Dear Penny: We have bad credit. Is there any hope for a debt consolidation loan?

Here are some things to think about.
Bad credit? Maybe you need a debt consolidation loan. Maybe you don't. (Getty Images)
Bad credit? Maybe you need a debt consolidation loan. Maybe you don't. (Getty Images)
Published May 6
Updated May 6

Dear Penny,

We have credit scores in the 500s, and we are being declined for loans to consolidate our debt to improve our credit.

We understand the importance of improving our credit scores and are frustrated that the debt consolidation we have been advised to apply for is not working out — no approvals. Who can we turn to for a loan?

-D.

Dear D.,

When you have a smorgasbord of debts, life feels like a juggling act. So many due dates, so many interest rates, so many terms and conditions to keep track of.

Then you see the claims in the ads for debt collection loans. Get rid of high-interest credit card debt today! One low monthly payment!

It sounds like a magic little pill that will cure all your financial ailments, right? If only it were that simple.

Unfortunately — as you’ve learned — the people who could benefit most from a debt consolidation loan often don’t qualify. Most lenders require a credit score of at least 620.

You could try applying through a credit union, though membership is required. Unlike big banks, credit unions tend to look beyond your credit score at your overall financial health when you’re seeking a loan.

You can also use websites like Credible, Even Financial or Fiona to shop around for loans. (No, none of them paid me to say that.) But keep in mind that many of the lenders these sites partner with will also require a credit score in the 600s.

While you might be able to consolidate with a lower credit score, you’ll often pay astronomical interest rates — sometimes as much as 30% — which kind of makes the cure as bad as the disease.

But here’s the thing about debt consolidation: Often the benefit is more psychological than mathematical. Sure, life would be a lot simpler with a single monthly payment, but if you can’t lock in a lower interest rate, debt consolidation won’t save you money.

You say you want to consolidate to improve your credit score. If you have enough money to make at least your minimum payments, you’ll gradually see your score increase as you make on-time payments and lower the percentage of your credit you’re using.

Consider speaking with a credit counselor, especially if you can’t afford your minimum payments. The world of debt relief is rife with scammers, so make sure any counselor or organization you work with is a nonprofit that’s accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

A credit counselor will help you figure out how to manage your money and debts. The counselor may work out a debt management plan where you make a single payment each month to the counseling organization, which will pay your debts on your behalf. They might be able to lower your monthly payments by negotiating lower interest rates or a longer repayment period, though they generally won’t be able to reduce what you owe.

Avoid companies that offer to work out a debt settlement plan, in which you’ll stop making payments so the company can negotiate to reduce your debt. Not only will these plans kill your credit, but you’ll also owe taxes on the amount that’s forgiven.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re deep in debt and low on options for rebuilding your credit. But keep in mind that while a debt consolidation loan might improve your credit somewhat in the short term, it won’t fix the underlying causes of your debt.

Building good credit doesn’t happen quickly. You have to figure out a way not to rely on credit, and to spend less than you make. It requires discipline and a commitment to financial health. And there’s no magic pill for that.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind Dear Penny. If you have a question about debt, write [email protected] and you might see your question answered in an upcoming column.

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