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What Is Debt Consolidation?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through a credit card issuer partnership.

Debt consolidation rolls several debts into one easy-to-manage payment. It’s a strategy you can use to simplify the debt payoff process and save some money on interest. If you’re overwhelmed with multiple high interest debts, it may be just what you need to become debt-free faster.

How does debt consolidation work?

If you have many unsecured debts to pay off, you can turn them into a single monthly payment through debt consolidation. When you consolidate your debt, you won’t have to manage different payments, interest rates, payment dates and payback periods. You’ll eliminate confusion and make the process of repaying debt more manageable.

While there are several debt consolidation strategies at your disposal, a debt consolidation loan is a popular option. A debt consolidation loan is a personal loan you use to combine multiple debts with a new one, ideally with a lower interest rate and more favorable terms. You’ll receive a lump sum of cash to pay off your debts, and then make a single monthly payment on your new loan. (Some lenders can pay off your creditors directly, however.)

You can use debt consolidation to pay off consumer debt such as:

  • Credit cards
  • Medical bills
  • Utility bills
  • Payday loans
  • Taxes
  • Collection bills

Once you figure out all the unsecured debt you owe, use our debt consolidation loan calculator to get an idea of how long it will take you to repay them. The calculator compares the cost of all your debts versus the cost for a debt consolidation loan. It can help you determine how much money you can potentially save.

Pros and cons of debt consolidation

Pros:

Cons:

  • One monthly debt bill: Since you’ll only have to make one monthly debt payment rather than several, you’ll find the debt payoff process to be much easier.
  • May save money on interest: If you have high interest rates on your existing debts, consolidating them to a lower interest rate can allow you to save money over time.
  • Lower monthly payments: With debt consolidation, you can reduce your monthly payments through a lower interest rate and, if you choose, a longer repayment term.
  • Can pay off debt faster: A lower interest rate and a single debt bill can allow you to become debt-free faster than if you were to keep your multiple debt payments.

  • Potential fees: Some lenders charge an origination fee to take out a loan. Others may charge you a prepayment penalty if you pay off your debt early.
  • Can be hard to qualify: Traditional debt consolidation loans are unsecured personal loans, which require great credit to receive the best interest rates.
  • Does not solve an overspending problem: While debt consolidation can be a helpful strategy, it won’t help you control your spending and stay out of debt.

Where to find debt consolidation loans

Banks, credit unions and online lenders all offer debt consolidation loans. Here are a few options you can choose from.

Debt consolidation loan lenders
 

FreedomPlus

Learn more

Peerform

Learn more

SoFi

Learn more

APR

5.99%-29.99%

5.99%-25.05%

5.99%-18.82%

Terms

24 to 60 months

36 or 60 months

24 to 84 months

Borrowing limits

$7,500 to $40,000

$4,000 to $25,000

$5,000 to $100,000

Origination fee

0.00% - 4.99%

1.00% - 5.00%

No origination fee

Minimum credit score requirement

Varies

600

680

How to shop debt consolidation lenders

You can compare debt consolidation loans in our personal loan marketplace. You’ll want to review such information as:

  • Interest rates
  • Borrowing limits
  • Repayment terms
  • Fee structures
  • Minimum credit score requirements

Online lenders tend to offer the most competitive loan terms, as they have lower overhead costs compared with banks. However, if you prefer having face-to-face time with your lender, you could seek information from local banks. Credit unions can be a great option as well, as they are member-run and may have fewer fees.

Is debt consolidation worth it?

Consider the following questions as you weigh whether debt consolidation is right for you:

  • Are you overwhelmed by multiple debts?
  • Would you like to potentially save money on interest charges?
  • Do you wish you had lower monthly payments?
  • Do you have a plan in place for staying out of debt in the future?
  • Do you have a good to excellent credit score?

If you’re an individual with good credit who is looking for an easier way to manage your debt, you may benefit from consolidation. However, if you’re dealing with a spending problem and don’t have the best credit, this strategy may not be a good fit.

