You’re 30, 60 or maybe even 180 days late on your credit card payments.
Creditors are calling, interest is building and your stress is through the roof.
Then, you see an ad for a company that can seemingly make it all go away — a company that’ll finally get you some much-needed relief from your credit card debt.
What Is a Credit Card Debt Relief Program?
Credit card debt relief isn’t an official term used in the finance industry. It’s a marketing term that debt settlement companies use to play to indebted people’s desire for relief.
The term can be interchangeable with debt forgiveness, debt settlement or debt negotiation. What differentiates debt relief programs is that they’re set up by a company that does the hard work for you.
You may have seen their ads in the mail, on TV or in sidebars while searching the internet. They promise to lower your debt burden, help you avoid bankruptcy and hold your hand every step of the way. The offer sounds really enticing.
But as with anything that sounds too good to be true, there are some strings attached. Here are four things you should know about credit card debt relief programs before you join one.
1. A Debt Relief Program Will Hurt Your Credit
The program works in four steps:
- You make payments to the debt settlement company that go into an FDIC-insured savings account.
- Once that account is at a certain amount, they will start negotiating your debt.
- They contact you for your approval of the negotiated settlement.
- They pay that settlement and move on to the next debt.
In the first three steps, your debt relief company will not be making payments on your debts. The primary goal of debt relief programs is to negotiate lower settlements. Continuing to not make payments helps them achieve that goal. But depending on how large your debts are, those steps can take years — and during that time, your credit score continues to drop.
You’ll even keep receiving calls from creditors.
2. They Can’t Guarantee Success in Negotiating Your Debt Down
If you see the word ”guarantee” anywhere in a company’s marketing materials, run for the hills. No one can guarantee any level of forgiveness when it comes to debt.
In general, debt settlement companies do have a good track record in negotiating down debt, because they have insight into a lot of different creditors and previous settlements. But every case is different, and you can’t assume someone else’s success will assure your own.
3. You’ll Have to Pay Taxes on the Forgiven Amount
Contrary to what some believe, the government has no debt relief program. In fact, if you do receive debt relief, they’d like to be compensated for it. You’ll pay taxes on your forgiven debt.
Here’s how to figure out what taxes you might owe:
Let’s say you owe $20,000 in credit card debt. First, someone will asses the fair market value of the assets accumulated through that debt. Due to depreciation, that value is likely to be less than $20,000. Let’s say it’s $17,000. They won’t take your stuff, but hypothetically, if the creditors came and took those assets as repayment, you’d still be $3,000 short.
The debt relief program then negotiates $5,000 off your bill. You now owe $15,000. Woohoo! You’ll be responsible for paying income tax — between 10% and 37%, based on your income — on the difference between the forgiveness amount and what you owed after the value assessment. In this case, $2,000.
And that’s just a simple example. It can be unreasonably complicated to figure out what you’ll actually owe in taxes after debt forgiveness, so it’s advisable to hire an accountant to help you with it. (Another expense you’ll have to eat.)
4. They Don’t Work for Free
While debt settlement companies that market their services are now banned from collecting fees from consumers before settling or reducing the consumers’ debt, they still don’t work for free.
Debt settlement companies will charge you on a percentage basis — usually, a portion of your total debt or of the amount forgiven.
Debt Relief Program Alternatives
If you’re ready to pay off your debt, there are alternatives to debt relief programs that can lower interest rates, eliminate fees and improve your financial picture as a whole.
1. Debt Management Plan
A debt management plan, usually offered from a credit union or nonprofit financial organization, is a voluntary program that allows you to pay funds to your credit counseling agency each month. They send those funds directly to your creditors — no savings account involved.
While debt relief programs hurt your credit score, a debt management plan can actually improve your score throughout the 30-60 month program.
You can find accredited credit counselors from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America.
2. Debt Consolidation
Most debt relief programs won’t accept clients with less than $10,000 in debt. If you fall below this figure, a personal loan or balance transfer credit card might be good options for you.
Many types of credit card debt consolidation can lower your interest rate — sometimes down to 0% for up to 18 months — and help you avoid fees. But you have to be ready to commit to paying off your debt within the terms of the loan or card.
3. Do It Yourself
You don’t need a third party to negotiate and settle your debt for you. In fact, many people do it themselves.
It’s not a walk in the park, though. You have to save up money to make lump-sum payments, and it will also do bad things to your credit while you’re in negotiations.
Whatever way you choose to pay off your credit card debt, it pays to be informed on the risks and rewards associated with the different methods.
Do your due diligence and you’ll avoid being scammed on the path to freedom from debt.
Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She and her husband paid off $78,000 of debt in less than two years on two less-than-average salaries. She gives money-saving and debt-payoff tips on Instagram at @modernfrugality.
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