Debt Settlement vs Bankruptcy: Which is Best?

You’ve tried debt payoff strategies, balance transfers, consolidation, and even debt management; you’ve begged your creditors, liquidated your assets, and pestered your friends and families for any money they can afford, but after all of that, you still have more debt than you can handle.

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Now what?

Once you reach the end of your rope, the options that remain are not as forgiving as debt management and they’ll do much more damage to your credit score than debt payoff strategies. However, if you’ve tried other forms of debt relief and nothing seems to work, all that remains is to consider debt settlement and bankruptcy.

Debt settlement is a very good way to clear your debt. It’s one of the cheapest and most complete ways to eradicate credit card debt and can help with most other forms of unsecured debt as well. Bankruptcy, on the other hand, is a last resort option for debtors who can’t meet those monthly payments and have exhausted all other possibilities.

But which option is right for you, should you be looking for a debt settlement company or a bankruptcy attorney?

Similarities Between Bankruptcy and Debt Settlement

Firstly, let’s look at the similarities between bankruptcy and debt settlement, which are actually few and far between. In fact, beyond the fact that they are both debt relief options that can clear your debt, there are very few similarities, with the main one being that they both impact your credit score quite heavily.

A bankruptcy can stay on your credit report for up to 10 years and do a lot of damage when it is applied. It may take several years before you can successfully apply for loans and high credit lines again, and it will continue to impact your score for years to come.

Debt settlement is not quite as destructive, but it can reduce your credit score in a similar way and last for up to 7 years. Accounts do not disappear in the same way as when you pay them in full, so future creditors will know that the accounts were settled for less than the balance and this may scare them away.

In both cases, you could lose a couple hundred points off your credit score, but it all depends on how high your score is to begin with, as well as how many accounts you have on your credit report and how extensive the settlement/bankruptcy process is.

Differences Between Bankruptcy and Debt Settlement

The main two types of bankruptcy are Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. The former liquidates assets and uses the funds generated from this liquidation to pay creditors. The latter creates a repayment plan with a goal of repaying all debts within a fixed period of time using an installment plan that suits the filer.

Debt settlement, on the other hand, is more of a personal process, the goal of which is to offer a reduced settlement sum to creditors and debt collectors, clearing the debts with a lump sum payment that is significantly less than the balance.

Chapter 7 Bankruptcy and Chapter 13 Bankruptcy

When people think of bankruptcy, it’s often a Chapter 7 that they have in mind. With a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, all non-exempt assets will be sold, and the money then used to pay lenders. There are filing costs and it’s advised that you hire a bankruptcy attorney to ensure the process runs smoothly.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy is quick and complete, typically finishing in 6 months and clearing most unsecured debts in this time. There is no repayment plan to follow and no lawsuits or wage garnishment to worry about.

Chapter 13, on the other hand, focuses on a repayment plan that typically spans up to 5 years. The debts are not wiped clear but are instead restructured in a way that the debtor can handle. This method of bankruptcy is typically more expensive, but only worthwhile for debtors who can afford to repay their debts.

Filing for bankruptcy is not easy and there is no guarantee you will be successful. There are strict bankruptcy laws to follow and the bankruptcy court must determine that you have exhausted all other options and have no choice but to file.

Bankruptcy will require you to see a credit counselor, which helps to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes in the future. This can feel like a pointless and demeaning requirement, as many debtors understand the rights and wrongs and got into a mess because of uncontrollable circumstances and not reckless spending, but sessions are short, cheap, and shouldn’t cause much stress.

How Debt Settlement Works

The goal of debt settlement is to get creditors to agree to a settlement offer. This can be performed by the debtor directly, but it’s often done with help from a debt settlement company.

The debt specialist may request that you stop making payments on your debts every month. This has two big benefits:

1. More Money

You will have more money in your account every month, which means you’ll have more funds to go towards debt settlement offers. 

The idea of making large lump sum payments can seem alien to someone who has a lot of debt. After all, if you’re struggling to make $400 debt payments every month on over $20,000 worth of debt, how can you ever hope to get the $5,000 to $15,000 you need to clear those debts in full?

But if you stop making all payments and instead move that money to a secured account, you’ll have $4,800 extra at the end of the year, which should be enough to start making those offers and getting those debts cleared.

2. Creditor Panic

Another aspect of the debt settlement process that confuses debtors is the idea that creditors would be willing to accept reduced offers. If you have a debt worth $20,000 and are paying large amounts of interest every month, why would they accept a lump sum and potentially take a loss overall?

The truth is, if you keep making monthly payments, creditors will be reluctant to accept a settled debt offer. But as soon as you start missing those payments, the risk increases, and the creditor faces the very real possibility that they will need to sell that debt to a collection agency. If you have a debt of $20,000, it may be sold for as little as $20 to $200, so if you come in with an offer of $10,000 before it reaches that point, they’ll snap your hand off!