3 debt consolidation alternatives

Balance transfer credit card

A common alternative to a debt consolidation loan is a balance transfer. With this repayment strategy, you’ll take out a balance transfer card and move your existing credit card debt onto it. The benefit of a balance transfer card is that they commonly come with a promotional 0% APR. You can avoid interest charges by repaying your debt in full during the promotional period.

However, if you don’t repay your debt in full, you’ll be responsible for all of the interest that accrued. There’s also a balance transfer fee you’ll typically pay; it’ll be a percentage of the balance you transfer. That said, this strategy is best for consumers who can aggressively repay what they owe and are sure the balance transfer fees they’ll pay will be offset by the amount they save on interest.

Pros

Cons

  • Move your debt to a better credit card: Depending on the card you get approved for, you may be able to move your debt to a card with a lower interest rate and more favorable terms.
  • Interest savings: You can consolidate your credit card debt into a single credit card with a 0% or low promotional APR that can save you money on interest.
  • Can help your credit: If you use your credit transfer card to reduce your credit utilization ratio, pay down debt faster and lower your balance to zero, you can improve your credit.

  • Balance transfer fee: While balance transfer fees vary, most credit cards charge 3% of the balance.
  • Promotional APRs expire quickly: These APRs last about 12 to 21 months. After this period, the card will function like a typical credit card and the interest rate will go back up.
  • Can add to debt: If you have a spending problem, a balance transfer card can make it worse and put you in more debt by freeing up your old credit lines.

Debt settlement

Debt settlement involves negotiating with your creditors to settle for less than what you owe. You can hire a debt settlement company to negotiate with creditors on your behalf, though that may be a risky move. That’s because some debt settlement companies will ask you to stop making payments in order to starve creditors into negotiating over a payoff amount; you’re also liable to pay fees.

Pros

Cons

  • Potential to reduce your debt: Debt settlement can lower the amount of debt you owe to various creditors.
  • One deposit every month: If you hire a debt settlement company, you’ll deposit money into a special account every month. As your balance goes up, they’ll contact your creditors to negotiate lower settlement amounts.
  • Can pay off debt faster: With debt settlement, you may be able to settle your debt in only 24 to 48 months.

  • No guarantees: Your creditors are under no obligation to negotiate over your debt.
  • Your credit will take a hit: When you settle a debt, your credit report will show that a debt was paid off for less than the full amount.
  • High fee: If you opt for a debt settlement company, you may owe them a fee of 15% of your total debt once it settles.
  • Tax consequences: You may have to pay taxes on the portion of your debt that is forgiven by creditors.

Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is a legal process where your assets are used to pay off debts (Chapter 7) or you repay debt via a debt repayment plan (Chapter 13). Since bankruptcy comes with long-term legal and financial consequences, it’s wise to consult a bankruptcy lawyer before pursuing it.

Pros

Cons

  • Relief from collection activity: Once you file for bankruptcy, most debt collectors will stop contacting you.
  • Chance to discharge your debts: If you are overwhelmed with debt, bankruptcy can allow you to wipe them out.
  • A short process: Chapter 7 bankruptcy only takes 4 months, on average.

  • May lose some of your assets: If you opt for Chapter 7, you may lose your home and other assets.
  • Negative long-term impact to your credit: While Chapter 7 bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 10 years, Chapter 13 remains for seven years.
  • Strict qualifications: You’ll have to meet certain income criteria if you wish to pursue Chapter 7. If you don’t qualify, Chapter 13 may be your only option.

Debt consolidation can be a great way for you to take control of your debt and improve your finances. However, it is not right for everyone so it’s important to do your research before you take the plunge.

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Debt Settlement: How It Works, FAQs And More

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Household debt statistics ebb and flow over the years, but debt never completely goes away. As of January 2020, 41.2% of U.S. households have credit card debt. The average among American households carrying a balance is $9,333.

But whether you’re buried under credit card, medical or another type of debt, one option you might be considering is debt settlement. This form of debt relief can help you erase your unpaid balances – but it isn’t guaranteed and can mean costly consequences for both your credit and wallet.

What is debt settlement?

Debt settlement is the process of hiring a company to negotiate with your creditors to reduce or erase your balances. You may also do it yourself. (More on that below.)

