Managing Debt

How to Consolidate Your Holiday Debt

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If you’re looking at a pile of post-holiday debt, don’t panic: There are several ways to make the bills more manageable.

No matter how intimidating those credit card bills seem, it’s crucial to pay them on time. Late payments will hurt your credit scores, which may already be suffering from your bigger debt load (the amount of available credit you use is a major credit scoring factor). If you opened any new accounts during the holiday season, such as a store credit card, make sure you know when the payments are due. You can get a glimpse of how your payment history and credit utilization are affecting your credit score with the free Credit Report Card, which updates your scores monthly.

Once you know how much you owe and when you need to make payments, consider whether you would benefit from consolidating your debt. But be aware consolidation won’t help much if your spending habits don’t change.

Depending on the size of your post-holiday debt, it may make more sense to aggressively pay off the credit cards without the added step of consolidating. Repaying debt quickly can help your credit utilization rate, which makes up a large part of your credit scores, and you won’t have to worry about applying for new accounts or paying transfer fees. But if consolidation seems like the right option for you, you’ll still have to choose among several options.

Option 1: A Balance Transfer

One option for consolidating debt incurred on holiday shopping sprees is transferring your debt to a card with a lower interest rate. When looking at balance transfer cards, remember that most transfers include an added fee, often 3% of the balance, and applying for a new credit card will have an impact on your credit scores. It’ll be a small, short-term ding, but you need to be aware of it.

Look beyond the promotional offer: If the interest rate shoots up at the end of the promotional period to a level higher than your current card, it could be a poor choice if you want the option of carrying a balance. Think about how quickly you can reasonably expect to repay the debt in order to know how such terms will affect the value of a balance transfer.

Option 2: A Personal Loan

When you have debt in many places, staying on top of payments can be a challenge, and the various interest rates on those debts could be costly. One way to simplify payments and save money is to take out a personal loan to pay off the multiple debts, then repay the one loan, likely at a lower interest rate than most credit card APRs.

Make sure the terms of the loan will improve your situation — a short repayment period on a personal loan will translate into higher monthly payments, and you want to make sure you apply only for loans you are likely to receive. Applications result in new inquiries on your credit report, which will hurt your credit scores.

Option 3: Tapping Your Home Equity

Homeowners have another option, right under their feet: property value. You can take out a home equity line of credit (HELOC) as a way of consolidating debt by borrowing a certain percentage of your home’s value and repaying it at an interest rate tied to the prime rate, which is quite low right now.

Most HELOCs have an adjustable rate, which could be a con when compared with personal loans that are often fixed rates, and your credit scores will influence how much more than the prime rate you’ll pay. A HELOC works a bit like a credit card in that it is a form of revolving credit, and you can borrow and repay the set amount of money throughout the life of the loan.

There’s a different way to use your home as a way of consolidating debt: a home equity loan. This works more like a personal loan because it involves borrowing one lump sum and repaying it at a fixed interest rate, and the interest you pay may be tax-deductible. It’s important to note that consolidating credit card debt into a HELOC or home equity loan means putting your home on the line if you can’t repay the debt. (Credit card debt carries higher interest rates, but it is not secured by your home.)

Also, be careful, and be sure you use a reputable lender. Scams abound, and you don’t want to make your efforts to corral a debt problem to instead make it worse.

More on Managing Debt:

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