Many Americans with debts come to a sort of crossroads: Should they keep trying to pay them down little by little on their own, or should they harness some form of debt consolidation? The right answer for you ultimately depends on whether it would be easier, less expensive, and timelier for you to utilize consolidation, or whether you’re better off just plugging away at your debts the old-school way.

Thankfully, just like in high school math class, calculators exist to help us crunch these numbers to figure out how you may or may not benefit from consolidation. Here’s some information on what you’ll need in order to use an online calculator for this purpose and what the results can help you figure out.

## Before Using a Debt Consolidation Calculator

Before you punch a single number into any consolidation calculator, you’ll want to make sure you have current information about all the unsecured debts you’d consolidate — like credit cards and personal loans.

Here’s some of the key information you’ll need to know about each account:

• Outstanding balance
• Interest rate
• Current monthly payment

Based on these figures, the calculator will usually tell you how much you owe cumulatively, the average interest rate you’re paying, the total amount you’re paying toward debts each month and when you can expect to be debt free without consolidation. This will serve as your comparison point for when you crunch the numbers on what potential effects debt consolidation could have.

You will also need to know your credit score range, as this affects the potential interest rates for which you can qualify on certain debt consolidation products, like loans and balance transfers.

If you have “poor” credit (a FICO score of 580 or below) it may be very difficult to even qualify for a consolidation loan. Generally, borrowers with “fair” scores or higher can qualify for a loan, but interest rates tend to be higher the lower your score is. This is because you represent more of a risk to lenders. An important piece of the puzzle is your credit score, as this determines whether you’d potentially be able to qualify for a loan with low enough interest that it makes consolidation worthwhile.

## What Can You Learn from a Debt Consolidation Calculator?

After entering in all the information mentioned above, the calculator can essentially provide you with a direct comparison between not consolidating versus consolidating. For instance, the Bankrate version of the tool plainly states, “Your monthly payment changes from \$300 to \$270,” or whatever the exact numbers may be.

If you find consolidation may lower your payments, it’s time to explore specific methods, including:

• Loan: Banks and online lenders offer personal loans at competitive interest rates for qualified applicants, which can be used to pay down all other unsecured debts at once.
• Balance transfer: Moving your existing balance to a new balance-transfer credit card can provide you a temporary break from having to pay high interest. Always know how long this special promotional period lasts and what the fees are before proceeding.
• Debt management: Enrolling in a program through a credit counseling agency may convince creditors to give you better terms, provided you stick to a pre-determined payoff plan. You’ll start making one monthly lump sum payment to the agency and it will split up those funds amongst your creditors.

Using a debt consolidation calculator can help you compare various debt repayment strategies to see which one stands to help you get out of debt for the least amount of time, energy, and expense.