When you hire a debt settlement company, you’ll be asked to deposit a certain amount of money in a savings or escrow account each month. (The account will belong to you.) As you build your savings, the debt settlement company will generally advise you to stay delinquent with your creditors. That means you’ll continue to accrue fees, such as for late payment on your debts – hurting your credit in the meantime.

Once your savings account accumulates a high enough balance, the debt settlement company will begin negotiating with your creditors to settle the debt. If your creditors agree to settle, the payoff amount will be taken out of the savings account.

Fees

Fees for debt settlement programs can be difficult to find on company websites. However, most consumers can expect fees to range from 15% to 25% of the total debt they enroll in the program. Fees are charged against successfully settled debts, but may also include fees for any third-party managed savings account that is part of the program.

Pros and cons of debt settlement

Is debt settlement a good idea

Pros

Cons

  • Can reduce your total balances due
  • Simplifies monthly bill payment
  • May help you avoid bankruptcy
  • Could take less time to finalize than Chapter 13
  • Fees can be costly
  • You generally need to be behind on payments and remain delinquent, accumulating late fees
  • Remaining behind on payments will negatively impact your credit
  • No guarantee that your creditors will accept the settlement offer
  • Canceled debt may be treated as taxable income

Working with a debt settlement company

  • Evaluate debt settlement companies. This starts by comparing the fees and claims of each company. Debt settlement can be risky as it isn’t guaranteed, so it’s critical to compare fees. Additionally, since there is no guarantee that a creditor will accept the settlement, it’s a good idea to review each company’s claims to ensure you’re dealing with one that sets reasonable expectations.Next, evaluate the company’s process as well as their terms to make sure you qualify. For any company you work with, you should retain control over the funds. Some companies begin making settlement agreements as soon as the funds build up, others wait.
  • Research debt settlement companies. After you’ve narrowed down your choices, check on the company’s compliance and other user experiences. You can visit the Better Business Bureau and ensure the companies are members of the American Fair Credit Council and the International Association of Professional Debt Arbitrators.
  • Establish agreement/account. Upon selecting a company to work with, visit their website to open an account. Be prepared to give your name, phone number, email address and the total amount of credit card debt.
  • Start saving money according to your plan. Once the company reviews your debt, they will propose a savings plan that you should follow. This will require you to make a single deposit into an account usually managed by a third party.
  • Saved funds are disbursed. When the company begins making settlement agreements, the funds will be distributed from the account, paying off both debts and settlement company fees.

How to settle debt on your own

1. Figure out which accounts are past due

If you’ve secured money through a loan, savings or inheritance and you want to leverage that to settle your debt, you don’t have to hire a debt settlement company. Instead, you can take care of it yourself or hire a lawyer to handle the negotiations.

For a debt settlement offer to be appealing to creditors, you likely need to be behind on payments. Rather than stopping payments on your current debt, make a list of the debts you are already behind on.

Next check the statute of limitations on that past-due debt. If you have debt that’s past the statute of limitations, then you can no longer be sued by the creditor to collect. If you decide to make a partial payment on debts that are past the statute of limitations, it might restart the clock on the statute.

2. Save money, and determine how much you can pay

Before contacting your creditors to make a settlement offer, determine what kind of lump sum or payment plan agreement you can stick to. The goal is not only to pay off the settled debts but to stay current with all your other bills and ensure you have enough of a cushion to deal with potential emergencies.

If you don’t have a lump sum of money to offer for debt settlement

3. Contact your creditors

Creditors need to agree to reduce your debt balance as part of your settlement offer. To find out which creditors are amenable to debt reduction, contact all those whose payments you’ve fallen behind on. Because you want everything documented, this contact should be made in writing, although you can call the company as well.

In some cases, this debt may have already been transferred to a collection agency. If that’s the case, verify which collection agency has taken the debt and contact them.

