If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of debt that has crept into your financial life, it may be time to re-learn your ABCs—the ABCs of debt consolidation. Paying down your debt can be easier than you might think, as long as you follow a few simple steps. Avoiding additional debt, being wary of scams and creating a plan to achieve financial solvency can help you get control of your finances and get back on track.
Avoid additional debt
It can be a challenge, but in order to bring down your debt, you need to stop accumulating even more debt as soon as possible. One of the most effective ways to avoid additional debt is to honestly and completely tally up how much you owe and what interest rates each account has. A vague number is not enough. Get out your statements and add everything up. Knowing what you owe will help you on a psychological level and can motivate you to stop spending money.
Once you know what you owe, start making a budget. Write down all of your necessary monthly expenditures and your total income. If your expenses exceed your income, you’ll need to start finding a way to spend less or make more. This means cutting out non-essential expenses as much as you can or possibly taking a on second job.
Beware of scams
Getting caught up in a scam not only causes you to lose money, but makes you lose confidence in your ability to control your finances too. The best way to avoid scams is to be informed about some of the better-known types. The federal government maintains a list of common debt consolidation scams here, and is a great place to find out names of questionable debt consolidation companies so you can learn more about the tactics they use.
The keys to staying away from scams are knowing your rights and getting everything in writing. If you do choose to work with a debt consolidation firm, you should always get the terms of your agreement with them in writing. Don’t let them take down your information and promise you services without obtaining a written agreement. If they don’t have a contract for you to sign, you can be confident that they don’t have your best interests in mind.
Another common tactic of scammers is to set up a temporary office and then disappear by the time victims realize something is wrong. If a company only has a PO box instead of a real address, it’s probably not a legitimate debt consolidator. Additionally, if a contract states that the company can only be sued in certain states, they may be trying to protect themselves from inevitable legal action.
Yet another, somewhat more subtle scammer strategy is to charge exorbitant monthly fees. The company helps themselves to your fees first, before paying out to your debts. In this case, the money you think you’re putting towards paying down your debt is really being pocketed by an unscrupulous debt consolidator.
Finally, if you begin getting phone calls or letters from collections companies, that’s a huge red flag that something is wrong. Know that it is illegal at the state and federal levels for collections companies to threaten you in any way and that if you tell them to stop calling, they are obligated to do so.
Create a plan
Although many people seek out the services of companies that only do debt consolidation, it can be better to work with your credit union directly. Make an appointment with a representative at your financial institution to talk about services like credit card transfers, home equity loans or unsecured lines of credit. The credit union is able to give you an unbiased view of all the services available. Additionally, by working with them directly, you may be able to negotiate lower interest rates or payments so that you can pay down your debts more quickly.
These tips come from Nerdwallet, a consumer finance website that promotes financial literacy and looks for the best ways to save you money.