Chossing a Debt Counselor
Credit Counseling Tips
Choosing a Credit Counselor
Living paycheck to paycheck? Worried about debt collectors? Canâ€™t seem to develop a workable budget, let alone save money for retirement? If this sounds familiar, you may want to consider the services of a credit counselor. Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial problems. But beware â€” just because an organization says it is â€œnonprofitâ€ doesnâ€™t guarantee that its services are free or affordable, or that its services are legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, some of which may be hidden, or urge consumers to make â€œvoluntaryâ€ contributions that cause them to fall deeper into debt.
Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. If possible, find an organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.
Choosing a Credit Counseling Organization
Reputable credit counseling organizations advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and usually offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve 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 doesnâ€™t do that, consider it a red flag and go elsewhere for help.
Once youâ€™ve developed a list of potential counseling agencies, check them out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and Better Business Bureau. They can tell you if consumers have filed complaints about them. (But even if there are no complaints about them, itâ€™s not a guarantee that theyâ€™re legitimate.) The United States Trustee Program also keeps a list of credit counseling agencies that have been approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling. After youâ€™ve done your background investigation, itâ€™s time for the most important research â€” you should interview the final â€œcandidates.â€
Questions to Ask
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 canâ€™t afford to pay your fees or make contributions? If an organization wonâ€™t help you because you canâ€™t afford to pay, look elsewhere for help.
Will I have a formal written agreement or contract with you? Donâ€™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 compensated? 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.
Debt Management Plans
If your financial problems stem from too much debt or your inability to repay your debts, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you enroll in a debt management plan. A DMP alone is not credit counseling, and DMPs are not for everyone. Consider signing on for one of these plans only after a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation, and has offered you customized advice on managing your money. Even if a DMP is appropriate for you, a reputable credit counseling organization still will help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.
How a DMP Works
You deposit money each month with the credit counseling organization. The organization uses your deposits to pay your unsecured debts, like credit card bills, student loans, and medical bills, according to a payment schedule the counselor develops with you and your creditors. Your creditors may agree to lower your interest rates and waive certain fees, but check with all your creditors to be sure that they offer the concessions that a credit counseling organization describes to you. A successful DMP requires you to make regular, timely payments, and could take 48 months or longer to complete. Ask the credit counselor to estimate how long it will take for you to complete the plan. You also may have to agree not to apply for â€” or use â€” any additional credit while youâ€™re participating in the plan.
Is a DMP Right For You?
In addition to the questions already listed, here are some other important ones to ask if youâ€™re considering enrolling in a DMP.
Is a DMP the only option you can give me? Will you provide me with on-going budgeting advice, regardless of whether I enroll in a DMP? If an organization offers only DMPs, find another credit counseling organization that also will help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.
How does your DMP work? How will you make sure that all my creditors will be paid by the applicable due dates and in the correct billing cycle? If a DMP is appropriate, sign up for one that allows all your creditors to be paid before your payment due dates and within the correct billing cycle.
How is the amount of my payment determined? What if the amount is more than I can afford? Donâ€™t sign up for a DMP if you canâ€™t afford the monthly payment.
How often can I get status reports on my accounts? Can I get access to my accounts online or by phone? Make sure that the organization you sign up with is willing to provide regular, detailed statements about your account.
Can you get my creditors to lower or eliminate interest and finance charges, or waive late fees? If yes, contact your creditors to verify this, and ask them how long you have to be on the plan before the benefits kick in.
What debts arenâ€™t included in the DMP? This is important because youâ€™ll have to pay those bills on your own.
Do I have to make any payments to my creditors before they will accept the proposed payment plan? Some creditors require a payment to the credit counselor before accepting you into a DMP. If a credit counselor tells you this is so, call your creditors to verify this information before you send money to the credit counseling agency.
How will enrolling in a DMP affect my credit? Beware of any organization that tells you it can remove accurate negative information from your credit report. Legally, it canâ€™t be done. Accurate negative information may stay on your credit report for up to seven years.