4. Write a debt settlement letter

Once you know which creditors are willing to settle, write a debt settlement letter spelling out the details of the agreement. This letter should include:

  • The account number
  • The reason you want to settle the debt
  • The current balance
  • The proposed settlement amount or restructured payment plan
  • The deadline for the settlement payment or starting date for the payment plan

Sample debt settlement letters

Alternatives to debt settlement

Debt management plans

Nonprofit credit counseling organizations often offer what’s called a debt management plan. This is a strategy in which the credit counseling agency works with creditors to reduce your interest rates and create payment plans that work with your budget. You then make a single monthly payment to the agency and have a payoff date within three to five years.

A debt management plan may come with a monthly fee as well as a setup fee. However, these fees may be worthwhile, as the credit counseling agency will work to have late fees and other kinds of fees waived on your debt.

Debt consolidation

If you don’t like the idea of keeping your debts unpaid for debt settlement, you can instead consider debt consolidation. You can accomplish this by either:

  • Working with a nonprofit credit counselor to create a debt management plan; or
  • Getting a personal loan, balance transfer card or equity loan to pay off all creditors, thus reducing your repayments to a single lender and due date.

Bankruptcy

Debt settlement is often chosen as a way to avoid bankruptcy, but in some situations, bankruptcy could be a better option.

  • With Chapter 13 bankruptcy, a three- to five-year payment plan can mean that your debts are settled and your secured assets protected with a court-approved payment plan and possibly lower debt balances.
  • With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, many unsecured debts can be discharged without payment, so you might save even more money. Since credit cards are unsecured debt, Chapter 7 can be a better choice than credit card debt settlement.

With either type of bankruptcy, collection actions are stopped, along with garnishments. This can provide a welcome relief to those being hounded by debt collectors.

FAQ: Debt settlement

A debt that’s been settled will show as such for up to seven years on your credit report. In addition, late payments of 30 days or more can remain on your credit report for up to seven years.

Because debt settlement generally requires you to remain past due on payments, it can have a detrimental effect on credit. Missing more than one payment, which is typical for debt settlement, can have an even greater impact.

Taking a settlement in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, although it will show up on your credit report. There can be tax consequences on the forgiven debt, so make sure you’re ready to pay those. Settlements also generally require you to be past due on payments, which also has a negative effect on your credit score.

Debt settlement companies often claim reductions of 30% to 70%. This does not include fees paid to the settlement company.

To qualify for debt settlement, a creditor generally must be enduring a financial hardship that has put them behind on payments. They must also meet the company’s debt balance requirements.

Debt settlement companies often claim to have an advantage with creditors by handling a large volume of customer debt through bulk negotiations. This could mean you have better odds of having your agreement accepted when you use one. However, you may save money by handling it on your own.

Avoid companies that charge in advance or that guarantee results. Check the Better Business Bureau for complaints and make sure the company is compliant with the Federal Trade Commission.

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Help, I’m Drowning in Debt! What Can I Do?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

When debts start piling up and income runs short each month, it can feel like you’re suffocating under the weight of financial responsibility. But you have options to make it through the financial squeeze. Below are tips and strategies you can use to take on overwhelming debt.

1. Take stock of your debts

To start, list all your debts, including their current balances, minimum payments and interest rates, on a single piece of paper or spreadsheet. Additional details, such as whether the debt is unsecured or secured and its remaining repayment term, can also be useful as you begin your research.

2. Prioritize your debts

When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, it’s important to make a detailed plan for how you’ll use your money. That includes prioritizing expenses and debt payments so you can minimize the likelihood of default.

Consider prioritizing your expenses in this order:

  1. Basic living expenses: Before making payments on debt, use your income to cover basic expenses such as rent, utilities, groceries, transit to work, and medical costs.
  2. Car and home loans: Most car loans (including vehicle title loans) are secured by your car, which means you could lose your car if you don’t pay your loan — and you’ll probably need your car to get to work to earn an income. Likewise, your mortgage is secured by your house; if you stop paying your mortgage, you could lose your house. Paying these loans should take priority over other forms of debt.
  3. High interest debt: Credit cards and other forms of high-interest lines of credit make it difficult to get out of debt. But these kinds of debt are commonly unsecured, meaning that if you fall into default, you won’t lose your home or other property; the lender would have to go through a collections agency or the courts to collect.
  4. Federal student loans: Federal student loans can rarely be discharged through the bankruptcy process, so you’ll have to pay these at some point. But you may decide to deprioritize paying off your federal student loans until you can take care of more expensive forms of debt. You may also qualify to cut your payment and work toward loan forgiveness by enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan. Payments can be as low as $0 per month, since they are based on your income.
  5. Debt in collections: If you’ve already defaulted on some debts, it may be best to wait on repaying them until you get a handle on your current or delinquent accounts. That’s because with defaulted debt the damage has already been done.

