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Debt Help: From DIY to Professional

Debt Help
Aly J. Yale
UpdatedDec 5, 2022
Key Takeaways:
  • The right type of debt help depends on the severity of your financial hardship.
  • There are several do-it-yourself solutions, including debt snowball and credit card balance transfer.
  • If you are struggling, look for professional debt help, including credit counseling, debt management, or debt relief solution.

Debt can often feel insurmountable — but it doesn’t have to. If you’re tired of making payment after payment to see only a budge in your balances, it might be time to seek professional debt help. 

A pro can give you the right tools to manage your debts, and they can even customize a path to help you pay them down more effectively. Are you ready to get help with debts that are holding you back? Here’s what you need to know.

What kind of debt help is out there?

Debt help comes in several forms. They range from simple counseling and budgeting services to more hands-on tactics, like negotiating with your creditors. 

Here’s a quick synopsis of the various forms of debt help you can seek:

  • Credit counseling: A credit counselor can offer guidance on paying down your debts. They'll look at your full financial picture, including your income, credit card balances, loans, and more, and advise you on how to best manage them. They can also assist with budgeting, improving your credit score, and achieving other financial goals you might have. Use this guide to find the right credit counselor for you.
  • Debt management plans: Debt management plans are tools that credit counselors or other debt professionals use to help you pay off your debts within a certain timeframe. With a DMP, you'll pay your credit counselor a monthly fee, which they'll then use to pay your various creditors. Often, creditors will agree to reduce your interest rate or waive fees for borrowers on DMPs. You may need to agree to stop using your credit cards and avoid new debts to get on a DMP.
  • Debt settlement: Debt settlement is when a debt professional negotiates a reduced payoff amount with your creditors. You’ll typically need to deposit money into a designated savings account each month. When the balance meets a certain threshold, your debt professional will pay the creditor an agreed-upon settlement amount and close out your debt.
  • Debt consolidation: Debt consolidation is when you use a single loan to pay off all your debts. This strategy rolls them into one, making it easier to pay each month, and it often reduces your interest costs. Consolidation is often a smart move if you need help with credit card debt. (Credit cards typically carry much higher interest rates than loans, so consolidating can save you on interest).
  • Debt refinancing: Refinancing replaces your debt with a new one — usually with a lower interest rate or different terms. For example, if you’re having trouble making your car payment, you might refinance your loan into a longer-term one. This approach would spread your balance out more and reduce your monthly payments. 

The right type of debt help depends on the severity of your debt problems and the types of debt you have. For example, if you need help with credit card debt, consolidation may be a good choice. If you have a variety of debts, a DMP or settlement plan may be more fitting. If you're unsure which option is best for you, consider speaking to a credit counselor or financial advisor. They can offer you personalized advice for your specific situation.

Where can I get debt help?

Credit counseling agencies and debt relief companies both offer help with debt. Credit counselors are often nonprofit organizations that offer free or low-cost services. Keep in mind, though: They are limited in the help they can provide. 

Debt relief companies will charge a fee, but they often deduct it from the savings they secure on your behalf (if they settle your debt for less, for example). Always make sure you understand the payment structure when working with a debt relief company. A legitimate one will not charge you an upfront fee nor guarantee any results. 

In some cases, you may be able to get debt help from your bank or credit union. These services will typically look more like credit counseling, though they may be able to recommend options for consolidating or refinancing your debts through their institution.

DIY debt help

You don’t have to use a professional to deal with your debts. There are quite a few ways to pay down or even reduce your debts yourself — as long as you have discipline and are committed to the task.

Here are just a few of the strategies you might use to DIY your debt relief:

  • Snowball method: This is a debt payoff method that focuses on your smallest balance first. You put all extra income toward that lowest debt while making minimum payments on all the rest. Once you've paid off the smallest balance debt, you put that extra money toward the next smallest one and so on until you've paid off all of your balances.
  • Avalanche method: With this debt payoff method, you focus on the debt with the highest interest rate first. After you’ve paid that balance off, you move to the next-highest-rate debt and so on. This strategy reduces your long-term interest costs the most but can be harder to stick to than the snowball method. (The snowball method offers quick wins that can keep you motivated). 
  • Balance transfer card: A balance transfer card is an option if you need help with credit card debt. You apply for a zero-interest balance transfer card and then transfer all the other card balances to the new card. There’s typically a small fee for this (usually 3% to 5% of the amount transferred), which is added to your balance. Balance transfer cards allow you to roll all your credit card balances into one, and they can often significantly reduce your interest costs too. Just make sure you pay off the balance before your zero interest rate expires (typically around 18 to 24 months).
  • Refinancing and consolidation: You don’t need a pro to consolidate or refinance your debts. You’ll simply need to choose a lender, secure the lowest rate possible, and use that loan to pay off your existing debts. If you go this route, make sure to compare a few different lenders. Rates and terms can vary quite a bit between companies.

