How Does Debt Consolidation Work?

By Janet Schaaf · March 26, 2024 · 8 minute read

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How Does Debt Consolidation Work?

If you’re repaying a variety of different debts to different lenders, keeping track of them and making payments on time each month can be time consuming. It isn’t just tough to keep track of these various debts, it’s also difficult to know which debts to prioritize in order to fast track your debt repayment. After all, each of your cards or loans likely have different interest rates, minimum payments, payment due dates, and loan terms.

Consolidating — or combining — your debts into a new, single loan may give your brain and your budget some breathing room. We’ll take a look at what it means to consolidate debt and how it works.

Key Points

•   Debt consolidation involves combining multiple debts into a single loan with a potentially lower interest rate, simplifying monthly payments.

•   Common methods include balance transfers to low or zero-interest credit cards and home equity loans.

•   Personal loans are another popular option, offering fixed interest rates without requiring collateral.

•   Consolidation can be beneficial if it reduces the number of payments and potentially lowers the interest rate.

•   It may not be suitable for everyone, especially if it leads to longer payment terms or higher overall costs due to fees.

What Is Debt Consolidation?

Debt consolidation involves taking out one loan or line of credit (ideally with a lower interest rate) and using it to pay off other debts — whether that’s car loans, credit card debt, or another type of debt. After consolidating those existing loans into one loan, you have just one monthly payment and one interest rate.

đź’ˇ Quick Tip: A low-interest personal loan can consolidate your debts, lower your monthly payments, and help you get out of debt sooner.

Common Ways to Consolidate Debt

Your options to consolidate debt depend on your overall financial situation and what type of debt you wish to consolidate. Here are some common approaches.

Balance Transfer

If you are able to qualify for a credit card that has a lower annual percentage rate (APR) than your current cards, a balance transfer credit card may be one option to consider and can be a smart financial strategy to consolidate debt if you use it responsibly.

Some credit cards have zero- or low-interest promotional rates specifically for balance transfers. Promotional rates are typically for a limited time, so if you pay the transferred balance in full before it ends, you’ll reap the benefit of paying less — or possibly zero — interest.

However, there are some caveats to keep in mind. Credit card issuers generally charge a balance transfer fee, sometimes 3% to 5% of the amount transferred. If you use the credit card for new purchases, the card’s purchase APR, not the promotional rate, will apply to those purchases.

At the end of the promotional period, the card’s APR will revert to its regular rate. If a balance remains at that time, it will be subject to the new, regular rate.

Making late payments or missing payments entirely will typically trigger a penalty rate, which will apply to both the balance transfer amount and regular purchases made with the credit card.

Home Equity Loan

If you own a home and have equity in it, you might consider a home equity loan for consolidating debt. Home equity is the home’s value minus the amount remaining on your mortgage. If your home is worth $300,000 and you owe $125,000 on the mortgage, you have $175,000 worth of equity in your home.

Another key term lenders use in home equity loan determinations is loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. Typically expressed as a percentage, the LTV is similar to equity, but on the other side of the scale: Instead of how much you own, it’s how much you owe. The percentage is calculated by dividing the home’s appraised value by the remaining mortgage balance.

Lenders typically like to see applicants whose LTV is no more than 80%. In the above example, the LTV would be 42%.

$125,000 / $300,000 = 0.42
(To express this as a percentage, multiply 0.42 x 100 to get 42%.)

If you qualify for a home equity loan, you’ll typically be able to tap into 75% to 80% of your equity.

After the home equity loan closes, you’ll receive the loan proceeds in one lump sum, which you can use to pay your other debts.

A home equity loan is essentially a second mortgage, a secured loan using your home as collateral. Since there is a risk of losing your home if you default on the loan, this option should be considered carefully.

Personal Loan

If you don’t have home equity to tap into or you prefer not to put your home up as collateral, a personal loan may be another option to consider.

There are many types of personal loans, but they are typically unsecured loans, which means no collateral is required to secure the loan. They can have fixed or variable interest rates, but it’s fairly easy to find a lender that offers fixed-rate personal loans.

