- Credit counselors often offer a debt management plan to help consumers get out of debt.
- DMPs are debt consolidation programs that can make debt repayment easier and faster.
- A DMP only works if you can afford the monthly payment.
Paying off debt is no easy feat — and often, it can feel like you’ll never come out on top. It is possible, though. With smart debt management strategies or, in some cases, professional debt help, you can pay off those balances — and possibly even sooner than you think.
Here’s what you need to know about debt management and how it can get your financial life back on track.
What Is Debt Management?
At its broadest, debt management refers to keeping your debts under control — paying them on time, avoiding too-high balances, and eventually paying those balances off.
It can also refer to a specific type of debt relief called a debt management plan, or DMP. Credit counselors use this type of debt repayment tool to help consumers pay off their debts within a specific time frame. We’ll go more into debt management programs later on.
What Is a Debt Management Plan?
Debt management plans, also called debt management programs, are offered through consumer credit counseling agencies. At their most basic, they help you streamline your debt payoff strategy and eliminate your debts within a specific window — usually two or three years, depending on how much debt you have.
Here’s a how debt management plan works:
- You agree to stop using your credit cards and credit lines and avoid opening any new accounts until your debt management program is complete. You will probably be required to close most or all of your cards.
- Your credit counselor works with your unsecured creditors, like credit card issuers, to negotiate lower interest rates on your debts. Sometimes, the creditor may waive certain fees or agree to re-age your accounts (bring them current and stop reporting them as late to credit bureaus).
- You make a monthly payment into the plan. Your counselor distributes this payment among your creditors
Being in a DMP does not directly affect your credit – neither your creditors nor your credit counselor reports that to credit bureaus. However, your score could improve if a creditor re-ages your account. And it could temporarily drop when you close accounts because you’ll have less available credit. If you successfully pay off your debt, however, your financial health and credit scores should increase in the long run.
Fees for debt management plans vary. If you use a nonprofit credit counseling agency or have limited income, the services may be free. In other cases, you may owe a set-up fee and a small monthly fee while you’re on the DMP.
Alternative Debt Management Strategies
Not everyone needs a DMP. If you have sufficient income and a decent credit rating, you may have other options. The first step to managing your debts is to understand the big picture: How much do you owe, what are the monthly payments, when is each payment due, and what interest rate are you paying?
List all of your debts (spreadsheets are good for this) so you can view them all at once. Include the creditor’s name, the current balance, the interest rate, the monthly payment, and the monthly due date for each. If it’s a loan with a set term, include that too. From there, you should:
Create a budget
Smart budgeting is key to paying down debts. To begin, tally up your total monthly after-tax income. Then, list your monthly expenses, including rent, groceries, insurance, eating out, minimum debt payments, utilities, entertainment, etc. Next, separate the necessities and minimum debt payments from the nonessentials.
Use past bank statements to determine how much you’re spending in each category. Financial experts generally recommend spending no more than 50% of your income on necessities, 30% on nonessentials, and putting 20% into your savings or repaying debts. Do you fall within those thresholds? If not, look for ways to cut back. (You might even be able to eliminate an expense entirely by cutting cable or taking public transit, for example). If you can reduce expenses somewhere, commit to putting those extra dollars directly toward clearing your debts.
Ultimately, you should come out with a good idea of what you can spend and what you should have left each month to pay off debt faster. If your income or your expenses change, revisit your budget and recalibrate it. (You might want to do this every few months just to be safe anyway).
A quick tip: If you’re not a fan of manual budgeting, you can also use an app to help you stay on track. Mint, YNAB, Stash, and Personal Capital are just a few examples of budgeting apps that can help you manage your money and start paying down debt more effectively. You connect them to your checking account and they automatically track what you spend and can alert you if you blow through your budget.
You’ll next need to determine which debts to prioritize. Consumers typically choose the snowball method, which focuses on your smallest debt first, or the avalanche method, which directs you to pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first.
With the snowball method, you get small wins that keep you motivated, while the avalanche method saves the most interest. The right option depends on how much debt you have, your interest rates, and how motivated you are to pay down your debts.
