If you are neck-deep in debt, missing payments or carrying balances that are too large to handle, chances are you have poor credit. It can feel as if you’re trapped in a vicious cycle: You need good credit to take advantage of the best deals on debt consolidation loans and balance transfers, which could help you dig out of debt. But because you probably don’t qualify for those offers, you continue to struggle to meet your payments and your credit continues to suffer.
There are countless reasons — some that are beyond your control — that could make it difficult to get out of this debt trap. Medical emergencies, unexpected job loss or the death of a spouse can easily send your finances spiraling. It can certainly feel frustrating and circumscribe to be in this situation.
Despite all this, it’s not impossible to crawl out of the debt hole with bad credit. You have to understand your options and work extra toward the goal. In this guide, we’ll offer tips on how you can still pay off debt with bad credit.
What is considered a “bad” credit score?
Before discussing how to get out of debt with bad credit, let’s first understand how credit scores work and factors that affect your score.
Your credit score is what lenders use to evaluate your risk as a borrower and a low credit score can make you appear as if you are someone who’s not financially responsible.
The most common credit score system used by lenders is provided by the Fair Isaac Corporation, commonly known as FICO®. Since its introduction over 25 years ago, FICO® Scores has become the standard evaluation measure used by 90% of top U.S. financial institutions.
FICO® scores range from 300 to 850. A bad FICO® score typically falls below 580. Currently, 17% of all people fall into this range, according to Experian, one of the three major U.S. credit reporting agencies.
What’s a Bad Credit Score?
There are five factors that make up your credit score. The amount of debt you owe makes up 30% of your score and your payment history makes up 35%. The length of your credit history, new credit inquiries and credit mix respectively make up 15%, 10% and 10%, respectively.
According to this score makeup, a poor credit score can mean that a person has derogatory remarks in their file that include falling behind payments, maxing out his/her credit cards or major financial setbacks, such as a bankruptcy or home foreclosure.
5 ways to pay off debt when you have bad credit
The DIY approach
Call your lenders. Thomas Nitzsche is the communications lead and credit educator at Money Management International, a nonprofit credit counseling company. He told MagnifyMoney that the first step for consumers who are behind their credit card payments is to call their credit card companies — it doesn’t cost money and may lower their interest payments.
Prioritize newer debts first. Nitzsche said you should focus on new debt because a newer debt may impact your credit score more (older debts have already done their damage), particularly if it’s still with the original creditor and not yet in collections (usually before three months past due). At this stage, your account can still be rehabilitated, which can help you improve your credit.
Ask about a hardship repayment plan. Especially if you are in that situation due to significant financial hardships that are out of your control, such as unexpected job loss or medical emergencies, Nitzsche said you should tell the creditor about the situation and ask for a hardship repayment plan — some creditors may allow those consumers to repay their debt within 60 months with lower interest rates before the debt goes to collections.
Ask to settle debts for less than you owe. If you are severely delinquent on debts, call your lender and ask if you can settle the debt for less. This often requires a one-time lump sum payment, so keep that in mind.
Make on-time payments. Lauren G. Lindsay, a financial adviser based in Covington, La., offers the following advice: Make sure you make on-time payments and avoid borrowing even more. “Even if you cannot pay in full, after six months of on-time payments, your credit score will improve,” Lindsay said.
Find extra money. Review your budget to see how much wiggle room you have to put more toward your debt. If you have no extra cash, find ways to bring in additional income.
Prioritize your debts by highest interest rate —Debt avalanche. Make a list of all the debt you owe with the interest rates and minimum payments, and try to target paying off the debts with the highest interest rates first. This is known as the debt avalanche method.
Prioritize lowest balances first — Debt snowball. Another popular debt payoff method is the snowball. Order debts by smallest balance owed, to largest balance owed. Pay minimum payments on everything but the smallest balance owed. For that balance, pay as much above the minimum payment as you can afford. Once it’s paid off, take the money you were using for that debt and put it toward the next highest balance, and so on and so forth.
