CREDIT CARDS, student loans, car payments, mortgages. If you go through a box of checks like a flu victim goes through Kleenex, you may be a candidate for loan consolidation. You've got lots of options to choose from, whether it's taking a personal loan from your bank or credit union or rolling your credit-card balances to a low-rate card. The key is to reduce your interest rates — not just your monthly out-of-pocket costs.
These days, debt can be cheap and some credit-card companies are charging single-digit interest rates for their best customers. So if you're paying upwards of 15% on several credit cards, then consolidating your debt could save you a lot of cash. Our consolidation calculator will help you figure out just how much. Enter the current balance on your loans along with the interest charged, and you'll see how consolidation will affect your overall interest rate. (Of course, if you take this opportunity to reduce your principal payments, your new low-interest rate loan could end up costing you more than the old one.)
What Type of Loan Should You Get?
No matter what, stay away from debt-consolidation scams — you know, those e-mails you get promising to reduce your monthly payments even if you have bad credit. "With finance companies, you'll pay as much as 26% in interest and probably hurt your credit rating," says Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook." Furthermore, they will charge application and handling fees you wouldn't have to pay otherwise.
If your debt is only tied up in credit cards, then a much better option is to simply roll over your credit-card debt to a card with a lower interest rate. For the best deals, check out our credit-card rates page.
But if you're looking to consolidate different types of loans, or if you're looking for cheaper rates than those offered by credit-card companies, check to see if you qualify for a personal loan from your bank or credit union. These loans can be secured (backed by something you own) or unsecured, but with unsecured loans, "i's going to be difficult to qualify," warns Detweiler.
If you're a homeowner, consider a home equity loan. The interest on these loans is tax deductible, as long as your loan doesn't exceed the value of your house. Bankrate.com provides national averages as well as the best rates by state. Just bear in mind, if you default on your loan, you risk losing what is most likely your most valuable asset.
And finally, you could also consider borrowing against your 401(k) or other investments via a margin account. Borrowing on margin to pay off your debt can be cheap (most brokerages charge you slightly more than the broker call rate, which these days is 3.75%), but very risky, and we wouldn't recommend it. Why? Because if the market moves in a way you hadn't anticipated, then that loan could be called in — pronto.
A Final Note
Once you've found a loan that makes sense for you, be sure to use your new savings to pay down your principal. And, whatever you do, don't look at your zero-balance credit cards as an opportunity to indulge. Cancel those suckers instead!