Cost & Fees
Best Debt Settlement Companies
Why Use a Debt Settlement Service?
We’ve been reviewing debt settlement for seven years. For our most recent update we spent 80 hours researching the industry and reviewing individual companies. We spent another 20 hours interviewing these debt relief companies and conducting secret-shopper-style customer calls. All of the companies we included are transparent and upfront with customers about the risks associated with these programs and follow FTC regulations that prohibit advance fees.
Best Overall-National Debt Relief
Based on our research and experience speaking with its representatives, National Debt Relief is our choice for the best debt settlement program. It can reduce debt by up to 49 percent, and its fees are within the normal range of 15 to 20 percent. National Debt Relief is available in 41 states, making it one of the most widespread debt settlement companies.
The representatives we spoke to were quick to reply and thoroughly explained the entire program to our secret shoppers. National Debt Relief provides all the forms necessary to notify your creditors you’ve entered a hardship program and gives you access to a client dashboard where you can view updates on how your settlement is proceeding. The service has well regarded customer service, though it doesn’t provide you with a single contact – you speak to any available customer service agent. However, this means you don’t have to wait as long to speak with someone.
National Debt Relief is admirably transparent about the risks associated with entering a settlement program. During your first call, it makes recommendations based on your financial situation and in some cases recommends you contact a credit counseling company or get a debt consolidation loan.
Read our full review: National Debt Relief
- Available in 41 states
- Fees as low as 15 percent of settled debt
- No personalized customer service
- Programs can last up to 48 months
Best Customer Service-Freedom Debt Relief
If you value customer service most, Freedom Debt Relief is a good choice, as its customer service is highly regarded in the industry. Customers get quick responses to calls and emails, and company representatives undergo three months of training before taking calls. Once you join, you get access to a dashboard that lets you track your settlement’s progress, see how much you’ve deposited, and access useful budgeting and financial tools. Freedom’s dashboard is one of the best we saw, and it gives you priority access to customer service in case you have an urgent question.
Freedom has nationally recognized customer service, with fast response times and a high NPS score (a measure used to grade customer service). One thing to note is Freedom doesn’t give you a dedicated point of contact – you speak to any available agent if you have questions.
Freedom’s settlement programs compare well with the industry. It claims an average debt reduction of 45 percent and charges fees around 15 to 25 percent of the settled amount, both of which are average for the industry. Freedom’s services are available in 32 states, and its programs last between 24 and 48 months.
Read our full review: Freedom Debt Relief
- Highly rated customer service
- Dashboard makes it easy to track progress
- No dedicated account rep
- Lower debt reduction than some services
Best Personalized Service-New Era Debt Solutions
You may want a debt settlement service that takes a more personalized approach, and for that we recommend New Era Debt Solutions. This company assigns each customer a dedicated account representative. Your account rep updates you when a settlement is reached with one of your creditors and is on hand to answer any questions. While having a dedicated rep can be an advantage, at times you may have to wait to speak to your rep or there may be a delay in hearing back from them.
We found the customer service reps we spoke to were transparent and helpful, offering a variety of debt solutions and not just the company’s settlement plans. They also explained the ramifications of starting a debt settlement program, including potential impacts to your credit reports.
New Era is one of the most widespread debt settlement companies, with services in 43 states. Programs range from 28 to 48 months, and New Era says it tends to settle around 47 percent of the enrolled debt amount. Fees are slightly lower than the industry average – around 14 to 20 percent of the enrolled debt.
Read our full review: New Era Debt Solutions
- Personalized customer service
- Fees lower than industry average
- May have longer wait times for customer service
- Longer program lengths
Best Flat-Fee Settlement-Guardian Debt Relief
Fees on settlement plans vary widely depending on where you live and which debts are settled. To eliminate uncertainty, you can use Guardian Debt Relief, which charges a flat 20 percent on all settled debt. Companies in this industry charge 15 percent on the low end of the range and 25 percent on the high end, making Guardian one of the more reasonably priced debt settlement programs. Also, there’s some peace of mind in knowing exactly how much you’ll pay if your debts are settled, and it gives you added flexibility as you make payments into the program.
Guardian is one of the smaller settlement firms we reviewed, offering plans in only 17 states. Still, it has good customer service, though it took longer than other companies to get back to us. Guardian assigns you a dedicated point of contact who always works on your program – a plus if you like personalized service.
