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Television commercials and mass mailings may make debt consolidation seem like a simple process. Often by the end of a 30 second ad, the formerly anxious, debt ridden consumer is smiling and shaking hands with a caring debt consolidation counselor, and all their problems seem to have vanished.

While there are many options available to consumers, the three most commonly advertised forms of debt consolidation are: credit counseling, debt management programs, and debt settlement. Consumers sometimes mistakenly assume that these options mean the same thing, involve the same process, and are interchangeable. This idea is wrong on all accounts.

Credit Counseling is often the first stop for those interested in eliminating debt. It is simply professional help to develop a budget, encourage discipline, and reevaluate spending. This is a good option for people who have a steady income, and have just made some poor financial decisions.

Counselors offer advice and explain your options, however, they do not cut your monthly payments, or reduce the amount you owe. They can contact creditors to lower interest rates, but you can do that yourself. Most importantly, credit counselors can help you to know when declaring bankruptcy is your best option. It is now necessary to meet with a certified credit counselor for six months prior to declaring bankruptcy.

Debt Management Programs are the way that credit counselors help to pay down your debts. They take one monthly sum, and redistribute it to cover all your bills. Basically, the counselor takes your paycheck, keeps what is needed to pay your bills, and gives you an allowance. These programs ensure that your creditors are paid, and you are making progress toward getting out of debt. Only about 35% of all the people involved in credit counseling qualify for a debt management program.

Debt Settlement is the third option available to consumers, but experts advise caution when using these types of programs. Basically, consumers make payments to the agency, where the money will sit until the creditors demand payment. The debt settlement agency will then renegotiate your debts agreeing to pay pennies on the dollar. The creditors usually agree to these terms, as the alternative is to receive nothing at all.

Frankly, this is a dangerous, and unethical way to go. First, you are not saving any money, as you make full payments to the debt settlement agency, who is earning interest on the held money. Second, if you miss even one payment to the agency, oftentimes you lose all the money you’ve paid to them as a fee. Finally, it is your credit, not the agency’s that takes a beating in the process; this option can reflect as poorly on your credit score as declaring bankruptcy.

Understanding the programs available to you is essential as you begin the process of debt consolidation. Credit counseling can be a great tool in helping to discipline spending, and create a plan for the future–just make sure you know what you’re getting into.