yourself in this situation can be daunting, especially since sometimes all it takes are one or two missteps and soon you’re juggling multiple balances from month to month while interest begins to pile up.
Consolidating Credit Card Debt: Escape the Stress
To escape the stress and get a handle on the debts you owe, you need a debt repayment gameplan. In a nutshell, you’re looking to: find and gather all the debts you owe, learn about how the process works, and lay out what your options are in language that’s easy to understand.
To get started, let’s go over five ways to consolidate credit card debt: balance transfer cards, personal loans, 401k loans, secured loans, and working with a consolidation provider. All have their advantages and drawbacks to consider.
1. Balance Transfer Card
What It Is
Balance transfer cards can be a good form of consolidation to consider if you need some, but not an overwhelming, amount of help to get on top of your credit card payments.
By applying for a new balance transfer credit card, you’re essentially buying yourself extra time — typically somewhere between 12- to 21-months, depending on the card — to stop interest from accruing on your balance. Doing this allows you to put money toward the principal amount of debt instead of the interest and get out of debt faster.
Compared to other consolidation options, this is a relatively easy strategy to understand and accomplish.
Many cards, even some rewards cards, offer 0% APR promotional periods with zero interest, so you might be able to tackle your full debt balance without paying an extra penny in interest.
Moving debts onto one card can also make budgeting easier, as you’ll have less to keep track of each month.
To benefit from a balance transfer card as mentioned above, you’ll want to transfer your debt onto your new card soon after receiving it.
Most cards stipulate that in order to take advantage of the introductory promotional period, your debt has to be transferred onto the card in a certain timeframe, typically between 30- to 45-days of being approved. Also, depending on the card, you may have to pay a balance transfer fee when doing so.
While no fees are ideal, paying a small fee in return for several months of interest-free payments could be exactly the break you need to finally pay off your debt.
Another word of caution; if you’re unable to pay back the amount you’ve transferred onto the card by the time to introductory promotional period is up, you’ll likely be subject to a much higher interest rate than before. If you choose to move forward with this strategy, do everything in your power to ensure your debt is paid off by the time the 0% APR period is over.
2. Personal Loan
What It Is
Unlike balance transfer cards that typically offer a short window to repay your debt, personal loans can give you a longer repayment opportunity at a reasonable ongoing interest rate. This may be a good option to consider if a balance transfer card seems right but you’re unable to fully commit to having the debt paid back before the interest rate kicks in.
There are several personal loan options with a variety of repayment periods available. Depending on what you’re eligible for, you may be able to set up a long-term plan to pay off your debt over the course of several years. Qualifying for the best loans can also help you save on interest that doesn’t fluctuate over the life of the loan.
Similar to balance transfer cards, personal loans may also have fees and high interest rates attached to them. Oftentimes, loans with the lowest interest rates are limited to those with higher credit scores — a feat that isn’t easy when you’re dealing with a lot of debt. Before signing on the dotted line, be sure to review the fine print for any fees or details you might have missed.
3. 401(k) Loan
What It Is
A less popular option for credit card consolidation (or any type of debt consolidation for that matter) are retirement loans. By borrowing against your retirement accounts, typically a 401(k) or IRA, you can roll your debt into one payment backed by a retirement account used as collateral. Each retirement fund has specific rules on early withdrawals and limits that are critical to review before making a decision.
What makes this option feasible for some people is the lack of a credit check. If you have the money in your retirement fund, then you can get this kind of loan, no questions asked. As with a personal loan, you will have several years to pay off your 401k loan.
401(k) loans can be a high-risk opportunity since failure to repay your debt and abide by the fund’s rules could irreparably damage your retirement savings and put your accounts at risk. While some of the rules and regulations have softened a bit recently, there’s still a lot to consider and digest before going this route.
4. Secured Loan
What It Is
To clear up any confusion, let’s get this out of the way: Secured and unsecured debts are different. Unsecured debt can include credit cards and medical bills — debt with no assets at stake. On the other hand, home and auto loans are categorized as secured debt, because failure to pay it back could mean repossession of the asset.
Now that that’s cleared up, it is possible to consolidate unsecured debt (credit card debt) with a secured loan. An example would be rolling your credit card debt into a home loan, essentially gathering all of the balances you owe under one debt umbrella.
The first obvious benefit is being able to see your debt housed in one place, which can offer a type of relief if you’ve spent any amount of time juggling multiple balances all over the place.
Secured loans also tend to be more lenient with credit requirements since the offered asset gives more security to the lender (read: It’s less risky for them to lend you money). Home loans in particular tend to offer the largest sums of money; likely enough to be able to consolidate all of your credit card debt.
Secured loans, while appealing, can be a gamble. If you fail to pay, you’re at risk of losing your possessions. Plus, changing the status of your unsecured debt to secured by taking out a secured loan can be risky. It’s another unpopular option for credit card debt consolidation and should only be considered if you know for certain you’ll be able to pay off the loan quickly.
5. Debt Consolidation Provider
What It Is
Sometimes even the most earnest attempt at a do-it-yourself debt repayment strategy just doesn’t cut it. And, when that happens, you can team up with a debt consolidation provider who takes the reigns in helping you pay off debt on a structured schedule with regular check-ins. This option is typically considered by those drowning in debt with more than $15,000 of credit card debt.
With the right program, you may end up paying significantly less in interest than you were before consolidating your loans. You’ll also be able to work with a representative who will handle your payments on your behalf for the duration of the loan, simplifying what you have to keep track of even more. If you’re tackling a mountain of debt and could benefit from having a repayment structure set up for you, this may be the right choice for you.
Debt consolidation can impact your credit for a while as you work through the course of your debt repayment. And, there are oftentimes fees and additional charges that may apply depending on your situation and provider. It’s always good to ask your provider for a full list of fees you may be subject to.
Also worth noting — debt consolidation plans don’t always mix with other forms of debt accrual, such as buying a home or a new car. The timing of when you sign up for a plan can affect other financial decisions.
The Bottom Line
You’ve come this far in figuring out how to pay off debt, don’t turn back now!
Paying off any amount of outstanding credit card debt is a big accomplishment and it’s important to acknowledge the discipline it takes to get there. Once you’ve decided which option makes the most sense for you and see the first bits of progress, the burden of your financial stress will begin to melt away. Your next task? Making sure you don’t fall into the cycle of debt again.