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A debt management plan is overseen by a credit counseling agency, which negotiates with your creditors on your behalf to create new payment plans. Getting on a debt management plan (DMP) can make it easier to afford your debt payments and avoid the negative impacts of defaulting on loans or credit cards or declaring bankruptcy.
Before you initiate a debt management plan, it's important to understand how the process works, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of participating.
What Is a Debt Management Plan?
A debt management plan is a repayment plan set up and managed by a credit counseling agency. Credit counseling agencies are nonprofit organizations that offer education and assistance to help people better manage their finances. Under a debt management plan, a credit counselor negotiates with your creditors for you to create new payment plans.
Your creditors may waive fees and lower the interest rate on your accounts if you agree to repay the debt through a DMP. With many DMPs, the goal is to have your debts fully repaid within three to five years, which is easier to do when less interest accrues each month.
Once you start the DMP, you'll make a single monthly payment to the credit counseling agency, which will then pay your creditors on your behalf. The agency may also charge you a small monthly fee for the service, but your interest savings will likely cover the cost—and then some.
Generally, DMPs are only available on unsecured accounts, or those that aren't backed by collateral, such as credit cards and unsecured loans. You can pick and choose which accounts you want to include in your DMP, but you'll likely have to close the credit cards you choose to include in it.
What Are the Benefits of a Debt Management Plan?
Borrowers who are struggling with their bills may find a DMP a practical solution that offers relief from unaffordable debt payments. If you're feeling overwhelmed or your monthly payments aren't making a dent in your debt balance, a DMP can put you on a path to paying off your debts. Here are the primary benefits of working with a credit counselor and getting on a DMP.
Professional Advice and Support
You'll start with a financial counseling session where a counselor will go over your budget, debts, goals and options to help you determine the best course of action. Even if you don't go with a DMP, you may find this initial (often free) session helpful.
If you do choose a DMP, a credit counselor will create a plan for paying off the debt and will keep you accountable. Your credit counselor may also be able to offer support or referrals to help you manage other aspects of your finances. For example, some agencies offer budgeting, homebuying, student loan and bankruptcy workshops, and have trained counselors who can help you navigate all these circumstances.
Lower Payments and Waived Fees
The counselor can work with your creditors to waive previously charged fees and lower your monthly payments, helping you pay down your debts faster and freeing up room in your budget for other expenses.
The counselor may also be able to negotiate lower interest rates on your debts, which means a larger portion of your payment goes toward the principal balance, and you'll be out of debt sooner.
More Manageable Payments
You'll receive one monthly statement and send one monthly payment to the credit counseling agency. This can be much easier to manage than juggling bills from multiple creditors.
If you've fallen behind on payments, you might not be able to afford to pay your entire past-due balance—even if you can afford the monthly payment. As part of a DMP, your creditors may agree to update the account status to current, saving you on late fees, after you make several on-time payments through the DMP.
What Are the Disadvantages of a Debt Management Plan?
There are also potential drawbacks to getting on a DMP rather than a different type of debt consolidation or repayment program. Here's what to consider before taking the DMP route.
Certain Debts Are Ineligible
DMPs generally don't include secured loans, like mortgages and auto loans, and some types of unsecured loans, such as student loans. Counselors may be able to offer guidance on how best to repay these debts, but you'll generally need to manage the payments on your own.
You'll Pay Fees to the Credit Counseling Agency
You may need to pay an initial setup fee and a monthly fee to participate in a DMP. According to one nonprofit credit counseling organization, Money Management International, the average DMP setup fee in 2022 was $33 and the average monthly fee was $24 per month. Amounts vary depending on the counseling agency and state laws, and your financial situation may qualify you for waivers or accommodations.
Limited Access to Credit
You'll have to close any credit cards that you include in the DMP, which will diminish your access to credit while participating in the plan. Your creditors may also monitor your credit reports and require you to stop using credit cards that aren't part of the DMP during the program.
During the initial counseling session, the counselor can help you review your financial situation and determine which options are best. Sometimes, a debt consolidation loan or balance transfer credit card might make more sense.
Does a Debt Management Plan Affect Credit?
Working with a credit counselor or starting a DMP won't have a direct impact on your credit scores, though creditors may add a note to your credit report that you're using a DMP to pay the account. The DMP process can indirectly impact your credit in several ways:
- Potential for higher credit utilization: Your credit utilization ratio is the percentage of the total available credit on revolving accounts (such as credit cards) that you're currently using. A lower utilization ratio can have a positive effect on your credit scores. Closing credit cards can decrease your available credit and lead to a higher utilization ratio. The exact impact, however, will depend on your specific situation.
- More positive payment history: Bringing accounts current can help you build positive payment history, and payment history is the most important credit scoring factor. If your creditors agree to report your past-due accounts as current, your monthly DMP payment will result in on-time payments on all accounts included in your DMP. These can help increase the number of on-time payments on your credit report, in turn helping your credit scores.
- Accounts paid in full: A DMP can result in waived fees and lower interest rates, but you'll still be paying your accounts in full when you complete the DMP. This may be better for your credit than settling debts for less than the full amount.
When You Should Consider a Debt Management Plan
It's worth considering a debt management plan when you're feeling burdened by debt payments, your debts are eligible for a DMP and you're willing to take a break from using credit cards for the length of the program. A DMP is also a good choice for those who would benefit from having a professional guiding them through the debt payoff process.
A DMP is a less advantageous solution if your debts don't qualify—if they're car loans or student loans, for example—and if you're not ready to stop using credit cards. Additionally, if you have good credit, you may be better served by paying off credit card debt using a debt consolidation loan or balance transfer credit card.
Alternatives to a Debt Management Plan
Debt consolidation loans and balance transfer cards are just two of the potential alternatives to a debt management plan. Other options include paying off your debts without using a particular financial product, but rather according to a system such as the debt avalanche or debt snowball methods. Or, if you haven't made payments on a debt in a long time and a DMP isn't available to you, you may opt to negotiate down the debt using debt settlement. This can be problematic for your credit, but likely better than not paying the debt at all.
Finally, if you're truly overwhelmed by debt and unable to repay it in your current financial situation, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy are options. Chapter 7 bankruptcy gives you a clean slate and requires you to sell certain assets to get there. Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows you to repay debts on a plan that extends over three or five years.
The Bottom Line
A debt management plan isn't for everyone. You may find that you can pay off debt using do-it-yourself methods, or you may decide you need more help through a last-resort solution like bankruptcy.
But if you meet the DMP requirements and like the idea of support from a credit counselor, it could make a significant difference in your finances: less stress related to your debt, and more money for the goals you deserve to achieve.