Where there's need, there's help, and that's certainly true when it comes to credit card debt help. In fact, there are so many people and organizations available to help you get out of debt, it can be difficult to know where to start.
The sort of credit card debt help you need depends on how desperate your debt situation is and how much assistance you need. The basic ways to deal with serious credit card debt are bankruptcy, debt settlement, credit counseling, debt consolidation, personal-finance classes, and do-it-yourself debt repayment plans.
Let's start with the most drastic measure: bankruptcy.
1. Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy
If you have massive credit card debts you cannot afford to pay, bankruptcy may be the fastest way to get rid of them. When most people think of bankruptcy, they think of Chapter 7. This is the bankruptcy that wipes the slate clean -- at least you hope. It gives you a financial fresh start. Not just anyone can file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, however. You must have substantial debts and be able to show that you cannot pay your debts. You may lose some assets that are liquidated to pay your debts. The types of assets and limits that you get to keep in bankruptcy vary by state law.
If you have a steady income, you might not end up with a tidy Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Instead, the courts may require you to use Chapter 13, which is really a court-supervised repayment program. Under Chapter 13, you follow the payment plan for up to five years. So long as you keep up with the new payment plan, you shouldn't be harassed or subject to penalties.
Both types of bankruptcies have fees -- more than you might expect. The filing fee, as of June 1, 2014, is $350. It may be waived in certain cases. You will probably also pay an attorney; fees between $2,500 and $5,500 are common. You'll also be required to get credit counseling and take a personal financial management course, each of which may cost about $50.
In addition, you have to deal with paperwork, give up some financial privacy and a lot of control over your finances, and possibly appear in court. Bankruptcy can be emotionally devastating, and it is terrible for your credit score. You may have trouble getting credit after bankruptcy, and you may pay much higher interest rates when you do. For these reasons, bankruptcy should only be used as a very last resort.
2. Debt settlement
If you're not desperate enough to file for bankruptcy but you still want to get rid of a huge amount of credit card debt fast, you may consider debt settlement. Debt settlement happens when you owe a credit card company a balance and you offer to pay the bank less than the balance to close the account and write off the rest. Sounds good; you take a $20,000 debt, offer something like $10,000, and you're off the hook for the rest.
It's not that easy, however. Credit card companies typically accept debt settlements only when they think it's in their best interest. If you're making payments on time, they're not likely to accept anything less. Simply stopping payments isn't enough, either: You need a reason for the bank to accept your offer, such as prolonged unemployment, serious illness, divorce, or another financial catastrophe.
There's one major problem with debt settlement: If you can't make your monthly payments, how can you come up with enough money to offer to settle? Some people stop making payments in order to save up the money for an offer. If you can afford to make your minimum payments, however, in most cases you should.
Other downsides of debt settlement include serious damage to your credit score and a surprise tax bill when the IRS hears that you had "income" from forgiven debt.
You've no doubt heard of companies that will negotiate debt settlements for you. You don't really need them. Some debt settlement companies are reputable, but many are not. They can charge substantial fees, and you give up a lot of control over your finances when you start transferring money into a special account with which the company will attempt to negotiate your debt. You could spend two or three years accumulating enough money for an offer, and your bank has no obligation to accept a settlement. In the meantime, your debt balance may have grown considerably, thanks to interest and late fees.
The biggest reason not to use debt settlement companies, however, is that they can't do anything for you that you can't do yourself.
3. Credit counseling agency
Nonprofit credit counseling agencies can be an excellent choice for people having credit problems. They get to the causes of financial problems by offering counseling, education, and financial handholding. They can help you see all your options, create a budget, and get on track to be free of credit card debt in fewer than five years.
A counselor at a nonprofit credit counseling agency may also set you up with a debt management plan (DMP). With this plan, you make one monthly payment to the agency, and the agency sends money to all your creditors. There's no more wondering which cards to pay this month, or what to pay first; the DMP takes care of it all, with the added benefit of lower interest rates.
If you use a DMP, you won't be able to open new credit cards until you finish the program. And that's a plus. On the other hand, a DMP isn't the best thing for your credit history. It's better than bankruptcy or debt settlement, but it does alert potential creditors that you've been in financial difficulty.
4. Debt consolidation
Debt consolidation means taking out one big loan to pay off a lot of debts, hopefully at a lower interest rate. The idea is that if you're swamped with bills coming at you from all directions, one big payment will be easier to make.
Some debt-consolidation loans have steep fees, especially if they are marketed to people who are already in financial distress. You may have to pay a 3% to 5% fee as a closing cost. The interest rates for an unsecured debt-consolidation loan may not be much lower than you're currently paying on your credit card debt. If you have good credit, the rates may be 12 to 15%. If you're in serious trouble, which is likely why you would be seeking a debt-consolidation loan in the first place, you may pay interest rates as high as 30%.
A do-it-yourself form of debt consolidation is to take out a loan, such as a home equity loan, and pay off your credit card debts. If you can swing this, you'll probably pay less in fees and interest.
With debt consolidation, you're actually paying your balances in full. That's a good thing from a credit perspective.
The biggest problem with debt consolidation is that some people are tempted to start using those paid-off credit cards again after they pay them off with the debt-consolidation loan. Now they have one big debt and all those other debts, too. Don't use this tactic if there's any chance you'll fall into this trap.
5. Personal-finance classes
This option is a little less personal than credit counseling, but it's more structured than going it alone. Sign up for a personal-finance class at a community college, church, or other venue, and learn about getting your finances in order. Debt reduction will be a major topic because so many people struggle with it.
If you take a personal-finance class, make sure you and your financial partner can go together. If you share your finances with someone, getting on the same page about money is critical to your success. For some couples, a personal-finance class marks the first time they really talk about money and plan their financial lives together.
Personal-finance classes are usually inexpensive compared to other options, and you benefit from the support of the group. In addition, by the time you hear the hard-luck stories of your classmates, you might think your situation isn't so bad, after all.
6. Do-it-yourself debt repayment
If you need a little less handholding and just straightforward information, you're a prime candidate for do-it-yourself debt management. If you can do it, this may be the best method for getting out of debt. You don't pay extra fees to anyone, and you don't lose privacy or control over your money. You're not creating more debt, and your credit score will get better, not worse.
Doing it yourself doesn't mean going without help. You can get plenty of credit card debt help in our Get Out of Debt space.
By learning all you can about debt and doing the hard work, you stand a great chance of getting out of debt and staying out of it for good.