Educational Consumer Tips
Better Business Bureau
Living paycheck to paycheck? Worried about debt collectors? Can't seem to develop a workable budget, let alone save money for retirement? If this sounds familiar, you may be considering the services of a credit counselor.
Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. They discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to deal with your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.
A reputable credit counseling agency should send you free information about itself and the services it provides without requiring you to provide any details about your situation. If a firm doesn't do that, consider it a red flag and go elsewhere for help.
Once you've got a list of counseling agencies you might do business with, check each one out with yourstate Attorney General and local consumer protection agency. They can tell you if consumers have filed complaints about any one of them. (If there are no complaints about them, don't consider it a guarantee that they're legitimate.) The United States Trustee Program also keeps a list of credit counseling agencies approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling. After you've done your background investigation, you will want to interview the final "candidates."
Here are some questions to ask to help you find the best counselor for you.
What services do you offer? Look for an organization that offers a range of services, including budget counseling, and savings and debt management classes.
Avoid organizations that push a debt management plan (DMP) as your only option before they spend a significant amount of time analyzing your financial situation.
Do you offer information? Are educational materials available for free? Avoid organizations that charge for information.In addition to helping me solve my immediate problem, will you help me develop a plan for avoiding problems in the future?What are your fees?
Are there set-up and/or monthly fees? Get a specific price quote in writing.
What if I can't afford to pay your fees or make contributions? If an organization won't help you because you can't afford to pay, look elsewhere for help.
Will I have a formal written agreement or contract with you? Don't sign anything without reading it first. Make sure all verbal promises are in writing.Are you licensed to offer your services in my state?What are the qualifications of your counselors?
Are they accredited or certified by an outside organization? If so, by whom? If not, how are they trained? Try to use an organization whose counselors are trained by a non-affiliated party.
What assurance do I have that information about me (including my address, phone number, and financial information) will be kept confidential and secure?How are your employees paid? Are they paid more if I sign up for certain services, if I pay a fee, or if I make a contribution to your organization? If the answer is yes, consider it a red flag and go elsewhere for help.
Working with a credit counseling organization is just one option for dealing with your debt. You also could: negotiate directly with your credit card company, work with a debt settlement company, or consider bankruptcy.Talk with your credit card company, even if you have been turned down before. Rather than pay a company to talk to your creditor on your behalf, remember that you can do it yourself for free. You can find the telephone number on your card or your statement. Be persistent and polite. Keep good records of your debts, so that when you reach the credit card company, you can explain your situation. Your goal is to work out a modified payment plan that reduces your payments to a level you can manage.If you don't pay on your debt for 180 days, your creditor will write your debt off as a loss; your credit score will take a big hit, and you still will owe the debt. Creditors often are willing to negotiate with you even after they write your debt off as a loss.
Declaring bankruptcy has serious consequences, including lowering your credit score, but credit counselors and other experts say that in some cases, it may make the most sense. Filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 13 allows people with a steady income to keep property, like a mortgaged house or a car, that they might otherwise lose through the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process. In Chapter 13, the court approves a repayment plan that allows you to pay off your debts over a three to five year period, without surrendering any property. After you have made all the payments under the plan, your debts are discharged. As part of the Chapter 13 process, you will have to pay a lawyer, and you must get credit counseling from a government-approved organization within six months before you file for any bankruptcy relief.You can find a state-by-state list of government-approved organizations at the U.S. Trustee Program, the organization within the U.S. Department of Justice that supervises bankruptcy cases and trustees. Also, before you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case, you must satisfy a "means test." This test requires you to confirm that your income does not exceed a certain amount. The amount varies by state and is publicized by the U.S. Trustee Program.Filing fees are several hundred dollars. Attorney fees are extra and vary. For more information visit theUnited States Courts, and read Coping with Debt.
Debt settlement programs typically are offered by for-profit companies, and involve them negotiating with your creditors to allow you to pay a "settlement" to resolve your debt — a lump sum that is less than the full amount that you owe. To make that lump sum payment, the program asks that you set aside a specific amount of money every month in savings. Debt settlement companies usually ask that you transfer this amount every month into an escrow-like account to accumulate enough savings to pay off any settlement that is eventually reached. Further, these programs often encourage or instruct their clients to stop making any monthly payments to their creditors.