What's the Difference Between Debt Negotiation and Debt Settlement?
Written by: Kristy Welsh
Last Updated: June 13, 2017
Many people are confused by all the programs proclaiming they can help you get out of debt. There is debt settlement, debt negotiation, and consumer credit counseling. In most people's minds, all these programs are the same and all they are really concerned about is getting you out of debt the quickest and easiest way they can find. But, these methods of erasing debt are not the same. We're going to explain the difference between debt negotiation companies and how their operations are different from debt settlement companies. By the way, in case you're thinking we are advocating debt settlement firms, this is not the case. We are only explaining the difference.
What's Wrong with Debt Negotiation
Many of the nasty practices by these companies are now illegal, per the FTC regulations that went into effect in 2010. However, we are going to keep posting their old tricks so you can recognize them if you see them in a firm you've hired to settle your debts. (Notes regarding the new laws are highlighted in blue.)
Setting Up Unsecured Trust Accounts
Debt negotiation companies will try and set up a "trust account" for you even though they are not a licensed bank entity under the Federal Reserve. They will also try to collect a monthly fee to maintain this account. On top of these fees, they will ask you to put away a certain amount of money towards your debt. The idea is to create a savings account until the debt is paid off. Unlike consumer credit counseling services, they do not pay your creditors each month. And your creditors are not told of your arrangement with the debt negotiation company. Per the new laws, all monies must be put into an FDIC insured bank account.
Debt Negotiation Companies Don't Consider Your Current Financial State
Consumer Credit Counseling Services (CCCS) will make you qualify financially for their program. Unlike CCCS, a debt negotiation company doesn't qualify you for the amount of the payments vs. debt. As a result, you can wind up paying very little towards the principal of the debt on each payment, effectively stretching out the payments for years. The longer you are in the program, the more money they make in their "monthly admin" fees. Per the 2010 laws, the firm has to give you a good faith estimate showing you the length of time you'll be in the program based on your ability to pay.
No Protection from Lawsuits
Even if the debt negotiation programs are run by lawyers, these programs offer you no legal protection. You can be sued by your creditors, they can get a judgment against you and your wages can be garnished. This debt negotiation scenario is also unlike consumer credit counseling where they handle all calls from the credit card companies (but they are also PAYING them for you). YOU must deal with the nightmarish phone calls.
There are some credit card companies that are aggressively suing non-paying customers right now, and if they decide to take you on, they will win. Being sued by the credit card company is not like being sued by a collection agency, which usually has poor documentation and no case.
Interest and Fees Are Not Negotiated
In addition to putting yourself in danger of being sued, there is no attempt to negotiate interest or fees, so they keep piling up on you. It could mean that while you think you are doing the right thing and making payments towards your cards, your debt continues to grow. Per the new laws, the firm has to disclose the total amount you have to pay per their past history with an individual creditor.
Only Credit Card Debt Qualifies
You can't negotiate anything that is a secured debt, like an auto loan or mortgage. You also can't negotiate down student loans, tax liens, or judgments.
Fees Are Usually Paid Upfront
Usually your first 2-to-4 months of payments go towards fees. There is such a high dropout rate on debt negotiation companies that these guys want to make sure they get paid first. Per the new laws, the firm cannot collect any upfront fees before they've done work for you.
Most debt negotiation companies claim to be able to negotiate your debt with the credit card companies for about 50 percent of what you owe. You must realize that after 180 days, if you are not sued, your debt gets turned over to a collection agency. The negotiation company is NOT planning on talking to the original creditor, but to a collection agency down the line who will accept debt settlement offers fairly easily. Per the new laws, the firm has to disclose the total amount you have to pay per their past history with an individual creditor. They can't claim "best case," but must cite average case results, including factoring in the dropout rate.
Know What's In Your Debt Consolidation Contract
Even if a debt negotiation company did clearly explain what was going on and it was in all of their documentation, we have found none of the debt negotiation companies explained what they were doing. All of their victims had a vague recollection that they were paying a management fee, but they had no idea that their credit cards would go into COLLECTION while they were in the program. Per the new laws, the firm has to give you a good faith estimate showing you the length of time you'll be in the program based on your ability to pay.
The U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on April 22, 2010 regarding widespread abuse in the debt settlement and debt negotiation industry.
How Does Debt Negotiation Work?
Let's say the company you hire follows all the new laws to the letter. You may still be tempted to sign with them and that's your prerogative. How much money can you actually save?
You have $20,000 in credit card debt and the debt negotiation company says all you have to do is pay $300 for 3 years and you'll be debt-free for about 50 percent of the debt. At $300 a month for 36 months, that is only $10,800, so you will be saving $9,200 and you'll be debt-free in 3 years. Sounds like a good deal, right? Wrong. Let's do the math.
- You agree to a 3-year plan where you pay $300 a month to the settlement company — $10,800 of total payments.
- Your first two monthly payments are the "admin fee," so this is $600 — nothing gets put into your trust account until your third month.
- The negotiation company keeps $50 of your $300 payment each month for the service fee. That means only $250 a month is being added to your trust account.
- After 34 months, you have $8,500 to settle $20,000 in debt. Remember, 3 years minus the first 2 months for admin fees is 34 months.
- The negotiation company, if you are still with the program, will negotiate your debts down to zero with the collection agencies using the $8,500.
You save: $9,200.
Debt negotiation firm makes: $600 + (34 x $50) = $2,300.
Other Dangers of These Programs
- So you say, what's wrong with that? I'm getting a good deal by saving $6,000! Yeah, except almost any collection agency will accept 25 percent of the debt without much of a fight and many will accept 10 percent. You do not have to pay an admin fee to pick up the phone or send in a debt settlement agreement, and you can mostly make a settlement within 6 months to a year. You will also be debt-free. It is really easy to do it yourself.
- Let's say of the $20,000 debt, one of the cards comes to $4,000. If the negotiation company gets the collection agency to accept $2,000, it will take you 10 months at $250 per month to have enough in your trust account to pay off just that one credit card. But remember, your first three payments to the settlement company only paid the admin fee. That means your first credit card settlement is 13 months after you started sending them money.
Do-it-Yourself Debt Settlement
Again, you can settle your debts on your own. Put away some money so you can save the 25 percent of the $20,000. You'll have enough to be debt-free in 16 months, and it will only cost you $5,000. This is not going to be a pain free process; you will still have to deal with creditors calling you, and there is the possibility that you will be sued. However, you will be enduring the same kind of telephone calls and possibility of lawsuits if you signed up with a debt relief company.
You can do the same thing without paying a company by following these steps:
- Save $300 a month until you have about 25 percent of the total debt (25 percent of the total debt in our example is $5,000).
- After 16 months of saving, use the $5,000 to settle the $20,000 debt with the collection agency.
You don't have to wait until you have the entire amount to pay off a credit card debt that is being handled by a collection agency. You can — and should — try and settle it for less than you owe.