If you’ve watched TV for more than an hour or spent any time at all on the Internet you’ve undoubtedly seen all those ads from those companies that would just love to help you consolidate your debts to “cut your payments in half,” “reduce your interest payments”, and “help you become debt free.” This can all seem very tempting especially if you feel your billfold is hemorrhaging money due to your debts. The fact is combining all of your loans or credit card debts into a new loan with a lower interest rate and better payments can make perfect sense. Sadly enough, it doesn’t always work out like that. The fact is that many people who consolidate their debts end up paying more than they would have otherwise. An alarming number of borrowers that get home equity loans end up losing their houses. In addition, many of the so-called “consolidation” programs are not really loans at all. Plus, debt consolidation has a sort of bad reputation and in some cases rightfully so. Still, if you pay attention to these dos and don’ts you might be able to benefit a lot from consolidation.
Do get your credit report and FICO score
Whether you’re aware of this or not, your ability to get a loan and your interest rate will depend on your credit reports and your FICO score.
There are three credit-reporting bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. They are required by law to provide you with a free copy of your credit report once a year. You can get your report from these bureaus one at a time or all together on the site www.annualcreditreport.com. The reason you’ll want to get your reports is because they could contain errors that are adversely affecting your credit score. You need to go over each report very carefully. If you do find errors, you’ll need to write the appropriate credit bureau and dispute the items.
Your credit score is a three-digit number that was created by the company now called FICO but until a few years ago was known as Fair Isaac Corporation. Your FICO score is a mathematical representation of your credit reports. It’s created using an algorithm that only FICO understands. You can get your score at www.myfico.com, from one of the three credit reporting agencies or from websites such as Creditkarma.com. If you have a Discover card you’re probably getting your credit score every month along with your statement. Lenders generally look at credit scores in ranges as follows:
- Between 300 and 499 – Bad credit score
- Between 500 and 579 – Poor credit score
- Between 580 and 619 – Low credit score
- Between 620 and 679 – Average or OK score
- Between 680 and 699 – Good credit score
- Between 700 and 850 – Very good or excellent credit score
If you find you have a credit score of 680 or above, a consolidation loan might be a good option.
Don’t fail to investigate other options
Before you get yourself tied up in a consolidation loan with a term of seven or even 10 years, be sure to check out your other options. If your goal is to save money and you’re not in a really bad financial situation, just pay off your debts faster by prioritizing them. This is called snowballing your debts. It is where you concentrate on paying as much as you can each month on the debt with the highest rate while making sure you continue to make the minimum payments on your other debts. This has helped many people become debt free within two years or less.
Do contact your credit card company
If you have relatively good credit call your credit card company and see if you can negotiate a better interest rate. In the event that they refuse to give you a lower rate, consider transferring your balances to a credit card with a lower long-term rate.
Don’t do a balance transfer without knowing all the facts
You could transfer your high-interest credit card debts to a 0% interest credit card. This is a card where you pay no interest during an introductory rate that can be anywhere from six months to 18 months, which gives you a sort of time out during which you could concentrate on paying off your balance. If you don’t get your balance paid off before your introductory period ends, you’ll have to start paying on it and your interest rate will likely skyrocket to 19% or higher.
There is probably a reputable credit-counseling agency where you live. If so, it should be able to provide you with either free or low-cost advice on how to manage your debt. You will be assigned a counselor that will review your finances, help you prepare a budget and provide you with tips for getting your finances under control.
Don’t sign up for a debt management plan
Your credit counselor might try to talk you into a debt management plan. Don’t agree to this without understanding it could take you as long as five years to complete it and you might have to give up all your credit cards.
Do talk with your mortgage holder
Reputable mortgage companies will usually work with you if you’re having a temporary problem. As soon as you see that you’re having trouble, call the company. It may be willing to temporarily suspend your payments, accept reduced payments for a period of time or let you pay interest only. Alternately, you might extend your term or the amount of time required for repayment, which would reduce your payments.
However, your best bet might be to totally refinance the loan. For example, there is a federal program called HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) where you could refinance and lower your payments even if you owe more on your house than it’s worth.
Don’t borrow from your life insurance
If you have a whole life policy, you could borrow against its cash value. This is usually a low interest loan that would get you quick cash to pay off your debts. However, there can be tax implications on the money you borrow. Plus, if you don’t repay the loan, the money will be subtracted from the amount your beneficiary receives.
Do try to pay off your debt quickly
One of the downsides of a consolidation loan is that you may have lower monthly payments but your repayment will be spread out over a longer period of time so you’ll be paying more, sometimes a lot more, on a consolidation loan then you would have to otherwise. Figure out your budget and then set the monthly payment on your loan as high as you possibly can. The quicker you pay off that loan the more money you’ll save and the faster you’ll be out of debt.
Don’t get the wrong type of loan
It’s important to understand there are two types of debt consolidation loans – secured and unsecured. Second mortgages, home equity loans and secured lines of credit are secured loans – that is an asset such as your house secures them. These loans usually have lower interest rates than the unsecured ones. In addition, if you get a home equity loan the interest you pay on it will probably be tax deductible. Of course, if you fall behind on a home equity loan, you could end up losing your house.
Unsecured loans can be a better option because you don’t have to risk any assets such as your house. If you have decent credit you should be able to get one of these loans at a good interest rate. But if you have poor credit you may find that you’ll get a low rate only with a secured loan.
Do shop around
Finally, make sure you get quotes from several different lenders and compare the terms and the interest rates very carefully. Your best bet is often your own bank or credit union – especially for personal or unsecured loans. But it’s always a good idea to shop around. When you do this, be sure to get your quotes in writing so you can compare lenders side-by-side. And make sure you understand all the fees associated with the loans as well as their terms and conditions.