Read our full review: Guardian Debt Relief
- Charges a flat 20 percent on all settled debt
- Only available in 17 states
Best for Quick Service-Pacific Debt Relief
Pacific Debt Inc. had the quickest customer service response times we saw, making it a good option if you value speedy service. Every time we sent an email or left a message, we got a prompt reply within an hour or two. However, we noticed its agents weren't as thorough in explaining the specifics of debt settlement plans as reps from other companies.
Pacific Debt Inc settlement plans have industry-standard lengths and fees. It claims to be able to settle for as much as 50 percent of the debt enrolled, which is a little higher than most programs. The service operates in 32 states.
Read our full review: Pacific Debt Inc
- Quick response times.
- May not explain the program thoroughly.
What Is Debt Settlement?
By entering a debt settlement program, you agree to have the debt settlement company negotiate with creditors on your behalf. As part of this program, you’ll stop making payments to your creditors and begin making one monthly payment into an account set up by the settlement company. You have to stop making payments because companies only settle delinquent debt.
After a certain amount of time has passed – usually six months, but it depends on how much you owe and who you owe it to – the settlement company will begin negotiating with your creditors on your behalf.
The FTC regulates debt settlement companies and restricts certain actions. Debt settlement companies cannot charge fees in advance. All fees must be taken as a percentage of the settled debt. Additional rules stipulate that any dedicated accounts created as part of a settlement plan must be owned by you, and you can withdraw funds from that account anytime. If you want to learn more about these regulations, the FTC provides information on its website.
Debt Settlement Pros and Cons
Before entering a debt settlement program, you’ll want to weigh some of the drawbacks and advantages.
- It can lower the amount you owe: This is the main motivation for debt settlement. If you’ve amassed a large amount of debt, entering a settlement program has the potential to cut that amount by 40 percent or more. For example, if you have $30,000 in debt, a successful settlement program can cut the amount you owe to as little as $16,000 before fees.
- It can lower your monthly payments: When you enter a debt settlement program, you’ll begin making payments into a new account set up by the settlement company. This often has a side effect of lowering your total monthly payments, which can be helpful if you’ve been overextending yourself month over month.
- It can harm your credit: The biggest drawback to entering debt settlement is the impact on your credit. Because you stop making payments to your creditors, your accounts will go delinquent, which shows up on your credit report and can remain for up to seven years after. After settling, the creditor will update that debt’s status as being “settled.” Depending on your credit score at the beginning of the process, your score can fall 45 to 150 points.
- Your forgiven debt is taxable: The government considers forgiven debt to be income and taxes it at your normal tax rate, which varies depending on how much income you’ve earned. Once a creditor has settled a debt, you’ll receive a 1099-C cancellation of debt tax notice. You’ll put this into your return as other income. There are some exceptions, including some student loans, but generally unsecured debt included in debt settlement programs isn’t eligible
How Does a Debt Settlement Program Work?
A debt settlement program can take between two and four years. It’s a long process with many steps. Here’s a breakdown of the entire process.
- Initial consultation: When you call a debt settlement company, you’ll speak to an IAPDA certified debt specialist. They’ll go over your debt situation – whether you’re current on your payments, how much debt you have and how much you’re paying each month. Often they’ll do a soft pull on your credit to look at your individual creditors and how much you owe each of them.
- Sign up and enroll: After you’ve agreed to start a program, the settlement company will evaluate your finances and figure out how much you can afford to put toward the program each month.
- Stop paying creditors and make deposits: For a debt settlement plan to be effective, you’ll need to stop paying your creditors and deposit funds into the escrow account set up by the settlement company. These are the funds that will make up the settlement offers the debt relief company will make to your creditors.
- Settlement company begins negotiations: After about six months the settlement company will begin negotiating with your creditors. They’ll make settlement offers and notify you if a settlement offer is accepted. The best settlement companies offer client portals that allow you to track your funds and settlement offers.
- Pay the creditors (and the settlement companies): Once your offer is accepted you’ll transfer the money from your account to your creditors. You’ll also pay the settlement company. Since 2010 the settlement industry has moved away from advance fees. You’ll pay a certain percentage of the debt they successfully settle. The amount varies depending on the state you live in, since some states have caps on the percentage they can charge.
What Does Debt Settlement Cost?
The fee you pay a debt relief company is a percentage of the debt you want it to settle for you. Some states put caps on that percentage, but in general we saw a range of 15 to 20 percent.