Keep in mind: You’ll need to keep making minimum payments on all your debts no matter which strategy you choose. You will put all your extra dollars toward either your highest-interest debt (avalanche) or smallest-balance loan (snowball).
Set up auto-payment or reminders
Once you determine which debts to prioritize, set up auto payments with your creditors. Doing so will ensure that 1) you stick to your plan for repaying those debts and 2) you’re never late on a payment (which can hurt your credit score).
If you’re worried about not having enough cash in the bank to cover the auto payments, set up payment reminders instead. You can use Google Calendar or set an alarm on your phone for a certain date and time each month. Be sure to include the amount you’re sending each creditor to be safe.
Rearrange your debt
You might also think about rearranging your debt to make it easier or more affordable to pay off.
Rearranging your debt might look like this:
- Debt consolidation: Consolidating your debts means using a loan to pay off all your balances, essentially rolling them into a single one. The new loan should have better terms like a lower interest rate or payment.
- Debt refinancing: Refinancing means taking a new loan to pay off an existing one. The new loan should have better terms like a lower interest rate or more time to repay the balance.
- Balance transfer cards: With a balance transfer card, you can transfer one or more credit card balances to a new one with zero interest. You’d want to pay off the balance before the 0% interest rate expires (usually in six to 24 months).
- Home equity products: If you’re a homeowner, you might use a home equity loan, HELOC, or cash-out refinance to pay off your debts. This strategy is often beneficial because mortgage products have lower interest rates than most loans and credit cards.
If you’re considering one of these strategies, you may want to consult a financial advisor first to ensure it’s the right move for your situation.
Get professional help
Finally, if you’re really struggling to pay off your debt, seek professional help — and don’t wait too long to do it. If you fall behind on payments or your accounts go into collections, it can be much more challenging to get back on track and pay them off. Reach out to a credit counselor or debt relief professional as soon as you feel you’ve lost control.
What type of debt relief is out there?
There are many kinds of debt relief to choose from. In addition to debt management plans, you can also look into refinancing, consolidation, or debt settlement, which is when you negotiate a payoff amount lower than your balance. You’ll do this by working directly with your creditor or using a debt settlement company. (A debt settlement company will keep a portion of the savings for their services).
Should I file for bankruptcy if I can’t pay my debts?
Bankruptcy should be your last resort. If your debts are feeling out of control, get in touch with a credit counselor and discuss enrolling in a debt management program first. If that doesn’t work, you can explore other strategies, like debt consolidation, settlement, or refinancing.
Though bankruptcy can wipe many of your debts clean, it can seriously impact your financial options for many years to come (up to a decade). It could even make it hard to buy a house or secure a rental, so consider it only after you’ve exhausted all other options.
Who can I turn to for professional debt management help?
You should first look to a credit counselor, as many offer free services. They can help you with budgeting, repairing your credit, and, if you wish, enrolling in a debt management plan.
You can also talk to:
A financial advisor: They can look at your full financial picture and recommend strategies for paying down debt, investing, or just generally growing your wealth.
Your local bank or credit union: Someone at your main financial institution may be able to provide guidance. They can also help with refinancing or consolidating your debts in many cases.
A debt relief company: They can attempt to settle your debts, renegotiate your terms, or assist with consolidation, among other strategies.
If your debts are feeling insurmountable, there are many professionals who can help. Still not sure where to turn? Ask a friend, family member, or colleague for recommendations. Debt is incredibly common, so they may be able to refer you to local professionals in the area.
Did you know?
Debt is used to buy a home, pay for bills, buy a car, or pay for a college education. According to the NY Federal Reserve total household debt as of Q4 2023 was $17.503 trillion. Auto loan debt was $1.607 trillion and credit card was $1.129 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.
The amount of debt and debt in collections vary by state. For example, in Hawaii, 16% have any kind of debt in collections and the median debt in collections is $1866. Medical debt is common and 5% have that in collections. The median medical debt in collections is $339.
To maintain an excellent credit score it is vital to make timely payments. However, there are many circumstances that lead to late payments or debt in collections. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to deal with debt including debt consolidation and debt relief solutions.