A debt consolidation loan may be ideal if you want to get a handle on an overwhelming debt load. It lets you combine your outstanding balances into a single loan product, usually with a better interest rate than you currently have.

Debt consolidation loans are available through banks, credit unions and online lenders. You can apply online with most lenders, although some require you to visit a branch to get started. Either way, following specific steps can help streamline the application process so you can get approved and funded sooner.

Step 1: Gather relevant documents

Each lender has its own set of documentation requirements for debt consolidation loans. However, you’ll generally need the following when applying for a debt consolidation loan:

  • Proof of identity: A copy of your state or government-issued identification and your Social Security number.
  • Proof of address: Mortgage statement or lease agreement, property tax receipt, proof of vehicle or homeowners insurance, voter registration card or property tax receipt.
  • Proof of employment: Your employer’s contact information.
  • Proof of income: Most recent pay stubs, 1099s, bank statements or your most recent tax return.

It’s best to gather what you need before applying to avoid delays in the review process.

Step 2: Prequalify with at least three lenders

When you apply for credit, a hard inquiry is generated, which can drop your credit score by a few points. But you can gauge your approval odds by getting prequalified with several lenders, and it won’t hurt your credit score.

Some lenders offer online prequalification tools that require you to answer a few basic questions about yourself and your finances to view loan offers. In most cases, you’ll get a response in seconds and can use the rate quotes from several lenders to compare your options.

Step 3: Fill out the application

Once you’ve selected a lender, formally apply for a debt consolidation loan. Most lenders let you apply online. However, some require you to visit a brick-and-mortar location.

Be sure to complete the entire application and check for errors that could result in a denial. Now is also the time to upload the documents you gathered — or hand them over if you’re applying in person — if requested by the lender. The lender will then review your application and supporting documents and conduct a hard credit check to make a decision.

Step 4: Pay your creditors

If your application is approved, you’ll review the loan agreement, sign on the dotted line and receive your loan proceeds. If the money goes directly to you, it’ll be up to you to pay creditors directly to consolidate your debt balances. However, some lenders will handle the payments to creditors for you.

If the lender pays you

Often, lenders will disburse the proceeds to you when the loan closes. Technically, there are no restrictions on how you can use the funds. But if you input “debt consolidation” as your loan reason when applying, you’ll want to make payments to your creditors. Every creditor is different, but it’s often just a matter of submitting one large payment. Check with your creditor before paying to make sure there are no additional steps you need to take in order to pay off the entire account.

If the lender pays your creditors directly

Some lenders will make direct payments to creditors on your behalf. If this is an option, you’ll need to specify which creditors it should pay and the amount you’d like to allocate to each account. Once the loan is approved and funded, the lender will pay off the accounts for you.

Debt consolidation won’t fix your underlying problems

A debt consolidation loan can be an effective way to manage your high-interest debts. Still, they aren’t without risks and could result in a bigger debt mountain if not used responsibly.

If you struggle to get your spending under control, hold off on applying for a debt consolidation loan and focus on implementing and following a realistic budget instead. Otherwise, you risk spending more than you earn, resorting to the newly freed up credit cards you consolidated to cover expenses.

You should also consider other alternatives if money’s tight and you’re struggling to stay afloat. A debt consolidation loan could make your budget even tighter if the payments are higher. You could also damage your credit rating if you cannot keep up with payments and default on the loan agreement.