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Dangers of debt consolidation
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Companies offer these rates as teasers -- enticements for you to switch credit card vendors. Much of the time, card companies target consumers with better credit, so that may leave someone struggling with debt without this option.

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Even if you do qualify for a zero-percent or similar single-digit rate, it won't last forever. Make sure you know when it will end and what the rate is expected to jump to when it does.

The low rate also lasts only if you pay on time. One late payment and the credit card company will jack up the rate. Also look for hidden fees and charges that can increase the actual cost of credit.

"It's a short-term fix," says Viale. "The only way it works is if you are really meticulous about paying it and stay on top of it and then move onto another credit card before the low interest rate expires."

Opening new credit card accounts every six months, however, could negatively affect your credit rating, he cautions.

And to successfully lower your debt load, you'll need to pay far more than the smallest amount the card company will accept, especially after that zero rate disappears. "Paying the minimum for a $20,000 debt won't cut it," notes Viale.

Bankrate's minimum payment calculator illustrates Viale's assessment. Say, for example, you transferred $20,000 of other debt to a zero-percent card and paid $1,000 on it by the time the rate jumped to 14 percent. If you make only the minimum monthly payments, it will take you 1,134 months -- or 94.5 years -- to erase your remaining $19,000 balance. If you live that long, you'll pay $64,805 in interest. And that's presuming you don't charge another thing during that time.

Debt consolidation loan
Did the credit card computations scare you into looking for another option? There's always a debt-consolidation loan. Offers for these financial products are an e-mail box staple. Chances are you get a dozen or more everyday suggesting this as the solution to your growing debt problem.

A major appeal of consolidation loans is convenience. Instead of paying 20 different creditors who are charging different rates at different times of the month, you take out one big loan and pay off all those accounts. Then you make a single payment on that loan once a month.

But ease doesn't automatically translate to savings.

Before you sign on the dotted line, be sure that the costs of the new, bundled loan will truly be less than what you're already paying various creditors. For many consolidation-loan candidates, their current credit woes mean they won't get the lowest-available interest rate. Plus, when there is nothing to secure the loan (such as your home), expect the lender to bump up the rate.

Calculate interest and fees on all your existing accounts to determine the total of the payments you now make. Then compare those amounts with the consolidation loan numbers to make sure it truly is a better choice.

 
 
Next: "Credit unions also tend to be more lenient."
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'05 Debt Credit Guide
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