Debt Consolidation Programs & How They Work

Debt consolidation is an effective financial strategy for eliminating credit card debt. It reduces your interest rate and monthly payment so you pay off debts faster. Get free debt consolidation help over the phone or online.

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What Is a Debt Consolidation Program?

Debt consolidation combines high-interest credit card bills into a single monthly payment at a reduced interest rate. Paying less interest saves money and allows you to pay off the debt faster.

Debt consolidation is available with or without a loan. It is an efficient, affordable way to manage credit card debt, either through a debt management plan, a debt consolidation loan or debt settlement program.

If you can’t make more than minimum payments on your monthly credit card bills, a debt consolidation program is a very good way to regain control of your finances.

Types of Debt Consolidation Programs

There are three forms of debt consolidation programs:

  1. Nonprofit debt consolidation
  2. Debt consolidation loans
  3. Debt settlement

The first two are aimed at consumers who have enough income to handle their debt, but need help organizing a budget and sticking to it.

The third – debt settlement – is used in desperate situations where the debt has reached unmanageable levels.

If you’re not sure which is the best way to consolidate debt, call a nonprofit credit counseling agency like InCharge Debt Solutions. A certified counselor will go through your income and expenses, help you create an affordable monthly budget, then offer free advice on which consolidation program will eliminate your debt.

“Credit Counseling will develop an action plan that is tailored to your exact needs,” Rebecca Steele, Chief Executive Officer for the National Federation of Credit Counseling, said. “When you’re in debt, you need to understand your budget, what it’s going to take to resolve your debts and how you can put fair, affordable payments in place to achieve that goal. That is what credit counselors should do for you.”

Debt Consolidation Program Options

InCharge (nonprofit debt consolidation), Avant (debt consolidation loan) and National Debt Relief (debt settlement) each represent different segments of the debt consolidation industry. We’ll explain the advantages and disadvantages of each to help you distinguish between the three types of debt consolidation programs, as well as how to get started.

Nonprofit Debt Consolidation

Nonprofit consolidation is a payment program that combines all credit card debt into one monthly bill at a reduced interest rate and payment. These programs are offered by nonprofit credit counseling agencies, who work with credit card companies to arrive at a lower, more affordable monthly payment for you. Nonprofit debt consolidation is the truest form of a debt consolidation program. It’s more of a service than what you get with a loan, and a purer form of consolidation than debt settlement. You have the backing of a nonprofit company with credit counselors to answer questions and guide you through difficult financial situations.

Pros of Nonprofit Debt Consolidation:

  • This is not a loan and your credit score is not a factor in qualifying.
  • Reduced interest rates (somewhere around 8%, sometimes less) help lower monthly payments.
  • Credit counselors assist in developing an affordable monthly budget.
  • Financial education offered to keep this from happening again.

Cons of Nonprofit Debt Consolidation:

  • If you miss a monthly payment, all concessions granted by the creditor could be canceled.
  • There is a one-time setup fee between $50-$75 as well as a monthly service fee averaging $32, but the savings on interest should more than make up for the fees.
  • You are required to stop using credit cards except for one emergency card.

Sign-Up Process:

  1. The easiest way to enroll is through online debt consolidation or you call a counselor at a nonprofit credit counseling agency like InCharge Debt Solutions.
  2. Authorize the agency to access a list of your credit card debts and monthly payment information from your credit report.
  3. Gather information about your monthly income and expenses to determine how much money you have available for credit card consolidation.
  4. Be prepared to answer questions about your goals and the timeline you’re working toward to become debt free.
  5. Credit counselors will assess your situation and tell you if you qualify for a nonprofit debt consolidation program. If not, the counselor may recommend a loan, debt settlement or possibly bankruptcy as a solution.

Debt Consolidation Loan

The traditional form of credit consolidation is to take out one large loan and use it to pay off several credit card debts. Because you now only have one loan, a debt consolidation loan, you have one monthly payment, which simplifies the bill-paying process. However, this can be tricky. Lenders rely heavily on your credit score as a signal that you will repay the loan. If you are having problems paying credit cards, your credit score may suffer and there is legitimate concern you will repay the loan. You could be denied a loan or, at the very least, charged a high interest rate. Be aware that application and origination fees could add to the cost of the loan.