One thing to note is that this is on top of what you pay your creditors. For example, if you settle $30,000 of debt for around $12,000 and the debt settlement company takes a fee of 20 percent on that debt, you’ll pay an additional $6,000 to the settlement company. So instead of saving 60 percent of your total debt, you’ll save 40 percent. It can still be worthwhile, but make sure to include the fees in your savings projections.
Another thing to keep in mind is that your debts are going to continue to accrue interest. It’s likely that because you stop making payments, you’ll be assessed late fees and penalty interest rates. In our interviews with debt settlement companies, they assured us that your monthly payment accounts for penalty rates and late fees.
In some cases they may be able to reach a settlement before you have enough to pay the settlement company’s fees. The settlement companies we interviewed all offer flexibility in these situations, letting you divide your payment into monthly installments.
Other Options: Credit Counseling, Debt Management, Debt Consolidation, Bankruptcy
Debt settlement is only one of many options for managing debt when it gets out of hand. The best debt settlement companies will recommend the ideal option for you. Several of the programs we reviewed partner with credit counselors, and some offer debt consolidation loans.
Credit Counseling: In some cases you may not meet the debt requirements to enroll in a settlement plan. If you don’t meet the minimum debt amount, you’ll be referred to a credit counseling agency. These are non-profits that can give you guidance on budgeting or enroll you in a debt management plan. In a debt management plan the credit counselors will negotiate a reduction on interest rates and fees with your creditors. These take longer than a debt settlement plan, typically five to seven years, and can also be detrimental to your credit score.
Debt Consolidation Loan: While debt settlement and debt consolidation are used interchangeably by many in this industry, an actual debt consolidation loan is different from a debt settlement plan. With a debt consolidation loan you get a loan to pay off your creditors and then only make payments to one lender, usually a bank or a credit union, though a few of the settlement companies in our review have a separate division that offers debt consolidation loans.
A debt consolidation loan has more stringent requirements than a debt settlement program. You may need to meet income requirements or have a certain debt-to-income ratio. You may also need to provide collateral, such as home equity, to be eligible.
Bankruptcy: This is the final resort for managing your debt. Bankruptcy is a legal process that can allow you to get rid of your debt. Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which has strict income requirements, can liquidate all your debt, though some of your assets will be sold to pay it off. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy requires you to work with your creditors to create a payment plan. Bankruptcy is very damaging to your credit score and can impact your future eligibility for loans and lines of credit. A bankruptcy will stay on your credit report for seven to 10 years and can reduce your score by up to 200 points.
How to Settle Debt Yourself
You can settle debt yourself, without the assistance of a debt settlement company. In fact, some creditors refuse to work with settlement companies. However, it can be time-consuming to negotiate for yourself and may not be the best option if you have a lot of creditors to settle with.
DIY debt settlement follows a similar process to settling with the help of a company. You stop making payments and start saving up with the goal of making a discounted payment on your entire debt amount. To settle your debt, you need to be at least 90-days delinquent on your payments. The longer you’ve missed payments, the more likely your creditors will settle. After five months, your creditors will send your debt to collections agencies, which may make them more willing to settle with you.
Creditors typically prefer lump-sum payments, though in some cases you may be able to negotiate a reduced-cost payment plan. Also, it may be easier to negotiate a settlement if you’ve had a hardship like losing your job or a medical problem that keeps you from making regular payments. Here are some other tips for negotiating your own debt settlement.
Another reason to negotiate your own settlement is you won’t have to pay fees to a settlement company. Debt settlement companies take 15 to 25 percent of the amount you settle – if you use a company and settle for $10,000, you’ll also pay up to $2,500 in fees.
No matter how you settle your debt, it will hurt your credit. Late payments show up on your report no matter what you do, but when you negotiate, try to get your creditors to mark your debt as “Paid as Agreed” rather than “Settled.”
Is a Debt Consolidation Loan a Good Option?
Another common option for dealing with debt is a debt consolidation loan. This is a personal loan you use to pay off your existing debt. By combining all your debts into one loan, you only have one monthly payment and one interest rate. You can find a debt consolidation loan through a bank or another lender. Many debt settlement companies also offer debt consolidation loans or work with third parties if they find a consolidation loan is the best option for you.
To be eligible for a consolidation loan, you need good credit. Lenders won’t approve loans if you have a score below 630, and you typically need a score of 720 or above to qualify for the best rates. Rates usually range from 13% to 30%, though you’ll end up saving some money since you only pay interest on one loan.
