Debt management is one of several debt-relief options for those who are struggling to keep up with a growing pile of bills each month. When you sign up for a debt management plan, you pay a single company every month instead of all of your creditors individually. The debt management company then pays off your creditors for you, usually after negotiating lower interest rates and payments.
The Simple Dollar’s Top Picks for Debt Management Companies
If you’re already familiar with debt management and are ready to search for the best debt management companies, here is a sneak peek at the top companies revealed by my research:
Like all debt-relief methods, debt management plans might not be suited for everyone, so it’s important to fully understand debt management to determine whether it’s right for you. Start the process by using this guide. I’ll provide a detailed description of debt management, and a deeper analysis later in this post.
In this article, I’ll cover what debt management is, who might consider it, top alternatives to debt management, and how to avoid scams if you decide debt management is right for you.
What Is Debt Management?
Though it’s easy to confuse debt management and debt consolidation, there is a crucial difference: Debt consolidation is something you can do yourself by taking out a new loan that lets you pay off your creditors directly.
But when you enter a debt management plan, you’re authorizing a company (usually a nonprofit) to pay your creditors on your behalf. You deposit money into an account managed by the debt management company, which then uses the funds to pay your creditors over a set period of time, most often three to five years.
The debt-management company typically negotiates lower monthly payments, lower interest rates, or some combination of the two. Unlike debt settlement plans, debt management plans typically do not reduce the total principal you owe on your debt.
Who might consider debt management?
Before you even consider debt management, you need to have the right type of debt. Debt management is typically a viable option only for unsecured debt. That’s debt from credit cards, medical bills, or other debts that don’t involve collateral. Some companies may accept limited types of secured debt, however.
Your mortgage and car loan are examples of secured debts, or those that do involve collateral. When you don’t pay secured debts like these, your creditor can take your home or car to help settle your debt. Note that student loan debt, though unsecured, is often ineligible for debt management plans except in rare cases.
How can debt management help me?
If you’re barely keeping your head above water with debt payments every month, a debt management company may be able to give you a bit of breathing room. That’s because they’ll attempt to negotiate lower interest rates, lower monthly payments, or both.
A related perk: Signing up for a debt management plan can (but doesn’t always) stop harassing calls from creditors, and leaves you less vulnerable to late fees, assuming your debt management company pays your bills on time on your behalf.
Another big benefit of debt management: It’s much easier to stay organized when you’re paying just one bill to the debt management company itself. This is especially important if you’re racking up late charges and adding to your debt because you can’t keep track of several bills with different due dates.
Everyone’s situation will be different, but let’s look at an example of the kind of savings you might expect with a debt management program. Let’s say you have $20,000 in credit card debt at an average interest rate of 21%. You would have to pay $800 a month just to keep up with a minimum-payment requirement of 4% of your balance.
If you were able to manage this payment — and not add anything else to your debt load — you could be debt-free in just shy of three years, ultimately paying interest of $6,533.
Of course, $800 a month in credit-card bills is a lot to handle, which is where debt management comes in. One of the companies I profile further down, InCharge, can help reduce interest rates by an average of 6% to 9%. Assuming the best scenario (a 9% interest rate drop) and a four-year plan, your monthly payment could shrink to $576 (this includes a monthly fee of $49, which could be lower or dropped completely, depending on your situation) and your total interest paid would shrink to $5,276.
What do I need to watch out for with debt management?
Despite its potential upsides, debt management has cons that demand serious consideration.
First, it can be difficult to complete a debt management program. You’ll lose a large measure of financial freedom — most programs will require you to close all of your credit accounts and refrain from opening new ones. You may be allowed to keep one creditor outside of your debt management plan for emergencies, but if you abuse the privilege, you’ll just dig a deeper hole of debt.
Note that most debt management plans take three to five years to complete, and half of enrollees — possibly many more — don’t even finish. However, if you know you simply don’t have the discipline to avoid acquiring more debt by yourself, this “loss of freedom” may actually be helpful.
