8 ways to consolidate debt

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If you find yourself continually worrying about debt, it’s time to seek out some solutions. Greg Pahl, co-author of

The Unofficial Guide to Beating Debt

, and Virginia Morris, co-author of The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money & Investing, offer these suggestions on consolidating your debt.

1. Credit card transfers.
Rate surfing only makes sense if you can pay off your outstanding debt within the time frame of the low introductory rate. “By the time you do all the transferring, the introductory period is over,” Pahl says. “I get this stuff in the mail a lot. You really have to read it carefully. The change of a word or two can change the whole thrust of the promotion.”

To look for the credit cards with the lowest rates, use Bankrate.com’s credit card search engine.

2. Home equity loans.
They’re inexpensive, relatively easy to obtain and they may offer a tax deduction for the interest portion of the loan. The downside is that the collateral for the loan is the house. “A home equity loan can be an extremely useful strategy if it’s used properly,” Pahl says, “but people need to have their eyes open and understand the implications.”

The other disadvantage is the low-pressure repayment terms. “Most lenders aren’t in a hurry for you to pay it back. The leisurely repayment schedule isn’t part of your goal,” he says. “Your new monthly payment should be at least as large as your previous monthly payments — if you want to really make progress. If you can pay more, you should, because you’ll pay it off faster.”

Bankrate.com’s home equity search engine lets you find the lowest rates for variable-rate home equity lines of credit and fixed-rate home equity loans.

3. Retirement funds.
Most employers will allow loans from a 401(k) or other retirement plan, but this should only be used if you have no other choice. The interest is almost never tax-deductible, but you’re paying interest to yourself instead of a bank, Pahl says. If you can’t pay it back within five years, the IRS will assess taxes and penalties. Also, if you quit your job, your employer will call the loan in full when you leave. Accessing retirement funds does offer a way of lowering your payments and speeding up the debt-repayment process.

4. Life insurance.
If you have whole-life insurance, you can borrow against its value. There’s no time limit and, Pahl says, “You don’t really have to pay it back at all. If you don’t pay it back, the amount of the loan is deducted from the benefits paid to your beneficiaries, so you probably want to pay it back.”

5. Family and friends.
Financial advisers, Pahl included, are universal in their advice that personal loans are a great way to destroy a relationship. Still, he says, it’s an option. “If you’ve got a rich relative who offers to help you through a tight spot, maybe you should just be gracious about it. Just get it all in writing and make sure you pay them back.”

6. Your credit union.
Credit unions generally have lower interest rates and fees on loans. If you’re not a member, check with your employer, family members or organizations of which you’re a member to see if you’re eligible to join one.

7. A nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency.
Morris says this actually should be your first stop. Experts in helping consumers get out of debt, they work with creditors regularly to get late fees waived and interest rates reduced. “They’ve heard it all. Nothing you will tell them will shock them,” Morris says. “What they often will do is, rather than consolidating debt, you pay them a fixed amount and they pay it out to your creditors. It’s a kind of discipline that can be helpful. It’s enforcing a change in spending habits. For the person who is serious about getting out of debt, that’s a solution.”

8. Renegotiate the terms with your primary lender.
“A mortgage lender would rather renegotiate than repossess your home,” Morris says. “They can say no, but you can go to them and say, ‘I know I’m behind. Can we stretch out the payments?’ It’s an upfront relationship. They do lose money if you default. Most lenders will renegotiate.”

Pat Curry is a freelance writer based in Georgia.

— Updated: April 28, 2005