Bankruptcy is also something you can explore and possibly take on yourself, but only after exhausting all other options. Though bankruptcy can wipe many of your debts clean, it can also mean losing your assets and ruining your credit. Bankruptcies remain on your credit report for up to 10 years, which could make it difficult to get a loan, buy a house, secure a rental, or even get a job in some industries for quite a while. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know I need to seek help with debt?

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If you’re having trouble making your monthly payments, or you’re only making minimum payments and never making a real dent in your balances, then you probably need additional help with debt. You might start by speaking to a credit counselor who can point you toward the right strategies for your unique situation. If you have a financial advisor, they can assist too. 

What are the best strategies to help with credit card debt?

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There are a few options for dealing with credit card debt. Consolidation is often a good strategy, as it allows you to roll your cards into one balance and, often, lowers your interest rate too. You might also consider transferring your card balances to a zero-interest balance transfer card. Just remember: The zero interest rate will expire at some point, so make sure you have a plan for paying down your balance before that date rolls around.

How do I avoid debt relief scams?

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Scams are sadly common in the debt help industry, so be diligent when choosing who you will work with. Be wary of any company that requires upfront fees, uses aggressive or unsolicited marketing tactics, or makes lofty guarantees about reducing your debts or repairing your credit. You should also check the Better Business Bureau and Trustpilot (for complaints and customer ratings) before working with a debt relief company. 

What will I pay for getting help with my debts?

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The cost of debt help depends on which services you use. Credit counseling is often free or very low cost, particularly if you use a nonprofit counseling agency or come from a low-income household. 

Debt relief companies will typically take a fee from the money they save you, or, in some cases, they will get paid by your creditors. Always ask upfront what a credit counselor or debt relief company charges before beginning work with them. 

What’s the first step to paying off my debts?

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If your debts are starting to feel unmanageable, the best thing you can do is stop adding to your balances. Cut up your store cards, and hide your credit cards in a locked box in the attic. Do not apply for new cards or loans, and avoid big-ticket purchases if you don’t have the cash to cover them outright. Increasing your balances will only make your debt situation more challenging.

Debt statistics

If you are struggling with debt, you are not alone. According to the NY Federal Reserve total household debt as of Quarter Q2 2022 was $16.15 trillion. Student loan debt was $1.59 trillion and credit card debt was $0.89 trillion.

A significant percentage of people in the US are struggling with monthly payments and about 26% of households in the United States have debt in collections. According to data gathered by Urban.org from a sample of credit reports, the median debt in collections is $1,739. Credit card debt is prevalent and 3% have delinquent or derogatory card debt. The median debt in collections is $422.

Collection and delinquency rates vary by state. For example, in Vermont, 16% have student loan debt. Of those holding student loan debt, 5% are in default. Auto/retail loan delinquency rate is 2%.

While many households can comfortably pay off their debt, it is clear that many people are struggling with debt. Make sure that you analyze your situation and find the best debt payoff solutions to match your situation.

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10 Comments

FFaye G K, Dec, 2013
I have a Federal Student Loan that was taken out through a Trade School over 28 years ago, when I was 17-18, and it was only for aprox. $2,500. Over the years I have made payments that I could afford at that time. I was never in the position to pay it off. All these years later the loan is now owned by SalleMae and is at almost $14,000. ! I am NEVER going to be able to pay this! My life has not gotten any better.. What can I do?
BBill, Dec, 2013
Unfortunately, your options are limited. You could try negotiating a settlement with Sallie Mae. They are not bound to accept it, but if you can gather some funds to make a lump-sum settlement offer, it is worth trying.
CCarmen, Jul, 2013
We just got served via "private process server" tonight with a Notice And Summons that was filed with the courts on May 9th, 2013. Today is July 7th, 2013. We live in GA. In the Summons it states that we are "required to file an answer to this claim within 30 days after service of this claim upon you." So what exactly does "after this service upon you" mean? Does it mean the date it was filed with the courts because that would be considered a "claim upon" us. ?? Or..does it mean after their private processor has actually handed us the papers being served? Because they waited on purpose til day 31 on a weekend to serve us, hence, the reason I am sure as to why they use their own private process server. So can they say they served us 30 days ago & go forward? Am I just screwed here? By the way, this is through the same company to which was on 20/20 for being sued themselves for the dirty tricks they do to collect!! Help. Please...
BBill, Jul, 2013
You mentioned Georgia. Consult with a Georgia lawyer (which I am not) to learn the crucial details about Georgia's civil procedure laws and how to answer the summons.