Can you get my creditors to â€œre-ageâ€ my accounts â€” that is, to make my accounts current? If so, how many payments will I have to make before my creditors will do so? Even if your accounts are â€œre-aged,â€ negative information from past delinquencies or late payments will remain on your credit report.
How to Make a DMP Work for You
The following steps will help you benefit from a DMP, and avoid falling further into debt.
- Continue to pay your bills until the plan has been approved by your creditors. If you stop making payments before your creditors have accepted you into a plan, youâ€™ll face late fees, penalties, and negative entries on your credit report.
- Contact your creditors and confirm that they have accepted the proposed plan before you send any payments to the credit counseling organization for your DMP.
- Make sure the organizationâ€™s payment schedule allows your debts to be paid before they are due each month. Paying on time will help you avoid late fees and penalties. Call each of your creditors on the first of every month to make sure the agency has paid them on time.
- Review monthly statements from your creditors to make sure they have received your payments.
- If your debt management plan depends on your creditors agreeing to lower or eliminate interest and finance charges, or waive late fees, make sure these concessions are reflected on your statements.
Important Questions to Ask When Choosing a Credit Counselor
If the organization you were working with shuts down, you may be able to work a payment plan on your own directly with your creditors. But if you decide that you need additional credit advice and assistance, or if you are considering working with a credit counselor for the first time, asking questions like these can 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, savings and debt management classes, and counselors who are trained and certified in consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors should discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems now and avoid others in the future. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions. Avoid organizations that push a debt management plan as your only option before they spend a significant amount of time analyzing your financial situation. DMPs are not for everyone. You should sign up for a DMP only after a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation, and has offered you customized advice on managing your money.
If you were on a DMP with an organization that closed down, ask any credit counselor that you are considering what they can do to help you retain the benefits of your DMP.
- Are you licensed to offer your services in my state?
Many states require that an organization register or obtain a license before offering credit counseling, debt management plans, and similar services. Do not hire an organization that has not fulfilled the requirements for your state.
- Do you offer free information?
Avoid organizations that charge for information about the nature of their services.
- Will I have a formal written agreement or contract with you?
Donâ€™t commit to participate in a DMP over the telephone. Get all verbal promises in writing. Read all documents carefully before you sign them. If you are told you need to act immediately, consider finding another organization.
- What are the qualifications of your counselors? Are they accredited or certified by an outside organization? If so, which one? If not, how are they trained?
Try to use an organization whose counselors are trained by an outside organization that is not affiliated with creditors.
- Have other consumers been satisfied with the service that they received?
Once youâ€™ve identified credit counseling organizations that suit your needs, check them out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and Better Business Bureau. These organizations can tell you if consumers have filed complaints about them. The absence of complaints doesnâ€™t guarantee legitimacy, but complaints from other consumers may alert you to problems.
- What are your fees? Are there set-up and/or monthly fees?
Get a detailed price quote in writing, and specifically ask whether all the fees are covered in the quote. If youâ€™re concerned that you cannot afford to pay your fees, ask if the organization waives or reduces fees when providing counseling to consumers in your circumstances. If an organization wonâ€™t help you because you canâ€™t afford to pay, look elsewhere for help.
- How are your employees paid? Are the employees or the organization paid more if I sign up for certain services, pay a fee, or make a contribution to your organization?
Employees who are counseling you to purchase certain services may receive a commission if you choose to sign up for those services. Many credit counseling organizations receive additional compensation from creditors if you enroll in a DMP. If the organization will not disclose what compensation it receives from creditors, or how employees are compensated, go elsewhere for help.
- What do you do to keep personal information about your clients (for example, name, address, phone number, and financial information) confidential and secure?
Credit counseling organizations handle your most sensitive financial information. The organization should have safeguards in place to protect the privacy of this information and prevent misuse.