Consolidating debt a good idea

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The agency should be organized, send payments and statements on time and offer strong consumer education and support. The payment is usually around 2.5 percent of the total debt, though in hardship situations, there is some wiggle room. Why consolidate bills if you can't pay for basic expenses or if there are better alternatives?

You can stop the plan at any time, and you can also pay more -- and get out of debt faster -- when you have extra funds. You wouldn't, which is the reason consolidation begins with a counseling appointment where your entire financial situation is assessed.

Debt consolidation is a third-party payment system. Agencies range in quality so make sure you shop around. Most debt consolidation plans are structured the same way. They ensure member agencies pass rigorous standards set forth by the Council on Accreditation or another approved third party, and that their counselors pass a comprehensive certification program. Financial institutions don't give preferential treatment to any one organization, nonprofit or otherwise.

However, if you just happen to have accounts with creditors that don't offer any concessions, that benefit is reduced. Look for a nonprofit credit counseling organization that belongs to either the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA).

Finally, commit to living within your means and prepare for life's inevitable financial emergencies.

If you need help getting out of debt, you are not alone.

Although signs show an upturn in the economy, many Americans are deep in debt, and not everyone can work overtime or a second job to pay down that debt.

That's where debt consolidation and other financial options come in.

When a counselor is knowledgeable and compassionate, these sessions can be enlightening and motivating. If he or she acts bored, judgmental or pushy, request a different counselor. First, the bulk of your balances should be in unsecured debts, such as credit and charge cards, personal loans and, sometimes, collection accounts.And third, you need to have just enough money for essential expenses, some savings and your debt. While you're on the plan, your payment remains constant.If you have too much cash left over, you're better off managing the accounts on your own. You never have to wonder how much you should be paying each month, as it will be the same amount until all creditors are satisfied.When one account is satisfied, the others receive a larger portion of your payment, which speeds up the repayment process. Those you owe will still be sending you account statements, which you'll have to monitor and send in.DMPs can also provide welcome respite from creditors calling about overdue accounts, as they generally stop when the plan begins. Agency reports do not reflect the interest that you're still being charged, so if you don't submit them, the balance the agency reports will be wildly different from what your bank statements say. One of the agreements you make when entering into a DMP is that you will close the accounts and not get any new ones until you are debt-free.

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