I wrote "crucial details" because as you hinted at in your message, in some states the plaintiff has a certain number of days to serve the summons and complaint on the defendant. Here, it appears the plaintiff may have met your state's deadline, but as I mentioned, I cannot say so for certain.

File an answer to the complaint. In many cases, the plaintiff will file a motion to dismiss if the defendant shows any sign of a willingness to put up a fight.
LLynne, Jun, 2013
I made a payment arrangement with a debt collector (attorney). The arrangement was that they would automatically withdraw the amount from my account each month. I noticed after the first 2 months, no money was being taken. I made written contact with them on 3 occasions, giving them my account number again and asked that they begin withdrawing the payment. I then receive a garnishment notice from my employer. I again contacted the collector, gave them my account information and told them they did not uphold the original payment arrangement. They released the garnishment. Again, the following month, no money was withdrawn. I then began making payments to them online. After 4 payments, they garnished my wages again saying I missed a payment. I have made in total 7 attempts to contact them to plead with them to uphold the original agreement that they automatically withdraw the funds. I explained had they done this, there would have never been a missed payment. They refused and said they tried withdrawing the money, but were unable to. The bank has verified that the funds were available in my account when they said they supposedly try to withdraw the payment. I then asked for proof of these attempts and they refused. At this point, I am having 6 times the amount originally agreed upon taken out of my check each month. I told them this was causing me a severe financial hardship. I was berated by the person at the attorney's office and told it was all my fault, even though they did not adhere to the payment agreement. Do I have any options? They are refusing to release the garnishment They refuse to send me any documentation or discuss with me any further. Thank you.
BBill, Jun, 2013
Time to level the playing field and get a lawyer arguing your position with the collection agent.

You mentioned a hardship. Call your county bar association and ask for the names of the organizations that provide no-cost legal services to people in your area with low or no income. Make an appointment with one of those organizations, and bring all of the documents you have have regarding this debt to your meeting. The lawyer you meet will advise you of your rights, and whether you have a cause of action (a legal reason to file a lawsuit) against the collection agent for failing to follow the terms of your settlement agreement.

My guess is you will not need to file a lawsuit to gain the collection agent's attention, drop the garnishment, and restart the payment plan.
LLynne, Jun, 2013
Thank you for the reply. An attorney is my only option as far as dealing with this collection agency? Is there any other agency, such as the Federal Trade Commission, or anyone else I can contact who can help me with this matter? I am currently working towards paying off my debts and rebuilding my credit. While my income is average, my debt payments are pretty high. I'm not sure I would even qualify for legal assistance. What this collector is doing is unfair, and I'm not sure it is even legal. I guess my question is; is an attorney basically my only option for battling this collector and holding them accountable? Thanks again.
BBill, Jun, 2013
You can argue this issue yourself, without hiring an attorney, if you wish to. My point in suggesting hiring a lawyer is that your opponent is operating in violation of your contract. The FTC receives thousands of complaints a year, and it acts on a wholesale level against law-breakers who break the law or defraud a large number of consumers. It is unlikely an FTC lawyer will have the time to help you individually.
PPete, Apr, 2013
I had an account with American Express over 10 years ago. During the time I had the account, I was being charged for magazine subscriptions that I never ordered. After getting a number of these charges reversed, I was unable to get the rest of them reversed. I accumulated over $1,200 before my account was closed. Since I considered these to be fraudulent charges, I refused to pay. American Express sued me in small claims court. The court did not provide me with the proper paperwork to dispute the claim and granted judgment in favor of American Express. I did not hear anything back from American Express for almost a year when I received a 1099 form for which I paid the taxes on the amount in dispute. Just recently I received a letter from AE giving me the option to dispute the claim. This letter is more than 10 years after the original judgement. Does this conform to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. I am in the process of refinancing my house and cannot afford a negative credit statement. What do you suggest? Thanks for your help.
BBill, Apr, 2013
American Express' recent letter is very curious. I would not hazard a guess what it means without reading it. Accordingly, take the letter and any other documents you have regarding the debt to a lawyer who has consumer law or civil litigation experience. He or she will review your case and outline your options.

One option to discuss is filing a motion to vacate the judgment. You mentioned you were never given notice of the small-claims case filed against you. This is contrary to state and federal civil procedure law, and may form the basis for appealing the judgment and throwing out the case against you.

Another issue to discuss is your state's statute of limitations for judgments. You indicated you reside in California. The California statute of limitations of a judgment — in other words, a judgment's lifetime — is 10 years. It can be renewed before its expiration to tack on an additional 10 years. Your lawyer can contact the court to learn if American Express renewed the judgment.

You asked about the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Under the FCRA, the consumer credit reporting agencies can publish information about the judgment for 7 years or the statute of limitations for the judgment, whichever is longer. If the judgment expired without being renewed, and Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion are still publishing this information, then file a dispute with the offender(s).