Debt Repayment Options Made Simple

December 20, 2010

One of the most talked about, written about and thought about financial topics in this country is, and has been since its founding, the best way to get out of debt (and then, hopefully, stay out of debt). Yet for all of the tongue wagging, ink wasting, and energy squandering on this endeavor, most American still have an extremely poor, if not completely mistaken, idea of what options they have available to them when they are ready to repay excessive consumer debts.

So, below you’ll find my unofficial “The American Consumer’s Guide to Debt Repayment Options: the Abbreviated (and just about all-you-ever-needed-to-know) Version.” I have listed them in order of their typical impact upon an individual’s credit history and personal finances, from least to greatest, according to  my own opinion:

  1. Pay your debts off on your own
    Minimum Payments Option: Make only the minimum payments requested by your creditors, and it’s quite possible that you’ll need 15 to 25 years to get out of debt – assuming you never use your credit cards again! NOTE: This is universally accepted by financial experts as a poor choice since minimum payments are designed to maximize interest (profits) from your own pockets to those of your creditors.
    Level Payments Option: Never pay less than this month’s minimum payments, even as creditors begin to request a smaller and smaller minimum payment because of a decreasing total balance. NOTE: Realistically, this could have many consumers out of credit card debt in just 5 to 6 years without any direct impact on current household spending levels.
    Extra Payments Option: Use the “Level Payment Option,” but add an extra $25 to $50 (or more) to the payment for the account with the highest interest rate (or, also not a bad choice, the account with the smallest total balance). NOTE: Many such consumers can pay off a $5,000 credit card debt this way in just 3 years!
    Equity Loan Option: Borrow money against the equity in your home or other asset and pay down your credit card debt. NOTE: On paper, this seems like a no brainer, since such loans are often at low interest rates and can have definite tax advantages to them. The problem for many (actually most) who choose this option is that within one or two years, those credit card balances that they paid off with their home equity loan will creep back up to their original amounts, meaning now the consumer will be dealing with the same credit card debts AND be at risk of losing their home because of the additional home equity loan. This is NOT the best option UNLESS the consumer has made a total commitment to budgeting their expenses and reining in any expensive or impulsive lifestyle issues.
  2. Debt Management Program:  A  modified repayment plan available through nonprofit credit counseling agencies (disclaimer: I am employed by one such – see for a list of nonprofit agencies nationwide). Such programs, known by their acronym of DMPs, target high interest rates and penalty fees. Credit counselors work with creditors to lower the consumer’s interest rates and/or cease any recurring penalty fees. While the debts themselves are not consolidated, the consumer makes just one payment per month to the credit counseling agency, which turns around and disperses the payments to creditors according to accepted repayment proposals. NOTE: Depending upon the consumer’s current credit history, there may be an initial drop in credit score due to the fact that accounts on DMPs must be closed to further usage, which may have a detrimental impact on the consumer’s credit usage ratio. However, FICO has not considered credit counseling as a direct factor in its credit scoring model since 1999, and on-time monthly payments have the greatest impact on credit scores. At the end of the DMP (which cannot last longer than 5 years), creditors should remove any notations on the consumer’s credit report referring to their participation in a DMP, thus leaving no lasting indication of DMP activity. Finally, while consumers can often work directly with a creditor to put into action a DMP for one solitary account, consumers with more than one account will usually find that their creditors are unwilling to provide interest rate concessions unless all of the consumer’s other creditors are also committing to them. That’s were the nonprofit agencies play such an important role.
  3. Consolidation Loan: This option allows consumers to replace multiple smaller debts with one large debt (and, consequently, many monthly payments with just one). NOTE: First, if you’re struggling to repay your debts, you likely have less-than-perfect credit, which means you won’t qualify for a consolidation loan at anything less than an astronomical interest rate. Even consumers who somehow find an affordable consolidation rate are then subject to same temptation as those who use home equity to pay down debts: to recharge those same credit cards back up to unmanageable levels due to poor money management plans and habits.
  4. Borrowing from Retirement: Some retirement plans allow the individual to borrow money or to outright withdraw invested money from their retirement account. There are usually extensive penalty fees associated with some of these options. NOTE: At the very least, the consumer who chooses this option becomes subject to the temptation to recharge their cards back to their original balances, just as the consumer who uses a home equity loan or a consolidation loan.
  5. Debt Settlement: You offer to pay the creditor less than what they say you owe them. Debt settlement can be done directly between the creditor and the consumer, or the consumer may contract with a third-party negotiator (which may even be an attorney) to pursue a settlement. NOTE: Now we’re getting serious. Debt settlement means, by definition, that you have no intention to repay in full the debts that you owe. Such intentions brought to fruition form the basis of a poor credit reputation that is circulated by consumer reporting agencies among potential lenders for the next seven years. Additionally,  fees from third-party negotiators can tally up to 25% or more of the original debt, leaving the consumer still having to pay a total of 80% to 95% or more of the original debt owed.
  6. Personal Bankruptcy: Generally considered the final option where consumer debt is concerned, a chapter 7 or chapter 13 bankruptcy provides legal protections to consumers who are overwhelmed by their debts to such an extent that their creditors are threatening (or actually beginning) to take away all or portions of the consumer’s assets. Assets may include, for example, a home, vehicles, or even income. NOTE: No one enjoys going through bankruptcy. It’s not a pleasant experience. While our own statistics show that there is a fairly significant amount of recidivism among filers (close to 20% have filed before and 3% have filed at least two cases of bankruptcy before their current case), most people end up in bankruptcy due to job loss (about 40%), poor money management (25%) or excessive medical expenses (19%). Going through bankruptcy likely means giving up a portion of control over your own finances and even some of your assets. The consumer’s creditors receive so little of the amount they’re owed that bankruptcy has a solidly negative impact on a consumer’s credit for 7 years and remains on their credit reports for 10 years.

I’m sure there are other, more creative, debt repayment options out there, so I invite you to share those of which you are aware.

Have a fantastic day!


Todd Christensen
Director of Education
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney


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