Did you know that the word “debt” is actually an acronym for “Dollars Entirely Blown Through?”
Okay, that’s not really true. But for many Americans, it perfectly describes how they reached the point that they are facing debts that are so colossal that they don’t see a path toward solvency.
If you have amassed tens of thousands of dollars (or more) of debt due from credit card use, medical bills, student loans, or unchecked spending, you do have some options for debt relief. Here is a rundown of the five most common methods by which Americans find relief from their debts.
Contrary to the name, credit counseling service providers don’t spend their days talking to people about their feelings or solving emotional problems. Rather, they can look over your total financial picture to see what actions can be taken so that your debt load is lightened. These credit counseling personnel can also liaise with your creditors and often can negotiate more favorable debt repayment terms.
Pros: The biggest upside is that most credit counseling services are free if they are offered by a nonprofit organization. These entities are staffed by professionals who can identify workable solutions to complex financial problems – often by helping you get on a debt management plan. Moreover, these counselors can teach you the skills and strategies necessary to decrease your debt and manage your spending.
Cons: Unfortunately, there are a few credit counseling services which don’t always operate transparently or in the best interests of their customers, so do some research before agreeing to work with a particular entity. Another drawback is the amount of patience, effort, and sacrifice necessary to resolve your debts. Because debt management plans tend to be measured in years, many people drop out of their programs before their debt is gone.
Unlike debt management plans, debt settlement places more of an emphasis on negotiating directly with your creditors with the goal of eliminating or sharply reducing debt. Often, lenders might accept a lump-sum payment that is much less than the total amount of debt you owe to them. If they do, you no longer have to worry about that debt ever again.
Pros: Debt settlement is especially appealing to people who have very poor credit scores. Though numbers can vary widely, consumers are often able to pay anywhere from 50% to 80% of the total debt amount in exchange for the lender terminating the obligation. It’s even possible for you to negotiate directly with your lender, although debt settlement companies do have considerable expertise in this area.
Cons: First of all, many debtholders (especially credit card companies) won’t engage in debt settlement negotiations at all. If you do opt for a debt settlement company, they will charge you an additional fee for their services. But the biggest disadvantage of debt settlement is that your credit score will be adversely impacted because the lender will report this debt to credit monitoring services as “settled for less than agreed.”
If you’re stressed about having to make payment to multiple companies each month to pay off your debts, then you will love debt consolidation. Simply put, this approach involves securing a loan from a bank or other lender that is large enough to pay off all or most of your debts. In return, you simply make one monthly payment on your debt consolidation loan that is less than the total sum of what you were paying to all of your creditors.
Pros: When lending rates are low, you can usually find a debt consolidation loan with an interest rate that is sharply lower than those of your credit card or student loan companies. If you partner with a debt consolidation company, they can leverage their industry knowledge to find you the lowest possible monthly payment. Plus, you can experience the serenity which comes with paying only one monthly bill rather than juggling multiple payments each month.
Cons: Perhaps the biggest issue with debt consolidation loans is that you may not qualify for them if your credit is subpar – or if you do, it is at a higher interest rate or for an amount of money that is insufficient to pay off all of your debt. Also, these types of loans often come with “fine print” conditions which can raise your interest rate if you either fall behind on your payments or try to pay off your loan early. Finally, if your debt consolidation loan is collateralized with your home, car, or something else, you could be at risk of losing this asset if you don’t repay the loan.
Some Americans manage their day-to-day budgets fairly well but still find themselves in debt to Uncle Sam. This could be because they forgot to pay their income taxes or undercalculated how much they owed to their federal (or state) government – and are incurring hefty penalties and interest rate charges the longer they are unable to pay the outstanding balance. Tax relief providers can negotiate with these agencies to arrive at a repayment plan that is workable for the taxpayer.
Pros: If your total tax bill isn’t too high (say, $25,000 or less), you might be eligible for what’s called an “installment agreement,” which lets you address your tax debt with monthly payments instead of having to fork over a large sum of money. You may also qualify for an “offer in compromise,” which allows you to pay only a portion of your full tax bill instead of the whole thing.
Cons: First, offers in compromise are only given to Americans who are going through significant economic hardship. If you enter into an installment agreement, interest and penalties still accrue while you are paying off the debt – and your payments may be deducted directly from your paychecks. And don’t forget that attorneys or companies who negotiate tax relief for you will also charge you for their services.
If you are unable to pay off your debts through other means, federal law allows for you to file for bankruptcy so that your debts will be partially or completely wiped out. But bankruptcy should always be viewed as the option of last resort. There are two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which allows you to liquidate certain assets and emerge debt-free more quickly; and Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which lets you keep your assets and make reduced monthly payments over a few years’ time.
Pros: Federal law states that Chapter 13 bankruptcy filers can stay in their homes – even if they are going through foreclosure proceedings. Also, once you file for bankruptcy, your creditors must stop contacting or harassing you about repaying your debts. Finally, you are given a chance to start with a “clean slate” financially once you exit bankruptcy proceedings.
Cons: Filing for bankruptcy will destroy your credit score and stay on your credit record for seven to ten years, which will impact your ability to apply for a mortgage, receive automobile financing, or even obtain a credit card. And in addition to the fees, you must pay a bankruptcy attorney. It’s important to note that you won’t be able to get out of paying certain types of debt like student loans, tax liabilities, alimony, or child support.
Weigh Your Options Carefully
There is one constant among all of these debt relief choices: none of them will ultimately be successful if you don’t address the reasons why you got into debt in the first place. This may mean cutting up credit cards, reducing your monthly spending, lowering housing costs by changing your living arrangements, or even seeking psychological counseling when appropriate (for gambling, impulse buying, or drinking problems, for instance).
Obviously, the right answer to your debt problem will vary depending on your specific situation. Because any debt relief approach is a major financial decision, you should definitely do your homework and carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each option before moving forward. But the most important takeaway is this: there are ways to address your massive debt issues which can eventually leave you financially sound and debt-free.