With debt management, you’re also paying for something you can do yourself. Even if you have tarnished credit, you may be able to get a debt consolidation loan yourself and pay off your debt without the aid of a debt management company. You can also try to negotiate lower interest rates and payments with your creditors on your own. But either solution would require more self-control than debt management, since the burden would be completely on you to stop acquiring new debt.
Finally, you should know there’s a chance your credit can still suffer. Technically, entering a debt management plan shouldn’t hurt your credit score. But if your debt management company ever misses a payment on your behalf, your score will take a hit. Also, prospective lenders may shy away from making loans if they see a notation on your credit report that you’re in a debt management program.
Is Debt Management For Me? What Alternatives Are There?
Ultimately, experts warn that you shouldn’t consider a debt management plan unless you’re truly struggling to make minimum payments on your debts each month and are ready to turn over a new leaf with your spending habits. You should be largely willing to cede control of your situation to the debt management company for several years.
If debt management doesn’t seem quite right for your situation, there are several other debt relief options. I start with the least drastic option, credit counseling, and end with what most may agree is the most drastic: bankruptcy. Of course, all of these methods have their own pros and cons, and only you can decide whether they are better or worse for your situation.
Counselors working on behalf of reputable nonprofit credit counseling agencies can help you create a plan to better manage your money and budget for debt payments. If you’re considering debt management, you may be required to have a credit counseling session before you enroll.
Credit counselors simply help you form a plan that you can implement on your own — they don’t reduce your debt or alter your payments or interest rates for you.
However, they can give you some do-it-yourself tips, and you won’t be taking on the risks of more drastic options. For those reasons, credit counseling could be a good first option for anyone struggling to keep up with their debt, even if it’s not required.
Debt Consolidation Loans
When you take out a debt consolidation loan, you use it to pay off your creditors. You then pay a single bill to one lender, typically with a lower interest rate than your previous debts.
Debt consolidation loans usually come in the form of an unsecured personal loan from a bank, a credit union, or an online lender. Credit cards with low interest rates may be another option. Those with very bad credit may turn to secured loans such as home-equity loans that use their assets as collateral in case of default.
But the lower payments make it easier to get into trouble again with more overspending, and you may end up paying a lot more over the life of your consolidated loan because of a longer payment term. If you want to learn more about debt consolidation, see my separate post on the Best Debt Consolidation Loans.
As I mentioned above, debt management doesn’t actually reduce your loan principals — just your interest rates and monthly payment. Debt settlement can actually reduce the principal on the amount you owe.
When you sign up with a debt settlement company, you’ll begin contributing to a special account. Once it reaches a certain level, the company will reach out to your creditors in hopes that they’ll accept a lump sum that’s less than what you actually owe. After that sum is paid, you’re no longer indebted to the creditor.
How long it takes largely depends on how quickly you can save enough to begin negotiations, but most companies allow two to four years for the process.
Settlement has big risks, though, including steep fees (15% to 20% of what the company is able to save you is typical). You may also sustain damage to your credit score and receive harassing calls from creditors while you’re saving up for the program. You’ll also have to pay taxes on forgiven debt. Most debt settlement companies are for-profit companies, while most debt management companies are nonprofits.
If you want to learn more, see my separate post on debt settlement companies. Ultimately, though, debt settlement is best viewed as an option of last resort.
For most people, bankruptcy is the nuclear option. The negative implications of bankruptcy can certainly be severe, including a massive impact on your credit. It’s possible for debt management to hurt your credit, but not nearly as much as bankruptcy.
One thing to consider: If you’re eligible for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the process can be over fairly quickly and with reasonable certainty that your unsecured debts will be forgiven. Debt management, on the other hand, is more of a question mark. The process can take years, and many people who start debt management plans ultimately drop out and may have to consider bankruptcy anyway.
