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The agency should be organized, send payments and statements on time and offer strong consumer education and support. The payment is usually around 2.5 percent of the total debt, though in hardship situations, there is some wiggle room. Why consolidate bills if you can't pay for basic expenses or if there are better alternatives?

You can stop the plan at any time, and you can also pay more -- and get out of debt faster -- when you have extra funds. You wouldn't, which is the reason consolidation begins with a counseling appointment where your entire financial situation is assessed.

Consolidating multiple loans means you'll have a single payment each month for that combined debt but it may not reduce or pay your debt off sooner.

By understanding how consolidating your debt benefits you, you'll be in a better position to decide if it is the right option for you.

Here are the downsides of debt consolidation, in general: Although all debt consolidation works in largely the same way, there are several different methods you can use that do the same thing.

When a counselor is knowledgeable and compassionate, these sessions can be enlightening and motivating. If he or she acts bored, judgmental or pushy, request a different counselor. First, the bulk of your balances should be in unsecured debts, such as credit and charge cards, personal loans and, sometimes, collection accounts.

Many people try debt consolidation, but not all emerge better off.

Some borrowers wind up in worse shape, either because they run up their credit cards again or because their debt remains overwhelming despite the better repayment terms.

There are many ways to consolidate your credit card and other debt, such as with a 0% APR credit card, a home equity loan or a personal loan.

The option that best suits you will depend on your credit, available cash and other aspects of your financial situation, as well as your personality. What to do if your debt is insurmountable Get ready to tackle your debts Your options for debt consolidation Ask yourself a few questions to see if debt consolidation is really what you need: Am I serious about paying off my debt?