How and why to consolidate credit card debt
By Anna Davies
Reviewed by James Heflin
Sep 30, 2023
Read time: 6 min
Credit card debt consolidation is a way to refinance your debt to reduce the number of monthly bills you pay.
Consolidating credit card debts could help you save money on interest if you get a lower rate or you pay off the debt faster.
Personal loans and home equity loans are common ways to consolidate credit card debt.
Taking the reins on your debt is the first step toward having more freedom to make better choices with your money. It isn’t just about the numbers, although the numbers are a big factor. Debt consolidation is also about creating peace of mind and finding a clear path forward to the future you want.
Here’s a breakdown of the details you need to know, so you can decide whether credit card debt consolidation might work for you.
What is credit card debt consolidation?
Credit card consolidation means you use one new loan to pay off multiple credit card balances.
Multiple credit card balances mean multiple interest rates, multiple payment due dates, and multiple minimum payments. Even if you’ve set all your accounts to autopay, it can get stressful juggling so many bills.
If you’re thinking that there’s got to be a better way to handle your credit cards, you’re right.
Debt consolidation means you have one bill to pay, at one interest rate, on one due date.
Benefits of credit card debt consolidation
Credit card debt consolidation can help you feel less overwhelmed by your finances while potentially saving you money. Here are some benefits of debt consolidation.
Fixed interest rate. Credit cards have variable interest rates, which means the rates can (and do) change. If you pay them off with a fixed-rate installment loan, the rate is locked in. The cost of your debt is predictable and stable.
Fixed monthly payment. When you know exactly how much you have to budget toward paying down your debt, you can plan your financial strategy more accurately. Using a loan to pay off your credit cards means your payment amount won’t change.
Peace of mind. Fewer bills to worry about can give you peace of mind and make it easier to manage your finances. Fewer bills could also help you avoid missing a payment, further reducing your stress (and cost).
Improve your credit profile. Using a loan to pay down credit card balances could help you improve your credit standing. That’s because your credit utilization ratio, or how much credit card debt you have compared to the credit limit on each account, affects your credit standing. Loan balances don’t affect your credit the same way as credit card balances.
Save money. Consolidating debts can help you save money in two ways. First, loans tend to have lower interest rates than credit cards, so you could save money if you qualify for a rate that’s lower than the rates you’re currently paying. Second, a shorter repayment period could help you save on interest. Credit card minimum payments are designed to drag out the debt for a long time. The longer you take to repay a debt, the more interest you’ll pay. Many debt consolidation loans are designed to be paid off in just a few years.
Firm payoff date. Credit card minimum payments get smaller as your balance goes down. Also, the debt can drag out indefinitely if you repeatedly charge the account back up and pay it down. Loan repayment is on a firm timeline. Once you enter the repayment period on an installment loan, you can’t borrow more. You’ll know from day one exactly how many payments you’ll make and when the debt will be paid off.
Types of credit card debt consolidation
There are several ways to consolidate credit card debt and reduce the number of debts you carry.
You can use a personal loan to pay off credit card debt. Most personal loans are unsecured, which means you qualify based on your creditworthiness, not on what or how much you own. Personal loan amounts are typically between $5,000 and $50,000, but some lenders offer smaller or larger loans. Funding is as soon as 1 to 3 days after your application is approved.
Personal loans usually need to be repaid within 5 years. They tend to cost less than credit cards, but more than home equity loans.
Home equity loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC)
If you’re a homeowner with sufficient equity, you could borrow against your home equity to consolidate your debt. Equity is the difference between your home’s value and how much you owe on your mortgage. Generally speaking, you could borrow up to 80% of your home’s value if you qualify.
If you opt for a HELOC, you get a few years when you can borrow, repay, and borrow more, up to your limit. This is called the draw period. After the draw period, borrowing ends. Then you enter a repayment period. With a home equity loan, you take the full loan amount at one time.
The repayment period on a home equity loan or HELOC is usually between 10 and 30 years. Home equity loans and HELOCs tend to come at the lowest cost compared to other borrowing options. But if for some reason you fail to repay your loan, you could lose your home.
A credit card balance transfer is another way to consolidate credit card debt. You move multiple smaller balances to a card that has a high enough credit limit to cover them. Usually, people do this when the balance transfer card is offering a low or 0% introductory interest rate. At the end of the introductory period (typically 6 to 21 months), you pay the regular interest rate on the amount you haven’t paid off.
Balance transfers are inherently risky. Many people transfer balances and then charge up the balances on the cards they just paid off. Or when the introductory rate expires, they move the balance to another low-rate balance transfer card, or spread the balance to multiple cards with low interest offers. This can turn into a juggling act that’s hard to maintain. Balance transfers are best thought of as a one-time part of a larger financial strategy.
Tips for consolidating credit card debt
Consolidating credit card debt can help you lower costs, manage your finances, and set a payoff date. Here are some tips to help you succeed.
Make a plan for your credit cards. Don’t ignore the fact that consolidating could leave you holding multiple paid-off credit cards. Charging the accounts back up after you pay them off with a consolidation loan could put you in a worse financial situation (and it’s easy to make this mistake).
Consider closing your credit card accounts after you pay them off. Whether you keep one open for emergencies is up to you, but if you’re working on paying down debt, it’s not a bad idea to rely on your debit card for a while. Your credit score might be negatively impacted if you shut down all of your credit cards. But credit scores are extremely fluid, and the effect is temporary. Your credit standing will naturally improve if you pay your bills on time and keep your credit card debt low.
Be the boss of your loan. Keep your eye on the prize while you’re paying down your loan. The goal is to get rid of your debt so that you can work toward other financial goals that are important to you. Pay the loan on time so that you can protect your credit health and avoid paying late fees.
List your debts and their interest rates. If you can’t get a lower interest rate on the new loan, it might not make sense.
Check with lenders that allow you to prequalify with a soft credit check. That means it won’t hurt your credit to find out what loan you might qualify for.
If you’re not sure which option might be best, get expert advice from a loan consultant who can help you weigh the pros and cons of each path.
Frequently asked questions
Is there credit card forgiveness?
Yes, but it’s usually only partial forgiveness. If you intended to repay your debts but genuinely can’t, your credit card issuers might be willing to reduce the amount you owe and forgive the rest. This is called debt resolution. You can negotiate with creditors yourself or let a professional debt resolution company work out an agreement for you.
If you can’t afford to repay any of your debt, you may need to talk to a bankruptcy attorney to find out if you qualify for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is the kind that lets you walk away from certain debts.
Does credit card debt consolidation hurt your credit score?
Credit card debt consolidation could both hurt and help your credit score. Any time you apply for a new loan, you’re likely to see your credit score drop by a few points. That’s normal, and it’s temporary.
But high credit card balances hurt your credit score a lot, and paying them off with an installment loan could cause your score to rise.
If I consolidate my credit cards, can I still use them?
You can still use your credit cards if you’ve consolidated your credit card debt, but it might not be a good idea. If you’re trying to get rid of debt, adding more is likely to slow down your progress.