Should I Get a Debt Consolidation Loan to Pay Off My Credit Cards?Dear Lifehacker,
I've racked up a good bit of credit card debt, and while I'm slowly paying it down, it's a pain wrangling multiple bills with different interest rates. My credit union is offering debt consolidation loans with a lower rate than any of my cards—should I take that, use it to pay off all of my cards, and only have one, low-interest bill to pay every month?
Trying to Dig Out
Dear Trying to Dig Out,
It's tempting, isn't it? Getting rid of all of your credit card bills, no more annoying multiple payment to multiple creditors, just one, automatic loan payment every month that comes out of your account automatically and you're back on the road to being debt free, right? Well sure—but it comes with a couple of pretty big caveats that might sour the milk for you. Let's explain, and then you can decide whether it's a good idea in your case.
When Debt Consolidation Loans Don't Make Sense
- Do the math on your credit cards and their interest rates, and figure out how long it would take you to pay them all off at your current payment rate. Compare that to the length of the consolidation loan you're looking at taking out. Your average 5 year (60 mo) debt consolidation loan, even at a lower interest rate than your credit card, may cost more over the long haul than if you just paid your cards down faster. Photo by 401(k) 2012.
- Check what your monthly payment on a debt consolidation loan would be. Are you at least paying that much towards your credit cards now? If the loan payment is more than you pay towards your debts (and it fits into your budget), it might be time to up the ante and just put more money to your credit cards. If the loan payment is less than you pay to your cards, you'll likely wind up paying way more interest over time, since your loan term will probably be long.
- Once your cards and debts are paid off, will you cancel the credit cards? Sure, you get credit cards with zero balances and no bills out of the loan, but one of the biggest problems with debt consolidation loans is that they do nothing to change the behaviors that got you into debt in the first place. Instead, they add another creditor to your pile, and fan the flames of going into debt to pay off more debt. If you even think you might be tempted to use those cards again after paying them off, or if you're using debt consolidation as an easy out or way to avoid really looking at your budget, it's not right for you. The last thing you want is to take out a loan, pay off your cards, and then charge up your cards again—now you've done nothing but dig your hole twice as deep.
When Debt Consolidation Loans Make Senseerules123. Of course, those situations aren't the norm, and most of us with credit card bills looking to get rid of them aren't in that position. That's not to say there aren't situations where debt consolidation loans can offer people who really need them the breathing room to get out of debt and organize their finances. ReadyForZero has a great post on this topic, and showcases some examples of when debt consolidation can be a good choice—and even save you money on interest while getting you out of debt faster.
It All Comes Down to Mathematics and Behavior
- Start by creating a realistic budget.
- Then decide whether you want to pay highest interest cards first or lowest balance cards first.
- Set up auto-pay so you're paying more than the minimum payments every month, paperless billing so you don't get the bills in the mail (although you should still review them every month), and let your money manage itself.
Make no mistake: if you want help with your debt, you should get it. Don't let social stigma or ego get in the way—there are plenty of ways to get on the right track that go further than blog posts and stop short of putting you back in debt to someone else. Debt repayment and credit counseling programs can negotiate lower interest rates on your behalf, or help you do it yourself. They can help you with your budget, and help you plan a route out of debt that turns your credit into a tool you control, as opposed to a monster than controls you. If you need the help, get it—and definitely do that before you take out a loan. Photo by Media Bakery13 (Shutterstock).
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