There is no one-size-fits-all-answer to whether debt management or bankruptcy is better, but you have nothing to lose by investigating both options, preferably with the guidance of an unbiased expert.
The Best Debt Management Companies
If you’ve reviewed your options and decided a debt management program is the way to go, the following three companies would be worth investigating. Read on to find out why:
Cambridge Credit Counseling
Cambridge Credit Counseling shines because of their extreme transparency, which is rare in an industry rife with vague, confusing claims.
The company is clear about average fees ($40 for setup and $25 monthly, not to exceed $75 and $50, respectively) as well as average interest-rate and payment reductions on its website. They also publish detailed “transparency reports” that include debt management dropout rates, savings rates, and client satisfaction rates tracked over several years.
Cambridge is accredited with several organizations, including the BBB, ISO and AICCCA. They’re also accredited in 47 states.
Who’s it best for? Anyone who doesn’t like surprises will appreciate Cambridge. The clear FAQs include questions any prospective client would want answered (for example: “How will the program affect my credit rating?”) and there are a lot of financial basics, including budget worksheets and a debt payoff calculator. Cambridge is also willing to work with limited kinds of secured debt.
Who should steer clear? Established in 1996, Cambridge hasn’t been around quite as long as some of its competitors. If you put stock on longevity, that’s something to consider. And while it’s informative, the website lacks polish and may not inspire confidence in some prospective clients.
GreenPath Debt Solutions
GreenPath Debt Solutions has longevity on their side: They began as a financial education provider in 1961, gradually progressing into housing counseling in the late ’60s, and credit counseling in the ’70s. GreenPath is accredited by the BBB with A+ rating; other certifications include the COA, NFCC, and AICCCA. Services are available nationwide.
They also have a wider range of customer-friendly features than the average debt management company. These include a clear, intuitively designed website, online chat, Saturday credit counseling hours, and dozens of branches nationwide for those who want to do business face to face. Fees range from $0 to $50 for setup, and $0 to $75 monthly, depending on your state.
Who’s it best for? Face-to-face counseling isn’t an option with all debt management companies, but it is with GreenPath. The company has offices in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. If you want a personal touch, the company could be worth a look. It’s also willing to include some secured debt in the debt management program.
Who should steer clear? If you’re on a tight budget, it’s worth noting that monthly fees could be capped at a lower amount. The website’s FAQs on debt management are also uniformly positive about debt management, providing little insight into potential risks of such a program.
InCharge Debt Solutions
InCharge Debt Solutions boasts one of the most polished websites of the companies I evaluated. The company’s debt management FAQs and financial education resources are very thorough. They are clear about fees ($50 to enroll and $49 monthly). They are also among the few companies that give you an idea of how much your interest rates might drop under a debt management plan (6% to 9%). InCharge is accredited by the BBB with A+ rating; other certifications include the NFCC and COA.
Who’s it best for? If you can’t part with your smartphone, InCharge has a mobile app that lets you manage your account on the go. You can add creditors, change payment due dates, and even see whether creditors have accepted proposals regarding reduced monthly payments or interest rates. They even have a fully online credit counseling option if you prefer that over phone or in-person counseling.
Who should steer clear? Established in 1997, this is a newer company. It will also work only with unsecured debt.
Apprisen shines with a low-fee guarantee (never more than $35 for setup and $35 monthly), service in all 50 states, online chat, a mobile app for account management, and 40 branches in 10 states. Founded in 1955, they claim to be the “oldest nonprofit credit counseling organization in the country” and are accredited by the BBB, NFCC, and COA. Despite their many positives, I would have liked to see more thorough descriptions and FAQs regarding their debt management plan.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, American Consumer Credit Counseling is impressively detailed with their FAQs and discussion of debt management. They offer a debt management calculator that allows potential clients to input their creditors and outstanding balances to get an idea of the savings they may realize. Established in 1991, the company does business in all 50 states and is accredited by the BBB, AICCCA, and ISO. Their fees are also low ($39 to enroll, and from $5 to $35 monthly). However, they will only deal with unsecured debt, and the site pushes the debt management plan a bit more heavily than other competitors.