Pros of Debt Consolidation Loans:

  • Interest rates for loans should be lower than rates for credit cards.
  • Loans can be used to pay off any type of unsecured debt.
  • A single payment every month removes stress of late payments.

Cons of Debt Consolidation Loans:

  • Eligibility and interest rates are dependent upon your credit score, which could be very low if you have a lot of credit card debt.
  • There is little flexibility with loans. A loan is legally binding, while nonprofit debt consolidation and debt settlement can be cancelled at any time.
  • Loans come with origination fees that need to be paid upfront. These fees can range from 1%-8% of your loan amount.

Sign-Up Process:

  1. Make a list of unsecured debts you would like to consolidate and add each balance (the total amount you owe) to find out how much you need to borrow.
  2. Check your credit score. If necessary, take steps to raise it over 680. Most likely, that will mean making on-time payments for at least three months.
  3. Determine the average interest paid on those debts for comparison purposes. If you have a low credit score, it’s not a sure thing your interest rate will improve.
  4. Apply to at least three lenders whether it be a bank, credit union or online lender, and then compare the terms against each other and what you are currently paying.
  5. Use the loan money to pay off each debt individually.

Debt Settlement

Debt settlement sounds like a sexy option to consolidate debt. Who wouldn’t want to pay half (or less!) of what you owe on credit card debt? But this is considered a desperation measure for a reason. Ads boasting that settlement companies like National Debt Relief can get at least 50% of your debt forgiven, don’t tell the whole story. That figure doesn’t include the fees you will pay for the service; the late penalties you incur while settlement negotiations take place; and whether a creditor will even accept the offers made. The results from this form of debt consolidation definitely are mixed. Do all the math before you choose this option. It should be noted that attorneys offer debt settlement in addition to companies like National Debt Relief.

Pros of Debt Settlement:

  • You will pay less than what you actually owe.
  • If the creditor is willing to negotiate and you have enough money to make an attractive offer, this option could take less than a year.
  • It can stop calls from debt collectors and creditors.
  • It will help consumers avoid bankruptcy.

Cons of Debt Settlement:

  • The creditor doesn’t have to accept your offer, regardless of the amount.
  • Debt settlement is highly regulated in 12 states, making it difficult to achieve.
  • Late fees and interest add to the balance every month until a resolution is agreed upon.
  • By the time you pay fees for the service and the penalties for late payment, your net reduction likely will be closer to 25% of what you originally owed.
  • The amount of debt forgiven is taxable income if it is over $600.

Sign-Up Process:

  1. The first step is to make a list of the debts you plan to settle and do the math to determine the total amount owed on each account.
  2. Research at least three debt settlement companies or attorneys – Clear One Advantage, National Debt Relief and Freedom Debt Relief are the 3 largest – and compare the terms for each.
  3. Open an escrow account at your bank. Make sure the account is in your name and you have full control of the money.
  4. The debt settlement company must deal with each credit card account individually. Typically, there must be at least 40%-50% of the amount owed already in the account before the debt settlement company can make an offer.
  5. If a settlement is agreed upon – even if it’s just one account – you must release the money from escrow.

Best Debt Consolidation Companies

Consumers have numerous choices for relief through debt consolidation programs. Making the right choice involves an honest assessment of your income and spending habits. In other words: a budget!

If you can create a budget that accurately reflects your spending, you will be in the best position to decide how much you can afford each month to dedicate to eliminating debt.

Here are some companies that offer choices for debt consolidation.

InCharge Debt Solutions

TYPE: Nonprofit Debt Consolidation

HOW IT WORKS: A credit counselor asks questions about your income and expenses to see if you qualify for a debt management program. If you enroll in the program, you agree to have InCharge debit a monthly payment, which will then be distributed to your creditors in agreed upon amounts. In return, credit card companies agree to lower interest rates to around 7% (sometimes lower), which results in lower monthly payments.

FEES: A one-time setup fee that ranges from $50-$75. Monthly service fee is about $30.

LENGTH OF TIME: 3-5 years with no penalty for early payment.

