From student loans to a house mortgage, debt accumulation is stressful and overwhelming. As you make moves to get out of debt, you might want to consider consolidating credit cards or other loans to save you time and money. But that begs the question—does debt consolidation help or hurt your credit?
The answer depends on how you consolidate and what you do with your debt afterward.
1. Debt Consolidation Loans
Getting a new loan to pay off other debts is the most popular way to consolidate. It’s certainly what most people think of when they consider consolidation. But finding a loan that has decent terms and is designed specifically for the purpose of consolidation can be challenging—especially if your credit scores are a bit lower due to the balances you’re carrying.
It’s certainly not impossible, though. Look for reputable debt consolidation companies that will work for your specific situation.
Tip: Triple check lenders’ certifications to make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate site if you’re shopping for a loan online. Scams abound.
Effect on Your Credit: Consolidating credit cards with high balances using an installment loan (i.e. a loan with fixed monthly payments) may actually benefit your credit rating, especially if you use the loan to pay off credit cards that are near their limits. At the same time, any new loan can cause a short-term dip in your credit scores—so don’t be too surprised if you see your credit score change slightly when taking out a new loan.
2. Debt Management Plans
Debt management plans are often confused with debt consolidation—however, they’re very different programs. Debt management plans (DMPs) are offered through credit counseling agencies and, much to many people’s surprise, they don’t actually consolidate your debt.
Instead, you make a “consolidated” payment to the counseling agency, which then pays each of your creditors—usually at a reduced interest rate. Even though you’re making only one or two monthly payments, the counseling agency doesn’t actually pay off your creditors for you—it simply acts as a middle man to help you repay your debts and ensure that the creditors get the money they’re owed. These programs are available regardless of credit scores, so if you are having trouble consolidating, a DMP might be worth considering.
Tip: If you choose to move forward with a DMP, you should close or suspend your credit card accounts. Unfortunately, you’re not permitted to use credit cards while enrolled in a DMP.
Effect on Your Credit: If you have a good credit score and adhered to a creditor’s repayment terms in the past, a DMP could have a negative impact on your credit as it indicates that you are experiencing or have experienced difficulty with payments. Also, since a DMP directly impacts payment terms, credit reporting agencies might ping your DMP commitment because it designates a change in payment policies.
3. The Credit Card Shuffle
Transferring a high-rate credit card balance to a card with a lower rate is another way to consolidate. Carrie Rocha, author of Pocket Your Dollars: 5 Attitude Changes That Will Help You Pay Down Debt, and her husband paid off some $60,000 in debt, and taking advantage of low-rate balance transfers was one of the strategies they used to dig out. However, if you decide to go this route, you must be very disciplined in your approach. Otherwise, you may fall into traps such as getting stuck with a balance at a high interest rate after the introductory period ends.
Tip: Read the fine print. Keep your eyes peeled for any “but” or “until.”
Effect on Your Credit: It depends on how you use a transfer. You’ll often see a temporary dip in your credit score when opening any new card. If you use a substantial portion of the available credit (on the card) to consolidate balances from other cards with lower balance-to-available-credit ratios, your credit scores may drop from that as well. Finally, you may also lose points if you open a new card and use a majority of the credit line to consolidate.
However, if a 0% card allows you to save money and pay off your debt faster, you can come out ahead in the long run, both financially and credit score–wise.
The End Goal: Less Debt Equals Stronger Credit
Paying down debt can have a tremendous impact on your credit scores. According to FICO, the company behind most of the credit scores used by lenders, consumers with high credit scores (e.g. 785 and above), tend to keep their balances low. Specifically, two-thirds of consumers with good credit carry less than $8,500 in non-mortgage debt, and they use an average of 7% of their available credit on their credit cards.
That means that paying off debt—whether you use a consolidation loan or just put every penny you can toward your debt—will often improve your credit ratings in the long run. The biggest risk, though, is that it’s easy to run up new balances on the cards you paid off in the consolidation—and that’s definitely not a good move for your credit or your bottom line. As you make progress on paying off your loans, periodically check your free credit report to see where you stand.
Remember, moving debt is a means to your end. The goal is to pay off those balances and free up cash flow as well as to help build strong credit. So whether it’s a consolidation loan, credit card shuffle, or DMP, know your options so you get there just a little faster.