Types of Debt

A debt settlement program works best when dealing with credit card debt, but it can also help to clear loan debt, medical bills, and more. Providing it’s not government debt or secured debt, it will work. 

With government debt, you need specific tax relief services, and, in most cases, there is no way to avoid it. With secured debt, the lender will simply take your asset as soon as you default.

Debt settlement companies may place some demanding restrictions on you, and in the short term, this will increase your total debt and worsen your financial situation. In addition to requesting that you stop making monthly payments, they may ask that you place yourself on a budget, stop spending money on luxuries, stop acquiring new debt, and start putting every penny you have towards the settlement.

It can have a negative impact on your life, but the end goal is usually worth it, as you’ll be debt-free within 5 years.

Pros and Cons of Debt Settlement and Bankruptcy

Neither of these processes are free or easy. With bankruptcy, you may pay up to $2,000 for Chapter 7 and $4,000 for Chapter 13 (including filing fees and legal fees) while debt settlement is charged as a fixed percentage of the debt or the money saved. 

As mentioned already, both methods can also damage your credit score. But ultimately, they will clear your debts and the responsibilities that go with them. If you’ve been losing sleep because of your debt, this can feel like a godsend—a massive weight lifted off your shoulders.

It’s also worth noting that scams exist for both options, so whether you’re filing bankruptcy or choosing a debt settlement plan, make sure you’re dealing with a reputable company/lawyer and are not being asked to pay unreasonable upfront fees. Reputable debt settlement companies will provide you with a free consultation in the first instance, and you can use the NACBA directory to find a suitable lawyer.

Bankruptcy and Debt Settlement: The End Goal

For all the ways that these two options differ, there is one important similarity: They give you a chance to make a fresh start. You can never underestimate the benefits of this, even if it comes with a reduced credit score and a derogatory mark that will remain on your credit report for years to come.

If you’re heavily in debt, it can feel like your money isn’t your own, your life isn’t secure, and your future is not certain. With bankruptcy and debt settlement, your credit score and finances may suffer temporarily, but it gives you a chance to wipe the slate clean and start again.

What’s more, this process may take several years to complete and in the case of bankruptcy, it comes with credit counseling. Once you make it through all of this, you’ll be more knowledgeable about debt, you’ll have a better grip on your finances, and your impulse control. 

And even if you don’t, you’ll be forced to adopt a little restraint after the process ends as your credit score will be too low for you to apply for new personal loans and high limit cards.

Other Options for Last Ditch Debt Relief

Many debtors preparing for debt settlement or bankruptcy may actually have more options than they think. For instance, bankruptcy is often seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card, an easy escape that you can use to your advantage whenever you have debts you don’t want to pay.

But that’s simply not the case and unless you have tried all other options and can prove that none of them have worked, your case may be thrown out. If that happens, you’ll waste money on legal and filing fees and will be sent back to the drawing board.

So, regardless of the amount of debt you have, make sure you’ve looked into the following debt relief options before you focus on debt settlement or bankruptcy. 

Debt Consolidation

A debt consolidation loan is provided by a specialized lender. They pay off all your existing debts and give you a single large loan in return, one that has a lower interest rate and a lower monthly payment. 

Your debt-to-income ratio will improve, and you’ll have more money in your pocket at the end of the month. However, in exchange, you’ll be given a much longer-term, which means you’ll pay more interest over the life of the loan.

A Debt Management Plan

Debt management combines counseling services with debt consolidation. A debt management plan requires you to continue making your monthly payment, only this will go to the debt management company and not directly to the creditors. They will then distribute the money to your creditors.

You’ll be given a monthly payment that you can manage, along with the budgeting advice you need to keep meeting those payments. In exchange, however, you’ll be asked to close all but one credit card (which can hurt your credit score) and if you miss a payment then your creditors may back out of the agreement.

Balance Transfer Card

If all your debts are tied into credit cards, you can use a balance transfer credit card to make everything more manageable. With a balance transfer credit card, you move one or more debts onto a new card, one that offers a 0% APR for a fixed period. 

The idea is that you continue making your monthly payment, only because there is no interest, all the money goes towards the principal.

Home Equity Loans

If you have built substantial equity in your home then you can look into home equity loans and lines of credit. These are secured loans, which means there is a risk of repossession if you fail to keep up your payments, but for this, you’ll get a greatly reduced interest rate and a sum large enough to clear your debts.

Bottom Line: The Best Option

Debt settlement and bankruptcy are both considered to be last resort debt-relief options, but they couldn’t be more different from one another. Generally speaking, we would always recommend debt settlement first, especially if you have a lot of money tied up in credit card debt.

If not, and you can’t bear the idea of spending several months ignoring your creditors, missing payments, and accumulating late fees, it might be time to consider bankruptcy. In any case, make sure you exhaust all other possibilities first.