Generally, personal loans offer lower interest rates than credit cards. So consolidating credit card debt with a fixed-rate personal loan may result in savings over the life of the loan. Also, since personal loans are installment loans, there is a payment end date, unlike the revolving nature of credit cards.

There are many online personal loan lenders and the application process tends to be fairly simple. You may be able to use a loan comparison site to see what types of interest rates and loan terms you may be able to qualify for.

When you apply for a personal loan, the lender will do a hard credit inquiry into your credit report, which may temporarily lower your credit score. The lower credit score may drop off your credit report in a few months.

If you’re approved, the lender will send you the loan proceeds in one lump sum, which you can use to pay off your other debts. You’ll then be responsible for paying the monthly personal loan payment.

A drawback to using a personal loan for debt consolidation is that some lenders may charge origination fees, which can add to the total balance you’ll have to repay. Other fees may also be charged, such as late fees or prepayment penalties. It’s important to make sure you’re aware of any fees or penalties before signing the loan agreement.

đź’ˇ Quick Tip: Swap high-interest debt for a lower-interest loan, and save money on your monthly payments. Find out why SoFi credit card consolidation loans are so popular.

Awarded Best Personal Loan by NerdWallet.
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Is Debt Consolidation Right For You?

Your financial situation is unique to you, but there are several things you’ll want to keep in mind when trying to decide if debt consolidation is right for you.

Debt Consolidation Might Be a Good Idea If …

•   You want to have only one monthly debt payment. It can be a challenge to manage multiple lenders, interest rates, and due dates.

•   You want to have a payment end date. Using a home equity loan or a personal loan for debt consolidation will be useful for this reason because they are forms of installment debt.

•   You can qualify for a zero interest or low-interest rate balance transfer credit card. This may allow you to consolidate multiple debts on one new credit card and save interest by paying off the balance before the promotional rate ends.

Debt Consolidation Might Not Be For You If …

•   You think you’ll be tempted to continue using the credit cards you paid off in the debt consolidation process. This can leave you further in debt.

•   You’ll incur fees (e.g., balance transfer fee or origination fee). If the fees are high, it might not make sense financially to consolidate the debts.

•   Consolidating your debts may actually cost you more in the long run. If your goal is to have smaller monthly payments, that generally means you’ll be making payments for a longer period of time and incurring more interest over the life of the loan.

Recommended: Getting Out of Debt with No Money Saved

Credit Card Debt Relief: How to Get It

Some people seek assistance with getting relief from debt burdens. Reputable credit counselors do exist, but there are also many programs that scam people who may already be overwhelmed and are vulnerable.

Disreputable debt settlement companies may charge fees before ever settling your debt and often make bogus claims, such as guaranteeing that they will be able to make your debt go away or that there is a government program to bail out those in credit card debt.

Even if a debt settlement company can eventually settle your debt, there may be negative consequences to your credit along the way. What’s more, a debt settlement program may require that you stop making payments to your creditors. But your debts may continue to accrue interest and fees, putting you further in debt. The lack of payments may also take a negative toll on your payment history, which is an important factor in the calculation of your credit score.

Recommended: Debt Settlement vs Credit Counseling: What’s the Difference?

Debt Relief: Is it a Good Idea?

What’s a good idea for some people may be a bad idea for others. Whether debt relief is a good idea for you and your financial situation will depend on factors that are unique to you. Working with a reputable credit counselor may be a good way to get some assistance that will help you get out of debt for good and create a solid financial plan for the future.

The Takeaway

Debt consolidation allows borrowers to combine a variety of debts, like credit cards, into a new loan. Ideally, this new loan has a lower interest rate or more favorable terms to help streamline the repayment process.

SoFi personal loans offer competitive fixed rates and same-day funding. Checking your rate takes just a minute.

SoFi’s Personal Loan was named NerdWallet’s 2024 winner for Best Personal Loan overall.

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