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Many people struggle with credit card debt at one point or another, and the higher your balances get, the harder it can be to pay them off, especially when you consider compounding interest.
Consolidation is a way to move high-interest debt onto a lower-interest product, like a balance transfer credit card or a consolidation loan, which then makes it easier to pay off. But this strategy isn’t for everyone, and you should weigh your consolidation options carefully.
The best choice will likely depend on how much debt you have, your credit score and other factors explained below.
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What is credit card consolidation?
Credit card consolidation is when you use another credit product to pay off your credit card balances in one fell swoop. You’re then left with only one payment on your new debt.
For consolidation to make sense, the new debt should have a lower annual percentage rate than your credit cards, so you save money on interest. You can even apply that savings back to your debt, which will shorten the payoff period and get you out of debt faster.
Is consolidating credit card debt a good idea?
Consolidating credit card debt is a good idea if you can qualify for a low enough interest rate and pay off the debt during the allotted time period, which will vary based on the consolidation product you choose.
You’ll also want to be certain you can keep your credit card balances at or near zero while you pay off the new debt. For example, if you take out a consolidation loan to pay off your credit cards, but then accumulate a balance on your credit cards again, you’ll be in a worse position than when you started.
Best ways to consolidate credit card debt
If consolidation sounds like the right move for you, here are five effective and safe ways to pay off your credit card debt:
1. Roll your debts onto a balance transfer credit card
Pros of balance transfer cards
Cons of balance transfer cards
Also called credit card refinancing, this option transfers credit card debt to a balance transfer credit card that charges no interest for a promotional period, typically 15 to 21 months. You’ll need good to excellent credit (690 credit score or higher) to qualify for most balance transfer cards.
A good balance transfer card will not charge an annual fee, but many issuers charge a one-time balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% of the amount transferred. Use NerdWallet’s balance transfer savings calculator to see whether the interest you save over time will wipe out the cost of the fee.
Aim to pay your balance down completely before the 0% intro APR period is over. Any remaining balance after that time will have a regular credit card interest rate.
» COMPARE: Best balance transfer credit cards
2. Apply for a credit card consolidation loan
Pros of credit card consolidation loans
Cons of credit card consolidation loans
Credit card consolidation loans are fixed-rate loans that come in a lump-sum, ranging from $1,000 to $50,000, with terms up to seven years. You can apply for a consolidation loan at your local credit union, bank or through an online lender.
Credit unions are not-for-profit lenders that may offer their members more flexible loan terms and lower rates than other lenders, especially for borrowers with fair or bad credit (689 credit score or lower). The maximum APR charged at federal credit unions is 18%. You’ll need to become a member before you apply for a consolidation loan, but membership is typically quick and inexpensive.
Bank loans provide competitive APRs for good-credit borrowers, and benefits for existing bank customers may include larger loan amounts and rate discounts. If you have a good relationship with your bank, ask what their consolidation options are before committing to another lender.
Online lenders offer debt consolidation loans for borrowers across the credit spectrum, so they’re a good option if you can’t qualify through a credit union or bank. Most online lenders also let you pre-qualify without affecting your credit score, which is less common among banks and credit unions. Pre-qualifying gives you a preview of the rate, loan amount and term you may get once you formally apply.
Look for lenders that offer special features for debt consolidation. Some lenders, for example, will discount the rate on a debt consolidation loan or send the loan funds directly to your creditors, simplifying the process.
Not sure if a personal loan is the right choice? Use NerdWallet’s debt consolidation calculator to enter all of your debts in one place, see typical rates from lenders and calculate savings.
» COMPARE: Best credit card consolidation loans
3. Tap your home equity for a loan or line of credit
Pros of home equity loans or lines of credit
Cons of home equity loans or lines of credit
If you’re a homeowner, you may be able to take out a loan or line of credit on the equity in your home and use it to pay off your credit cards or other debts. This is an option for borrowers who can’t qualify for credit elsewhere.
A home equity loan is a lump-sum loan that you pay back with a fixed interest rate, meaning you’ll have predictable monthly payments and a clear finish line. However, these loans are less flexible than a line of credit, which works like a credit card with a variable interest rate.
A HELOC, or home equity line of credit, often requires interest-only payments during the draw period, which is usually the first 10 years. That means you’ll need to pay more than the minimum payment due to reduce the principal and make a dent in your overall debt during that time.
Since both of these types of credit are secured by your house, you’re likely to get a lower rate than what you would find on a personal loan or balance transfer credit card. However, you can also lose your home if you don’t keep up with payments.
4. Borrow from your 401(k)
Pros of 401(k) loans
Cons of 401(k) loans
If you have an employer-sponsored retirement account like a 401(k) plan, you can typically borrow up to half the amount (with a $50,000 maximum), for a term up to five years, to help pay off your debts. These loans usually come with single-digit interest rates, so they’re much cheaper than credit cards, and any interest you pay goes back into your account. Another benefit is this loan won’t show up on your credit report, so there’s no impact on your score.
But taking out a 401(k) loan is very risky. Not only can it significantly impact your retirement savings, if you can’t repay, you’ll owe a hefty penalty plus taxes on the unpaid balance, and you may be left struggling with more debt.
Plus, if you lose your job or quit, the loan is automatically due on tax day of the next year.
Consider a 401(k) loan only after you’ve ruled out balance transfer cards and other types of loans.
5. Enter a debt management plan
Pros of debt management plans
Cons of debt management plans
Debt management plans roll your credit card balances into one monthly payment at a reduced interest rate. You then pay it off over three to five years. These plans work best for those who are struggling to pay off credit card debt but don’t qualify for other options because of a low credit score.
Unlike other credit card consolidation options, opting into a debt management plan won’t hurt your credit score, and if you’re able to make payments on time, it should help.
But debt management plans typically come with fees, so you’ll want to verify the fee amounts and how they affect your overall payoff plan before making a commitment. Going through a nonprofit credit counseling agency is a good way to find an affordable debt management plan.
If your credit card debt is more than 40% of your income and can’t be repaid within five years, bankruptcy may be a better option than a debt management plan.
» MORE: Compare debt payoff strategies