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What It Takes to Succeed on a Debt Management Plan

Oct. 11, 2016
Paying Off Debt, Personal Finance
What It Takes to Succeed on a Debt Management Plan
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If you’re looking for debt relief, you may want to consider working with a credit counseling agency on a debt management plan.

With such a plan, you repay all of your unsecured debt at reduced interest rates, negotiated by your credit counselor. You make one monthly payment to the agency, which then pays your creditors on your behalf.

But completing a debt management plan isn’t easy. Repayment terms typically span four or five years and often require substantial lifestyle changes. As a result, many people don’t finish their plan.

We asked certified financial counselor David Atkinson, of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Buffalo and a member of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor network, about challenges that people in debt face and what it takes to be successful with a debt management plan.

Many people don’t complete their debt management program. What are some reasons for this?

We’ve found that the average rate of plan completion is about 55% to 60% at CCCS of Buffalo. This percentage might be even higher if you consider that some clients drop out of a debt management plan once they have paid off some of their creditors. However, of course, it’s our goal to have our clients pay off all their creditors and use credit cards as a lifeline instead of as a way of life.

Aside from those who find they’ve brought their debt under control before finishing their program, the other big reason people don’t complete their plan is that they can’t make their payments. Common issues contributing to this include loss of income, medical problems or prioritizing their commitments to other debt like student loans, mortgages or auto loan payments.

How can people avoid pitfalls when working with a credit counselor on a debt management program?

You can avoid many common pitfalls in a debt management program by understanding the major commitment it takes to succeed. Often, people’s current lifestyle limits their financial options. To succeed in a debt management plan, you’ll likely have to reduce nonessential expenses and strictly monitor your budget.

Contact your credit counselor if you have or foresee problems making the monthly payment on your debt management plan. Counselors can help you identify options to reduce student loan payments, modify mortgage loans or negotiate a payment plan for medical bills, making it easier for you to stay on track with payments under the debt management plan.

Ultimately, a debt management plan is a partnership between the credit counselor and you. Both need to be active in the commitment it takes to pay off unsecured debt.

What tips do you have for getting the most out of a debt management program?

To be successful on a debt management plan, you’ll want to:

  • Make a budget by breaking down yearly or periodic expenses into a monthly plan. This will help you budget for large expenses that don’t occur each month. For example, you’ll want to save up to pay for auto repairs or gift expenses that you might typically have put on a credit card. When you’re on a debt management plan, you must get approval from the credit counseling agency to use additional credit, to make sure your creditors won’t drop you.
  • Open an emergency savings account that you can’t access easily, except for emergency expenses. I advise my clients to try to save 10% to 15% of their net income for emergencies.
  • Contact your credit counseling agency if a major financial catastrophe happens. The agency may have solutions if you can’t afford your full payment.

What risks or issues should people be aware of?

Your credit score may fall at first when you’re on a debt management plan. When you close credit cards, it affects your credit utilization ratio — the amount of outstanding balances of all your credit cards divided by the sum of all your credit card limits — which is used in determining credit scores. When you close a credit account, it may show a zero credit card limit, which would affect the ratio and thus your credit score.

It’s also critical to understand that a four- or five-year creditor repayment program is a serious commitment. You need to be ready to change your lifestyle and spending habits if you want succeed.

CCCS of Buffalo is a nonprofit credit counseling agency and member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.