No matter what, you want to avoid defaulting on debt, no matter the type. Loan delinquency and default can massively hurt your credit score and make it difficult for you to pursue some of the debt repayment strategies below, as well as access other forms of credit.

If you’re unable to make the minimum payments on each of your debts, it’s time to call up your creditors.

3. Call your creditors and ask these 7 questions

Once you have a clear understanding of the debts you owe, there are steps you can take to cut your monthly payment and stay current on your bills. These are a few questions that can help you find ways to cut your bills with creditors or get help when you’re drowning in debt:

The U.S. Department of Education allows borrowers to go on income-driven repayment plans where monthly payments are as low as $0 per month depending on your income. Mortgage lenders may also have some room to help you cut your monthly payment. Cell phone companies, utility providers, and other companies may have lower cost plans available, as well.

Call your utility and phone providers to ask if you qualify for discounts for low and moderate income earners. Some companies can connect you to local governments that help low income people pay for basic utilities. Internet or phone providers offer discounts to low income people. If you don’t qualify for low-income programs, you may be able to lower your bill by asking for new customer rates.

If you have medical bills in collections, your provider may be willing to lower your bill. You can negotiate the bill or ask about charity care. When speaking with your provider’s billing department, be frank about your financial situation so they have a good understanding of your struggles.

Some credit card companies will be willing to cut your interest rate if you show financial need. Lower interest rates can help you gain traction on paying off debt.

Lenders may be willing to extend your repayment term, which means you’ll have a longer amount of time to pay off the same amount of debt. You’ll pay more in interest over the long-haul, but the immediate monthly payment will be more manageable.

If your debt load puts your home in jeopardy, you may qualify for a mortgage modification program. Mortgage modification programs are designed to cut your loan payment and bring you current on your loan. Call your lender to ask about your options.

Mortgage, student loan or credit card lenders may offer to pause loan payments through forbearance. Loan forbearance, or hardship forbearance, happens when a bank reduces or stops your payments for a limited period of time. During forbearance, interest continues to accrue on your loan. You will have to repay the missed payments and the added interest later on; however, despite the added costs, this option can make a lot of sense if you think your income situation will improve soon.

If you’re returning to school or entering active duty military service, your federal student loans may also be eligible for deferment. Deferment allows you to pause loan payments during specific times. If you have a subsidized student loan, interest won’t accrue during deferment.

4. Consider ignoring debt in collections for now

Creditors may be hounding you about debts in default, but those debts may need to wait. When you initially defaulted on the loan, the default damaged your credit score. Recovering from a defaulted loan takes time, but repaying the loan won’t help you build credit. These tips can help you if you have debts in collections. Plan to deal with defaulted debts when you’ve dealt with higher priority debts.

Above all, know that you have rights when it comes to dealing with debt collectors. For example, collectors can only call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., and you can request that they not contact you at work. If you want collectors to stop contacting you, send a letter via certified mail that explains you don’t want to be contacted. Once the collections agent receives it, they can only contact you to let you know they have seen the letter, or if they intend to sue you.

5. Explore your debt relief options

While there are many ways to handle overwhelming debt, these are some of the most popular options. Consider all your options before committing to one.

4 ways to handle bills when you’re drowning in debt

What it is

Pros

Cons

Make monthly payments to a credit counseling agency that will negotiate interest rates, fees and repayment schedules with creditors and make payments on your behalf.

  • Single payment each month
  • May lower fees and interest rates
  • May pay a monthly maintenance fee
  • Debt load doesn’t shrink

Combine several debts with a new loan. Many people consolidate using a debt consolidation loan.

