Debt help: Where to find it, what to do

By Gina Freeman

Reviewed by Jill Cornfield

Feb 22, 2024

Read time: 8 min

Gen Z pregnant girl helping her friend to do her budget. Looking together through bills and household expenses for the month.

Key takeaways:

  • Debt help comes in a variety of solutions to debt problems—from mild to dire.

  • Effective programs include debt consolidation, DIY debt negotiation, debt management, professional debt resolution, and bankruptcy.

  • Many debt professionals, including credit counselors, debt consultants, and attorneys, offer free evaluations to help you find the right solution for your situation.

Reaching out for help with debt is a brave and proactive step, and it's one that speaks volumes about your determination to turn things around. Whether you're feeling the pinch on a tight budget or facing a more pressing financial crisis, acknowledging the need for help is the first step towards a better financial future. It's a sign of strength, not defeat, to seek guidance and explore the avenues available to you. 

There are many debt resources and solutions, each designed to fit different situations. Let’s explore them.

What are the different kinds of debt help?

Your best option for getting debt help generally depends on the type and severity of your debt problem. Some people just need better terms—like lower interest rates or more time to pay. Others may need more serious intervention. Reaching out for debt help is important because debt problems don’t solve themselves, and ignoring them tends to make the situation worse.

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Consolidate your debts

Debt consolidation means using a new loan with better terms to pay off more than one debt. (You can do this with a single debt as well, and then it’s called refinancing.) People generally consolidate debt to improve their interest rates, lower their payments, get rid of debts faster than by making minimum payments, or reduce the number of monthly payments they have to make.

You may be able to consolidate higher-interest debts, like credit card balances, with one of these strategies:

First, you must find a better loan than the one(s) you have. And second, you have to qualify for that new financing. This isn’t always a no-brainer:

  • If you’re maxed out, your credit standing may have suffered, making it more difficult to get approved for a debt consolidation loan.

  • If interest rates are higher, you may not be able to improve on the rate(s) you already have.

  • Home equity loans require you to own real estate with equity

  • Credit card minimum payments are set very low (that’s why it can take decades to clear credit card debt when paying only the minimums). However, consolidation loan payments are calculated to zero your balance in a shorter period. That means your monthly payments may be higher than what you were paying even if the interest rate is lower.

Finally, you must take care not to run up credit card balances again while you’re paying off a debt consolidation loan. It takes discipline to consolidate debt successfully.

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Negotiate your debts

You could try negotiating with your creditors on your own. Medical debt is a great example of debt that people often negotiate themselves. . 

Even people with healthy finances can be blindsided by unexpected costs like medical bills. However, many consumers pay less than the total balance of their hospital charges. In fact, an Urban Institute study found that hospitals:

  • Offered 36% of patients a payment plan

  • Negotiated with 15% of patients to lower their medical bills

  • Helped 12% of patients through a financial assistance program

  • Helped 6% of patients apply for Medicaid

Your healthcare providers may be open to negotiating medical debt if you can’t afford to pay the entire balance.

Other creditors may also negotiate if you have a qualifying financial hardship. Your chances could be even better if the creditor’s clear choice is to accept a partial payment right now or fight with you for months and possibly get nothing. According to Experian, medical providers and debt collection agencies may discount your balance by 20% to 70% if you can pay a lump sum. You may want to start low and come up if necessary. 

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Debt management plan (DMP)

Non-profit credit counseling agencies offer and administer debt management plans, aka DMPs. When you place unsecured debt accounts (like credit card balances) into a DMP, your credit counselor negotiates with your creditors to lower your interest rates and get fees waived. You make a single monthly payment into the plan and your counselor distributes it among your creditors. 

However, there are drawbacks. 

  • You must close any accounts included in a DMP, which could create a hardship. 

  • Your payments must fully clear your debt in no more than five years. That rule could make the plan's payments too high to be affordable. 

Professional debt resolution

If you can’t cover the payments for a debt management plan, professional debt resolution may be a more affordable option. Debt resolution companies offer help with unsecured debt—such as credit cards, personal loans, and medical debt. Expert negotiators work on your behalf to get your creditors to agree to resolve your debts for less than the full amount you owe. 

Professional debt resolution could help you get rid of debts faster than by making minimum payments. It’s private and takes place outside the courts. You may be able to reduce your total debt. You might also be able to free up some cash each month, since debt resolution program monthly contributions are often lower than the total of all your minimum monthly payments.

A debt resolution company can help answer all of your questions about how debt resolution works.

The steps in a professional debt resolution program typically include:

  • A free debt evaluation—analysis of your debt, income, and expenses to design an affordable plan. You’ll also be asked to state a financial hardship to show creditors why you deserve help. 

  • Build up funds—you make one monthly deposit into a dedicated account that you control. The funds build up in that account to pay for settlements with your creditors. 

  • Negotiations—expert negotiators work with your creditors to agree to reduce what you owe.

