How Will Debt Settlement Affect My Credit Score?

Image shows a woman looking at a stack of bills and looking very stressed. Text reads: "Debt settlement and credit report: debt settlement is an agreement with your creditors to pay less than the balance due to satisfy your debt; it's slightly better than an 'unpaid' status, but any status other than 'paid as agreed' or 'paid in full' can damage your credit; Because you aren't paying your full balance as agreed, debt settlement will have a negative impact on your credit score; Many debt settlement companies advise deliberately missing several months of payment as a way to qualify for debt settlement, which damages your credit"

Image by Ellen Lindner © The Balance 2020

If you can't afford to pay a past-due debt in full, you may negotiate a lower lump sum payment—a debt settlement—with your creditor. Debt settlement means you’ve made an agreement with your creditors to pay less than the balance due to satisfy your debt. For example, your credit card issuer might agree to accept a $2,000 payment on a $5,000 debt.

When you settle a debt that's on your credit report, it can negatively affect your credit.

Credit Score Impact

Most of your credit and loan obligations are reported to the credit bureaus each month. Your account status is listed on your credit report indicating whether your payments are on time, late, or the account is closed.

When a debt is settled, a creditor updates your credit report to show a status of “settled” or “paid settled.” While a "settled" status is slightly better than an "unpaid" status, any payment status other than “paid as agreed” or paid in full” can damage your credit.

Because you aren’t paying your full balance as agreed, debt settlements impact your credit score negatively. Your credit is based on several different factors, so the exact impact on your score can vary depending on the other information on your credit report.

FICO Score Examples

A credit score is a measurement of the likelihood that you'll pay back the money you borrowed in the form of a loan, mortgage, or credit card. Credit scores also factor in how well borrowers pay their bills on time. A FICO credit score is a type of scoring model used to calculate your credit score and is used by banks, lenders, and credit providers in making a decision to extend credit to you or not. Your score also determines, in part, the interest rate and credit limit you'll receive on your credit products.

Credit scoring companies don't provide the exact details about how scores are calculated, and it can vary depending on the metrics used in the calculation. However, FICO released FICO score loss information based on hypothetical consumers with different credit scores. In one scenario, a person with a 680 credit score and one late payment on the credit card would lose between 45 and 65 points after debt settlement for one credit card, while a person with a 780 credit score and no other late payments would lose between 140 and 160 points.

Your credit score might experience a similar drop if you have a credit profile similar to these scenarios and you’re settling only one debt. Your credit score could fall even further if you settle on multiple accounts.

Late Payments Preceding Debt Settlement

Debt settlement will hurt your credit score more if the credit cards you settle are already in good standing and if you end up settling multiple credit card accounts.

Many debt settlement companies will advise you to purposely fall behind on your payments so creditors will be more willing to accept a settlement payment on the debt. The theory behind this strategy is the belief that lenders will only be motivated to settle debts that are at risk of not being paid. Following the debt settlement company’s advice means several months of missed payments, which damage your credit even before you settle the debt.

Debt settlement information will remain on your credit report for seven years, but will have less of an impact on your credit score the older the information gets and as more positive information is added to your credit report.

Rebuilding Your Credit

The goal of debt settlement is to get rid of some of your debt, particularly if you can't afford to pay all the balances in full. That may mean that you temporarily sacrifice your credit score—especially if you're not looking for a major loan right now—for the sake of getting out of debt. 

Once you've settled the balances, you can focus on rebuilding your credit score. Since credit is based on borrowing, you’ll have to use credit cards or loans to rebuild your credit. Responsible borrowing and timely payments are key to achieving a good credit score and staying out of debt.

Article Sources

  1. Federal Trade Commission. "Settling Credit Card Debt." Accessed Feb. 10, 2020.

  2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Key Dimensions and Processes in the U.S. Credit Reporting System: A Review of How the Nation’s Largest Credit Bureaus Manage Consumer Data," Page 15. Accessed Feb. 10, 2020.

  3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "What Are Debt Settlement/Debt Relief Services and Should I Use Them?" Accessed Feb. 10, 2020.

  4. MyFICO. "What's in My FICO® Scores?" Accessed Feb. 10, 2020.

  5. MyFICO. "How Credit Actions Impact FICO Scores." Accessed Feb. 10, 2020.

  6. Experian. "Negotiating a Settlement Amount on an Account in Good Standing." Accessed Feb. 10, 2020.

  7. Federal Trade Commission. "Coping With Debt." Accessed Feb. 10, 2020.