  • Only one payment per month
  • May lower your interest rate
  • Can extend your repayment term to lower your monthly dues

  • Total balance of debt remains the same
  • Best for borrowers with strong credit
  • A longer term means higher overall interest charges

Negotiate a lump sum payment for less than the amount you owe. In exchange for taking the lump sum, the creditor resolves your debt.

  • May pay less than you owe
  • May help you avoid bankruptcy

  • Can severely damage your credit score
  • Lenders have no obligation to negotiate with you

Work with the courts to help you dispose of debt to create a viable repayment plan for your debts.

  • With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, 99% of filers have debts wiped out
  • Allows you to deal with most debts through a single process

  • Bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 10 years
  • Average bankruptcy cases cost $1,000 or more (depending on complexity)

Debt management plans

A debt management plan is a debt repayment option where borrowers work with a credit counseling agency to repay debt. On the plan, the borrower pays the agency, and the agency repays creditors on an agreed upon schedule. The agency will negotiate with your creditors to lower interest rates, waive late fees, and arrange a repayment schedule that works for you.

In general, you’ll need to make monthly payments for 48 months or longer to pay off all the debt on the debt management plan. To make your success more likely, the credit counseling agency will ask you not to open any new credit cards while you’re on the plan. You’ll also have to close the credit cards that are on the plan.

Debt management fees vary by agency, your state and the amount of debt. One agency, GreenPath Financial Wellness, charges a $0 to $50 setup fee. On top of that, you’ll pay $0 to $75 monthly fee for the company to manage your debt payments. To find a reputable nonprofit counseling agency, use the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s member database.

Debt consolidation

When you consolidate debt, you refinance all your debts into a single new loan, to be paid once a month. To keep interest costs low, some borrowers choose to consolidate debt with a home equity line of credit (HELOC), a credit card with an introductory 0% APR or a debt consolidation loan.

When you consolidate your debt, you may lower your monthly payments by extending the term of your loan (for example from five years to 10 years) and/or by finding a lower interest rate. If you choose a longer repayment term, you will generally pay more interest over the life of the loan. However, if you’re struggling with monthly dues, you may be comfortable with this tradeoff.

To qualify for the best refinancing options, you’ll generally need a strong credit score.

Debt settlement

Settling your debt means you resolve debts by paying your creditors an agreed-upon lump sum. The settlement amount is usually less than the full amount you owe. Debt settlement sounds great, but it can be risky and expensive, especially if you work with a debt settlement company.

If you work with a debt settlement company, the company will generally charge you around 20% of the original value of the debt you owed — that means when the company settles $40,000 of debt, you should expect to pay $8,000 for the service. According to the Federal Trade Commission, it is illegal for a debt settlement company to charge its fee before you pay your creditor, so this fee will be paid after your debt is paid.

Aside from the high costs, working with a debt settlement company poses these other risks:

  • Debt settlement companies may ask you to stop paying debts, which erodes your credit score.
  • Some debt settlement companies are scams and fail to deliver on their promises.
  • Debt settlement can take three years or more, so many people drop out of the program before their debts are resolved.
  • There’s no guarantee creditors will work with you, which means you may spend time and money for nothing.

If debt settlement still seems like your best option, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends that you should consider working with creditors on your own. Call your lender’s customer service department, and work on negotiating a settlement. Be sure to get any changes to the payment in writing.

Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy is a process where an individual or a married couple has their debts discharged or modified through the courts. To start the bankruptcy, you’ll usually file Chapter 7 (liquidation) or Chapter 13 (payment plan) bankruptcy.

With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, most of your loans will be discharged once the process is complete. However, you may have to sell certain assets (including a home or a car in some cases) to pay off existing debts.

With Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you’ll go on a payment plan that lasts three to five years. At the end of the payment plan, most debts are discharged, and you’ll still own all your assets.

However, bankruptcy stays on your credit report for as many as 10 years, and makes it very hard to get new credit to buy a home or car, so you should only pursue bankruptcy as a last resort.

Bottom line

Whether you’re facing bills in collections, struggling to make minimum payments, or overwhelmed by the amount you owe, you have options. Take stock of your choices, so you can move towards financial health.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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