Live within your means. Create a budget and stick to it. “Look at what gets put on credit cards and don’t spend more than you can pay off each month,” Lindsay said. “Your goal is to never carry credit card debt. Also, establish an emergency fund to prevent you from getting back into the debt cycle.”
Debt management plans (DMP)
A debt management plan, or DMP, helps you consolidate payments of unsecured debt, such as credit card payments. DMPs are created for consumers by nonprofit credit counseling agencies. Nitzsche said people seeking DMP for managing debt have an average credit score of about 580. You make one payment through your DMP instead of several payments to different creditors. You may also reduce your payments on interests as your credit counselor may be able to negotiate with your lender for lower rates, monthly payments and fees associated with your debt.
To pick a nonprofit credit counseling agency for quality services, visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
- Before you entering a DMP, you are required to complete a full financial review with a counselor. This helps you assess your finances, and your counselor may even recommend another program that may be better suited for you.
- You don’t have to deal with multiple monthly payments. A DMP streamlines your debt payment process.
- It generally takes four to five years to complete a DMP. You may pay your credit card debt more quickly with a DMP than making the minimum payment each month.
- Your counselor may negotiate better terms for your debts, including lower interest rates. Nitzsche said the average rate his clients get is around 8%.
- While enrolling in a DMP, you may be asked to close your credit cards and you can’t apply for new credit. Your credit score will take a hit if you close credit cards.
- The credit counseling firm may charge an initial fee for the first session. Enrollment fees are required when you enter a DMP (vary by states; average $33). On top of that, you will pay an ongoing monthly fee (average $24, not to exceed $50).
- DMPs can help you with certain types of debts, such as credit card debt, personal loans and collection accounts, but not all of them. For instance, they don’t help with payday loans and secured loans, such as a mortgage.
Consolidate your debt with a new loan
When you are climbing a mountain of debt and are having a hard time keeping track of various monthly payments, consolidating your debt may help you make debt more manageable with a lower interest rate. We will walk you through two common debt consolidation options and examine the pros and cons of each — personal loans and home equity loans.
Consolidating with personal loans
A personal loan could be a preferable choice for someone who has less than perfect credit but good enough credit to qualify for a loan at a lower rate than his/her credit card. Personal loans are unsecured loans offering a fixed amount of money at a fixed rate for a fixed amount of time.
A personal loan allows you to transfer your balances into one loan. It will not only reduce the number of payments you have to make every month, but you may also save on interest payments. In general, you will have 24 to 60 months to repay your loan.
- You can pre-qualify for many personal loans without hurting your credit score. This will allow you to shop around for the best rates.
- A personal loan can help you rebuild credit by adding another line of credit to your file. As long as you make on-time payments, you can expect your credit to improve over time.
- A personal loan carries an interest rate, which varies by credit score, but is usually lower than credit card interest rates. According to data from the Federal Reserve, the average personal interest loan rate was 10.22% in the first quarter of 2018, compared with the average 15.32% of interest collected on credit card debt.
- You may qualify for personal loans even with poor credit, but you are likely to get higher interest rates.
- Many lenders charge an origination fee, which is nonrefundable and deducted from your total loan amount before you receive the loan.
- The loan amount is typically capped at $100,000, which is low compared with some secured loans.
If your credit score may disqualify you for a personal loan, you can choose to bring on a cosigner.
Check out this list of personal loans for bad credit.
Consolidating with a home equity loan
If you own a property and have built up equity in it, a home equity loan could be another option. By taking this loan, you are putting your home up for collateral to borrow money that you can use to pay off your higher interest debt. You may not need excellent credit to qualify because the loan is secured by your home, which makes it less risky for lenders. At the end of the day, they know they can recoup their losses by taking your home. Of course, what’s good for the lender winds up being an added risk for you if you default on your loan.
With a home equity loan, you receive a lump sum of money and pay it back over a fixed period of time at a fixed interest rate. You can borrow a certain percentage of your home equity (the value of your home minus how much you owe on the home). But if you default on your loan, the lender may foreclose on your home.
