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Debt can seriously impact your life. Here’s what you need to know about your options and how to decide when it’s worth pursuing.

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When debt relief makes sense

Debt relief is a broad term that refers to many different approaches. You could eliminate your debt completely by declaring bankruptcy, or you could negotiate with creditors to pay back a reduced amount.

In general, it makes sense to consider debt relief in the following situations:

  1. You have significant consumer debt and can’t work out a repayment plan with your creditors on your own.
  2. You’ve already cut your expenses and don’t have any extras to eliminate from your budget.
  3. You aren’t able to boost your income.
  4. You have no realistic expectation of being able to pay off your debt within five years.

If you’ve come up with a detailed budget, done everything you can to save money, and tried to increase your earnings and still can’t make ends meet — debt relief may be the best option for you.

If you haven’t already, it’s typically good to consider debt consolidation before pursuing debt relief.

3 types of debt relief

When it comes to debt relief programs, there are three different ways to tackle your balances.

1. Debt management plans

If you have too much debt or are unable to repay your debt, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you pursue a debt management plan (DMP). With this approach, a certified credit counselor reviews your finances and develops the DMP. Each month, you send payments to the credit counseling agency and they use it to pay your creditors on an agreed-to schedule.

As part of the DMP, the agency may negotiate with creditors to waive certain fees or lower your interest rates. A DMP requires you to make regular, on-time payments, and you may make payments for several years. As part of the DMP, you may have to agree to not use or apply for any additional credit while you’re repaying your debt.

2. Debt settlement programs

With debt settlement, a company works on your behalf to convince your creditors to accept a reduced settlement instead of the full balance you owe. For example, Accredited Debt Relief clients pay just 68% to 75% of enrolled debt upon successful completion of the program. If you had $30,000 in consumer debt, that means you’d repay just $20,400 to $22,500.

That may sound amazing, but the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns that debt settlement can be risky.

While the settlement process is underway, the debt settlement company will typically tell you to stop making payments to your creditors. During this time, late fees, penalty charges, and interest will continue to accrue, and your credit score can be negatively impacted. You could even end up in more debt than you started with.

Debt settlement companies typically charge high fees for their services. For example, the fee for National Debt Relief is 18% to 25% of your enrolled debt. And, the program can take up to four years to complete.

That debt settlement savings may make those fees and drawbacks worth it, but you should carefully consider your options before pursuing it. Also, keep in mind that there is a chance the debt relief company might not reach a successful negotiation. But they can only legally charge you if they have successfully negotiated your debt.

3. Bankruptcy

If you’ve exhausted your other options, declaring bankruptcy may make sense, but it should be a last resort.

When you declare bankruptcy, the court will review your situation. If it agrees that you’re unable to repay your debt, it will issue a court order discharging the debt. That means you’ll no longer owe money on your credit cards, medical bills, or personal loans.

Because the debt is discharged, all debt collection activity stops. You won’t receive any more harassing phone calls or letters in the mail, and bill collectors can’t garnish your wages.

However, bankruptcy has serious consequences. Bankruptcy information can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years and can make it difficult to get credit, buy a home, or even qualify for life insurance. Plus, the bankruptcy process can be expensive. You’ll have to pay court fees and if you hire an attorney, their fees can be costly.

If you decide to pursue bankruptcy, you must get credit counseling from a government-approved organization within six months before you file. You can find a list of eligible programs on the U.S. Trustee Program website.

3 times you shouldn’t pursue debt relief

If you lost your job or went through a medical emergency, debt relief can be incredibly helpful and give you the breathing room you need to get back on your feet. However, it’s not appropriate for everyone. Here are three situations where debt relief doesn’t make sense.

  1. You haven’t reached out to creditors yet
  2. You can repay your debt within five years
  3. You’re eligible for debt consolidation

1. You haven’t reached out to creditors yet

If you can’t afford your payments, reach out to your creditors right away — this should be your first step. Student loan servicers, personal loan lenders, and even credit card companies sometimes have hardship programs, where you can make reduced payments or qualify for a lower interest rate.

Contact your creditors directly and explain your situation, saying what you can afford to pay and what kind of help you need. You may qualify for temporary programs that don’t cost you anything.

2. You can repay your debt within five years

If you can pay off your debt within five years by cutting expenses or working a side hustle, debt relief isn’t necessary for you. You can work with a nonprofit credit counseling agency to develop a budget and get personalized advice to tackle your debt so you can pay off your balances without paying extra fees or damaging your credit.

To find a reputable credit counseling agency, check with your state Attorney General and local consumer protection agency.

3. You’re eligible for debt consolidation

If you’re dealing with debt, but still have good credit, you may be able to tackle your balances with debt consolidation. With this approach, you take out a personal loan or complete a balance transfer to lower the interest rate on your debt. With a lower rate, more of your payment goes toward principal rather than interest, helping you save money and get out of debt faster.

Credible allows you to compare offers from multiple personal loan lenders at once, allowing you to secure the best rate.

Getting the help you need

Dealing with debt can be an exhausting experience, but debt relief may be able to help you through it. Before pursuing any debt relief program, make sure you do your homework to ensure you choose a path that works best for your finances and your goals.

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About the author
Kat Tretina
Kat Tretina

Kat Tretina is an authority on student loans and a contributor to Credible. Her work has appeared in publications like the Huffington Post, Money Magazine, MarketWatch, Business Insider, and more.

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