CREDIT SCORE IMPACT: Typically, credit scores will improve after six months of on-time payments. There will be a drop initially due to closing all but one of your credit card accounts.


TYPE: Debt Consolidation Loan

HOW IT WORKS: First, you must fill out an application and be approved for a loan. Your income and expenses are part of the decision, but credit score is usually the deciding factor. Avant requires a minimum score of 580 with an annual gross income above $20,000. If approved, you receive a fixed-rate loan and use it to pay off your credit card balances. You then make monthly payments to Avant to pay off your loan.

FEES: Interest rates from 9.95%-35.99%. Origination fee: 4.75%. Late payment fee: $25.

LENGTH OF TIME: 2-5 years with no penalty for early payment.

CREDIT SCORE IMPACT: Applying for a loan has no effect on your credit score, but missing payments will hurt your score. Conversely, making on-time payments should improve it.

National Debt Relief

TYPE: Debt Settlement

HOW IT WORKS: The qualifying standard is at least $7,500 of debt. You open an escrow account and make monthly payments (set by National Debt Relief) to that account instead of to your creditors. When the balance has reached a sufficient level, NDR negotiates with your individual creditors in an attempt to get them to accept less than what is owed. If a settlement is reached, the debt is paid from the escrow account.

FEES: 15%-25% of the original debt. The company website doesn’t list any other fees.

LENGTH OF TIME: 2-4 years.

CREDIT SCORE IMPACT: It’s a huge negative and it lasts for seven years. Expect your credit score to drop 75-125 points as your bills go unpaid and accounts become delinquent.

What to Look for in a Debt  Consolidation Program

There are many avenues to eliminating debt through debt consolidation, but there are just as many detours that will compound your problem if you are not paying attention.

Keep your guard up against credit repair scams that promise results that don’t seem possible. There are plenty of advertisements in this industry that sound too good to be true … and it’s because they are! Don’t fall for them.

The first thing to look at before joining a debt consolidation program is confidence that the agency, bank, credit union or online lender is there to help you, not to make money off you.

You should be asking how long they have been in this business; what their track record for success is; what do the online reviews say about customer experience; and how much are you really going to save by using their service?

The last question is the most important because you can do any of these debt consolidation programs yourself. So, if the fees charged make it a break-even exchange, there really is no reason to sign up. Your total cost in a program should save you money while eliminating your debt.

How Do Credit Consolidation Companies Work?

Man with list of many debts that need to be consolidatedCredit consolidation companies work by finding an affordable way for consumers to pay off credit card debt and still have enough money to meet the cost of basic necessities like housing, food, clothing and transportation.

The term “credit consolidation companies" covers a lot of ground in the debt-relief industry. They range from giant national banks to tiny nonprofit counseling agencies, with several stops in between and offer many forms of credit card debt relief.

To simplify things, it is easiest to divide credit consolidation companies into two categories:

  • Those who consolidate debt with a loan based on your credit score
  • Those who consolidate debt without a loan and don’t use a credit score at all

Banks, credit unions, online lenders and credit card companies fall into the first group. They offer debt consolidation loans or personal loans you repay in monthly installments over a 3-5 year time frame.

They start by reviewing your income, expenses and credit score to determine  how creditworthy you are. Your credit score is the key number in that equation. The higher, the better. Anything above 700 and you should get an affordable interest rate on your loan. Anything below that and you will pay a much higher interest rate or possibly not qualify for a loan at all if your score has dipped below 620.

The second category – companies who provide credit card consolidation without a loan – belongs to nonprofit credit counseling agencies like InCharge Debt Solutions. InCharge credit counselors look at your income and expenses, but do not take the credit score into account, when assessing whether you qualify for a debt management program.

Based on the information provided, they recommend debt relief options such as a debt management program, debt consolidation loan, debt settlement or filing for bankruptcy as possible solutions.

Which Debt Consolidation Program Is Right for Me?

It takes research to determine what debt consolidation program is right for you. Each one is geared toward a different set of circumstances.

If you have enough income to pay your bills, nonprofit debt consolidation works in most cases. There is very little risk, and the program is really designed to be a helping hand. You can cancel any time and still have the other programs available as options.