- Typically, you have five to 15 years to repay the loan; longer terms than personal loans.
- Home equity loans usually carry lower rates than personal loans. This FICO® chart shows the average APR and monthly payments on home equity loans by credit scores.
- The loan amount is capped at 85% of the home’s value minus the balance of the current mortgage. It may be larger than what a personal loan.
- Your loan is secured by your home, and you risk losing your home if you can’t make loan payments.
- Applying for a home equity loan is like securing a mortgage. A home equity comes with closing costs.
Settle your debt with a lump-sum payment
If you can’t make your payments that are long overdue, you could try to get your debt resolved for less than what was owed through settlement.
This usually happens only when your debt is in collections and extensively past due. In this situation, you are no longer dealing with your original creditor because your debt is sold to a collection agency. In some cases, however, the original lender may still own the debt and still be open to settling. Just ask.
At this point, you may be able to negotiate with the debt collector to settle the debt for less than what you owe.
There are for-profit debt settlement companies that can sometimes help negotiate with creditors on the money you owe for less than full balance repayment, for a fee. But beware of risks associated with such services. You can easily negotiate with lenders yourself without going through a third-party service. Also, some creditors will refuse to work with these types of companies, so don’t pay for a service before you check with your lender to see if they will entertain discussions with third parties.
- You can possibly settle your debt for less than the balance.
- You may pay off your debt faster this way than by making the minimum monthly payments.
- You can avoid bankruptcy.
- Be very wary of debt settlement companies. Many charge expensive fees and are not able to deliver their promises when you can do the same for free. It may end up costing you more money to have their assistance.
- Often requires a lump-sum cash payment, which you may not be able to afford all at once.
- Your creditor may refuse to settle.
- If the debt collection agency forgives $600+, you may have to pay taxes on the amount.
Last resort: Bankruptcy
This is your last resort. When you are in such a dire financial situation that you absolutely have no way to pay off your debt, bankruptcy could be a viable option for you to start over. Declaring bankruptcy is a legal process through which the borrower can have his/her debt forgiven or restructured.
There are several types of bankruptcy that determine how much and what kind of debt can or will be discharged. Consumers commonly file two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.
Chapter 7 allows debtors to cover debt by liquidating all their unprotected assets, meaning they have to sell some of their assets to pay off debts. It’s more suitable for those who have little disposable income.
Chapter 13 requires debtors to repay some or all of the money they owe based on how much they expect to earn over three to five years, but they can keep their assets. After the repayment period, the remaining balance will be discharged.
- You can discharge most, if not all of your debt.
- It will make a serious dent in your credit file, but you can mend your credit score eventually. According to LendingTree’s research within a year of the bankruptcy, 43% of people with a bankruptcy on their credit file had a credit score of 640 or higher. Within two years, 65% have a credit score above 640. (Disclaimer: LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.com)
- You may lose some of your assets.
- Some debt may not qualify for bankruptcy, such as student loans.
- It may damage your credit score, and the filing can be on your credit report for up to ten years.
- You could have difficulties taking out any new loans or opening up credit accounts when you are recovering from a bankruptcy. The LendingTree research shows that after five years of a bankruptcy, about 75% of the filers restore their credit scores to levels where they can qualify for loans.
- You may have to pay substantially more for loans before restoring your credit.
Paying off a great amount of debt with poor credit is not easy and won’t happen overnight. No matter which method you use, having financial discipline is absolutely imperative. Without discipline, none of the solutions we discussed earlier will cure your money woes. If you are not committed to making on-time payments, can’t resist the temptation of spending or keep taking on new debt, you could wind up owing more than ever before. Before you decide to go with a certain plan, compare the costs that come with each option and see if they outweigh the interest cut. If you consider working with a business to tackle your debt, check out the company’s website and make sure it’s legitimate and reputable. You can search the company on Better Business Bureau or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or you can check them out with your state Attorney General to find out if there are consumer complaints about the firm on file.