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Debt consolidation: cure or continued credit problems?

Interest rates haven't been this low for decades, tempting some consumers to take on additional debt to ease existing credit woes. The goal is to consolidate various higher-interest balances into one, easier-to-handle and less-costly package.

But be careful of what looks to be a quick fix.

"You're getting symptomatic relief, not a credit cure," says Chris Viale, general manager of Cambridge Credit Corp., a nonprofit credit counseling agency based in Agawam, Mass.

This fighting-fire-with-fire approach can take several forms. There are debt-consolidation loans, balance transfers to a zero-percent credit card and home equity loans or lines of credit.

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But, says Viale, 70 percent of Americans who take out a home equity loan or other type of loan to pay off credit cards end up with the same (if not higher) debt load within two years.

Viale's statistics underscore a major problem with debt consolidation: It feeds upon the tendencies that got you in trouble in the first place. By taking on yet another creditor, you're adding the proverbial fuel to the fire. In this case, it's your money that's burning.

Plus, if you've taken on so much debt that you're looking for more as a solution, chances are you won't qualify for the very low interest rates you see advertised. Those generally go to people with stellar credit ratings.

However, if you're at the end of your credit rope or swear that this time you'll be more disciplined, debt consolidation may be something to consider despite its risks. Here are some popular forms of debt consolidation, how they work and a look at their pros and cons.

Home equity loan or line of credit

Home equity lines or loans often are touted as a quick and easy way to get out of debt. By leveraging your residence's value, the pitch goes, you can get money to pay off other bills and a tax break, too.

But borrowing against your house can backfire. The biggest risk: You could lose your home if you default on the loan.

"Some hardship occurs and now they have double the debt and if it's secured by their home, they could lose it," says Diane Giarratano, director of education at Garden State Consumer Credit Counseling in Freehold, N.J.

And while equity loan interest generally is tax deductible, it could be limited in some situations. Even when it does provide a tax break, Cambridge's Viale says "that doesn't mean it makes fiscal sense."

Giarratano agrees. "Banks will tell you how much you can borrow," she says. "That doesn't mean you should borrow the total amount, but that's what people do."

Still, a home equity line of credit or loan to pay off creditors can work for some debt-burdened homeowners. Just be sure to do your homework to guarantee that the home equity dollars and cents make sense. This Bankrate calculator can help your determine whether borrowing against your home's equity is a wise move.

Zero-percent credit card

What about people who don't own a house? In these cases, many turn to zero-percent credit cards to reduce debt. Again, prudence and discipline are required.

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.

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.

And, as with any product, shop around. The bank down the street may offer an attractive loan rate, but a check of your local credit union could turn up better terms, says Deborah McNaughton, author of "The Get Out of Debt Kit."

"Credit unions also tend to be more lenient than the banks," adds McNaughton.

Managing, not adding, debt

Viale is a much bigger fan of debt management, which isn't a surprise since he heads up a debt management firm. But McNaughton and other experts also point to credit counseling instead of shifting debt as the way to go.

They favor debt management because it costs less and is quicker than a debt-consolidation loan. Viale says someone owing $20,000 would end up paying $6,000 to $8,000 in interest and fees and be debt free in four to six years by using a credit counselor. If that person took out a 15-year home equity loan at 10 percent (because his credit wasn't good enough to get him a lower rate), Bankrate's loan calculator shows he'd end up paying $18,686 in interest on top of the twenty grand he borrowed.

But if you just can't get a handle on your bills by yourself, you should explore credit counseling. Getting professional help in managing your debt can help you change your credit behavior. People that have taken on too much debt tend to go into denial; they'd rather not know how much debt they owe. A professional debt manager will make you face up to your obligations.

Credit counseling agencies also force you to stop racking up debt. In exchange for consolidating your debt and working with your creditors to reduce your payments, credit counselors require you to give up your credit cards.

Credit counseling, however, is not without its costs.

One downside is that your reduced payment plan will probably show up as a mark against you on your credit report. Even though your creditor agreed to the reduced payment, you technically did not pay your account as called for in your original credit agreement.

An even more costly potential pitfall is the disreputable debt counselor. As this Bankrate story points out, some credit counseling and debt-consolidation companies are only interested in making a quick buck on debt-ridden consumers. Some firms offer shoddy service at sky-high fees. Others are out-and-out scams.

To find a reputable firm, verify certifications or third-party registrations. Check with the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies or the National Foundation of Credit Counseling to see if the service you're considering is a member of either group. Also ask the service for references and then confirm them.

Make sure that the debt management or credit counseling firm answers all your questions and that you have a firm understanding of how the process will work and what it will cost. If the company won't give you straight answers or you don't understand what's going on, don't sign up with that company.

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

 
-- Posted: Oct. 7, 2003
     

 

 
 

 

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