If you have poor credit and are worried you may not be approved for a loan, you can try to find someone to co-sign with you. Getting a co-signer increases the likelihood of getting approved, and if they have good credit, your loan will have a better rate. Keep in mind that a co-signer is also responsible for your loan, so if you miss payments, it affects their credit.
Another option for debt consolidation is a balance transfer credit card. Like a loan, you move existing balances onto one card with a single interest rate. As a bonus, the balance transfer card acts as a credit card you can use for emergencies. Keep an eye on balance transfer fees, which can be as much as 5%. Some cards only let you transfer a certain percent of the card’s balance, which can include fees.
Warning Signs You Might Have a Debt Problem
Credit and debt are useful, often necessary, tools to help you pay for things you may not otherwise be able to afford such as college, a home and other large purchases. However, debt can get out of hand, to the detriment of your finances. Here are some ways to spot a debt problem:
You Don’t Have Any Savings: Your inability to build an emergency fund may be directly linked to your debt. If all your extra money goes to pay off debts, you can’t save, which likely leaves you accumulating more debt if you do have an emergency.
You Only Make Minimum Payments: Having many debts or otherwise pinched finances can keep you from making more than the bare minimum monthly payments. This may keep you afloat in the short term, but it means it will take longer to pay off your debts because interest will continue to accrue and add to the amount you owe.
You Use Credit Cards to Tide You Over: Another sign your debts are becoming a problem is you use your credit cards to survive until you get your next paycheck. Budgeting can help you stretch your money so you don’t have to use your credit cards.
You Use Cash Advances: Taking a cash advance from you credit card to pay another bill is a sure sign your debts are becoming a problem. Cash advances only add to your problem, with fees and added interest rates.
You’re Late on Payments: This is the biggest red flag. Missing a payment on one or more bills means you’ve reached a breaking point with your debt, and you may need to look for ways to lighten your load.
Debt Snowball vs. Debt Avalanche: Strategies to Manage Your Debt
Before signing up for a debt settlement plan, take stock of your debt and finances – you may be able to dig yourself out of the hole your debts have created on your own. There are several strategies for paying off debt, and the two most common are the debt snowball method and debt avalanche method.
The debt snowball method was popularized by Dave Ramsey. With this strategy, you first list your debts from smallest to largest. You then pay as much as you can on the smallest debt while making minimum payments on the rest. You pay off the smallest debt first and then continue on through your larger debts. As you pay off each successive debt, you have more money to make larger payments on the next smallest debt.
The debt avalanche method is similar to the debt snowball method, but instead of looking at the each debt’s balance, you look at its interest rate. You make larger payments on the debt with the highest interest rate while making minimum payments on all your other debts. The idea behind this strategy is that high rates cost you more over the life of the loan, so paying high interest debts down first saves you money in the long term.
Experts disagree about which of these methods is best. Studies have shown that there is a psychological effect to paying off debts that helps those using the snowball method keep at it. Most experts note that the avalanche method is more cost effective, since the snowball method can result in high interest debts continuing to accrue.
How Do Different Debt-Relief Methods Affect Credit Scores?
There are many ways to manage your debt. However, many methods affect your credit score, some more adversely than others. If your debt load is out of control, your credit score may be the least of your worries. Still, it's good to consider what your score may look like after you take care of your debts.
Using a home equity loan or a personal loan to consolidate your debts has the least impact on your credit. You use the money you borrow to pay off your old debts and then just make payments on the new loan. Personal and home equity loans tend to have a neutral or positive effect on your credit. However, if income problems caused your debt, you may continue to struggle with your new loan.
If you opt to pay down your debt by making minimum payments, you may see a minor negative impact on your credit. You’ll continue getting credit for making on-time payments, but your score also factors in the amount of credit you utilize. As such, static or growing balances could lower your score. In addition, only making minimum payments is more expensive in the long run, since interest accrues and further increases your balances.
Opting for a debt settlement program may be a better option. This type of program allows you to pay off your debt for a reduced amount. To go this route, you need to stop making payments, which can lower your credit score by as much as 100 points. Once the debt relief company you hire settles your debts, they’ll be marked as “settled” on you credit report, which may affect your likelihood of being approved for credit in the future. Settled debt remains on your credit report for seven years.
Bankruptcy is the most drastic option, and it can lower your credit score by as much as 200 points. If you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it remains on your credit report for 10 years. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy stays for seven years. No matter which chapter you file, you may notice the effects, especially when you apply for new credit.