When you take out a debt consolidation loan, you are converting your credit card debt into loan debt. That closes the door on the possibility of later enrolling in a nonprofit debt consolidation program.

Debt settlement requires you to be all in. In order for it to work, you have to create bargaining leverage by stopping all payments to your creditors. Once you go down this road there's no coming back, but if your debts are already in collections, settlement and bankruptcy might be your only option.

If you don't know which program is right for you, credit counseling can help. Credit counselors are certified professionals, who know these programs in and out. They will walk you through your finances – answering any questions, giving advice and making a recommendation based on the information that have.

At the end of the day, the program that's right for you is the one that gets you across the finish line.

Frequently Asked Questions

A debt consolidation company is one that combines all credit card debt into a single monthly payment. It could be a nonprofit credit counseling agency using a debt management program with no loan involved; a bank, credit union or online lender offering a debt consolidation loan; or a debt settlement company that requires a lump-sum payment to pay off the debt.

The government is not involved in any debt consolidation programs. The government does provide grants to nonprofit credit counseling agencies that work with consumers to solve problems with credit card debt.

Balance transfer cards that offer 0% interest are the ideal way to pay off credit card debt if you are committed to paying off the balance during the promotional period (anywhere from 6-18 months). However, there are several hurdles to clear before you get one. First, you must qualify for a balance transfer card, which usually means having a credit score of 700 or higher. Next, there usually is a balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% involved. That could add hundreds of dollars to the amount owed. Then, if you haven’t paid off the balance when the promotional period ends, the interest rate will jump anywhere from 13% to 25%, maybe even higher. Finally, if you continue using the credit card to pay for shopping, you may end up owing more than what you started with.

Contact a nonprofit credit counseling agency like InCharge Debt Solutions to find out which form of debt consolidation best suits your situation. The counselors at nonprofit credit counseling agencies are trained and certified by a national organization to act in the best interests of the consumer.

They help create an affordable monthly budget based on your income and expenses. Based on that budget, they recommend a nonprofit debt consolidation, debt consolidation loan or debt settlement program. The advice is free. The consumer selects the form of consolidation they are most comfortable with.

If you don’t qualify for any of the three, the only option could be bankruptcy.

Yes. All three forms of debt consolidation make it possible to apply online.

You can consolidate debt with bad credit through a nonprofit debt consolidation program or debt settlement program. Qualifying for a debt consolidation loan, however, is driven by your credit score so bad credit could mean high interest rates or not qualifying at all.

Yes. Nonprofit debt consolidation and debt consolidation loans may have a negative impact at first, but if you complete the program, both should help raise your credit score. A debt settlement program has a negative effect that will last for seven years.

Credit cards are, by far, the most popular form of debt to consolidate because of the high-interest rate attached to them. Consolidation works best when the interest rate is reduced and monthly payments are lowered because of it.

It is possible, though not advisable, to include medical bills, rent, utilities, phone bills and other forms of unsecured debt in a consolidation loan, but since none of those typically has an interest rate attached, there is no gain from consolidating them.

Yes. The size of fees varies, but each form of consolidation has fees associated with it.

Nonprofit debt consolidation and debt settlement are voluntary programs. You aren’t legally obligated to complete them, though you will lose any concessions offered by cancelling. To cancel, you need to call, email or fax the agency where you enrolled.

A debt consolidation loan is legally binding. You can’t opt out.

 Budget 3-5 years to get through a program, regardless of which one you choose.

About The Author

Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson focuses on writing about debt solutions for consumers struggling to make ends meet. His background includes time as a columnist for newspapers in Washington D.C., Tampa and Sacramento, Calif., where he reported and commented on everything from city and state budgets to the marketing of local businesses and how the business of professional sports impacts a city. Along the way, he has racked up state and national awards for writing, editing and design. Tom’s blogging on the 2016 election won a pair of top honors from the Florida Press Club. A University of Florida alumnus, St. Louis Cardinals fan and eager-if-haphazard golfer, Tom splits time between Tampa and Cashiers, N.C., with his wife of 40 years, college-age son, and Spencer, a yappy Shetland sheepdog.


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