  • Approve offers—once an agreement has been reached with a creditor, you review and authorize each settlement offer. Then payments are sent to the creditor from your dedicated account.

  • Complete the program—once all the debts you included in the program go through these steps and are fully resolved, you’ll be free of the debt.

Reputable debt resolution companies may also provide additional support and services such as:

  • An online dashboard where you can keep tabs on the status of your program account and settlements

  • Educational tools and resources about debt and how to successfully manage it in the future

  • A guarantee—at Achieve, our goal is to reduce what you owe, so we offer a Program Guarantee. If your total program settlement cost and fees is more than your total enrolled debt, we’ll refund you the difference from our collected fees, up to 100%. Limitations apply.


Bankruptcy takes place in the bankruptcy court system, which makes it public. It’s also complex—over 90% of bankruptcy filers hire attorneys because it’s not easy or straightforward, and mistakes can get your case tossed out of court. People with attorneys are far more likely to have a successful outcome. 

There are two primary forms of bankruptcy for individuals: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 is mainly available to people with low incomes. Those who earn too much usually have to go with Chapter 13. 

Chapter 7 bankruptcy is sometimes called liquidation or clean slate bankruptcy. You may have to give up some of the things you own. Some of your property is covered by bankruptcy exemptions, which means you can keep them. 

The things you’re not allowed to keep are called non-exempt. They’ll be sold by a bankruptcy trustee, who then distributes the money to your creditors.  Examples of things you can keep are tools you need for your job, household goods, your retirement account, and some of the equity in your home. Examples of things that you probably can’t keep are a second home, expensive collectibles like a coin collection or expensive musical instruments, cash in a savings account, or a car that’s worth more than what your state allows. The type and value of things you can keep vary from state to state, so you’ll want to research bankruptcy exemptions where you live.

Once the creditors have been paid, a bankruptcy judge issues a discharge, which releases you from your debts. However, not all debts can be discharged in Chapter 7—things like student loan balances, past-due child support, car loans, and mortgages aren't usually wiped out. 

Chapter 13 bankruptcy is sometimes called the wage-earner’s bankruptcy. Instead of surrendering property to the court, you pay your disposable income (everything left after you cover basic living expenses) into a plan for up to five years. A bankruptcy trustee distributes your payments among your creditors. 

At the end of your plan, any remaining balances are forgiven. Chapter 13 has a much higher failure rate than Chapter 7, mainly because the payment amount is typically very high and people find it difficult to stick to a punishing budget for years.

How do you get help with your debt?

There are three things to remember when you need debt help: 

  • Don’t put it off. No debt problem ever gets better by being ignored, and many get worse.

  • Don’t make panicky decisions. You’re doing the right thing by educating yourself.

  • Make sure anyone you turn to for help is legit, and avoid scammers.

It’s important to vet any company or person you hire to help you with debt—whether it’s a debt consolidation lender, a non-profit credit counseling agency, a professional debt resolution company, or a bankruptcy attorney. 

These days, it’s not hard to get information from sites like TrustPilot or the Better Business Bureau. You can also check licensing sites for lenders and lawyers. Word of mouth is good if you know people who’ve experienced debt problems

What’s next?

It’s not hard to get free advice from debt help professionals. 

  • Gather your income, expense, and debt information.

  • Check your credit score for free to find out where you stand.

  • Research any services you’re considering to make sure they’re licensed and reputable.

  • Contact them, get your questions answered, and decide if the service and provider are right for you. Be ready to take notes when you make those calls.

Gina Freeman - Author

Gina Freeman has been covering personal finance topics for over 20 years. She loves helping consumers understand tough topics and make confident decisions. Her professional history includes mortgage lending, credit scoring, taxes, and bankruptcy. Gina has a BS in financial management from the University of Nevada.

Jill Cornfield

Jill is a personal finance editor at Achieve. For more than 10 years, she has been writing and editing helpful content on everything that touches a person’s finances, from Medicare to retirement plan rollovers to creating a spending budget.

Frequently asked questions

It depends on why you can’t make your payments and how long you think the problem will last. 

A short-term glitch may only require a call to your creditors. Explain the problem and ask if you can skip one or more payments. 

Bigger problems need bigger solutions. If your issue is long-term or permanent, contact a credit counselor, debt resolution specialist, or bankruptcy attorney for a free consultation and go from there.

The only government-administered debt forgiveness program for private (non-government) debt is bankruptcy. There may be special programs for certain government-backed debt like taxes or student loans, but those programs only apply in very limited circumstances.

Absolutely.  For instance, you might apply for a loan to consolidate your debt and reduce your payments. But if you don’t qualify for a debt consolidation loan, a DMP might work if you are willing and able to fully repay all of your debt. If that proves unaffordable, consider debt resolution. And if your creditors refuse to negotiate or you don’t like what they offer, you could talk to a bankruptcy lawyer.

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