ClearPoint Credit Counseling has been in business for 50 years, and their wide range of educational offerings includes “ClearPoint U,” a series of free, on-demand online courses on personal finance topics. The company has 50 branches across the U.S. and is accredited by the BBB, NFCC, and COA. Their website is polished and easy to navigate, but is a bit less transparent about fees and potential reductions in interest rates than their competitors.
How I Chose the Best Debt Management Companies
Like all debt relief companies, the best debt management companies are transparent about their fees, plans, and credentials. They recognize that debt management can be confusing and offer clear websites and a number of customer service options. Here are all of the factors I considered:
- Nonprofit: While being a nonprofit is no guarantee that a debt-management company will charge lower fees or operate more ethically than a for-profit company, there are additional layers of oversight for nonprofits that can boost an organization’s credibility over its for-profit counterparts.
- Accreditation: The top debt-management companies are accredited by organizations including the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA), Council on Accreditation (COA), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
- Longevity: Companies that have been in business longer have more of a reputation to uphold and less incentive to engage in shady business practices.
- A clear, comprehensive, transparent website: You’ll probably have dozens of questions about debt management plans. The best debt management companies provide clear descriptions of their services and fees as well as extensive FAQs.
- Low fees: The best debt management companies keep their fees low relative to the competition. Though debt management fees are capped by state regulations, the best companies may choose to charge less than they’re allowed, and may not charge at all in the case of extreme financial hardship.
- A variety of debts: Nearly all debt management plans can include unsecured debt including credit-card debt and medical bills, for example. The best companies are also willing to include certain types of secured debt (loans associated with collateral) in your plan, even if they can’t negotiate reduced interest rates or payments.
- Extensive customer support: It should be easy to get in touch with company representatives via phone and email. Online chat is a nice bonus. Free credit consultations are standard among debt management companies. They should also allow online account management and have credit counselors available during weekends.
- Extensive educational offerings on personal finance: The top debt management companies want to educate their clients with a thorough variety of educational articles, videos, debt calculators, online classes, and other information.
Avoiding Debt Management Scams
The companies I’ve highlighted above are reputable, but if you’re considering a debt management plan, remember to keep your guard up. While there are many reputable providers, unscrupulous companies target people seeking any form of debt relief, including debt management. Here are some red flags:
- You should be the one to initiate contact. Shady debt-relief companies are more likely to aggressively search for and hound potential clients.
- Credit counseling should come first. You should have a thorough credit counseling session to review your options before signing up for a debt management program, and your counselor should not pressure you into any program.
- Be wary of guarantees. Legitimate debt management companies simply can’t guarantee that they’ll be able to reduce your interest rates or payments a certain amount.
- Do your homework. Double-check a company’s nonprofit status with the IRS. Look at the company’s Better Business Bureau rating and any other online reviews you can find. Almost every company will generate complaints, but some will generate far more than others.
- Fees should be reasonable and clearly disclosed. Fees for debt-management programs are capped according to state law, but generally shouldn’t exceed an initial fee of $75 and a monthly fee of $50. Most reputable nonprofits can reduce or waive fees for those who cannot pay the full amount.
- Get everything in writing. You’ll need to know details including exactly how much your monthly payment will be, when it’s due, what fees you’ll be paying, how long your plan will last, and what debts are included in your plan.
Debt management plans can be a useful tool, but only if you’re disciplined enough to chip away at your debt over the long term. The best debt management companies will make sure you know exactly what debts will be included in your plan, what you’ll be paying, and what habits you’ll need to change long-term to avoid being buried in debt again.
Above all else, you should be comfortable that the company you choose is transparent, well established, and committed to your financial health — not just collecting your fees. If you’re uncertain where to begin, the companies I profiled above are worth a look. Good luck!