Some steps to take before hiring credit counselors

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Q: I am a 2000 college graduate who finally has stable, full-time employment. While in college, I accumulated credit-card debt. I would now like to take the necessary steps to pay off my debt and repair my credit. Is there an institution that can help me do this?
A.C., Miami

A: If you're not in too deep a pickle, try some self-help first. Most credit-card companies have special offices that deal with debt payback issues. Talk with them to arrange a special repayment deal, such as lowering or freezing interest rates, while you work through your debt situation.

If one credit-card company offers to lower your rate, you might use that money to pay off other cards with higher rates. You'll pay a fee, typically 2 percent of the transaction but capped at 50 bucks, and if you can lock in a 4-5 percent "loan" you'll gain some serious ground on paying off those 20 percent cards.

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If you decide to seek professional help, tread carefully. Some credit-repair shops are actually fronts for swindlers who will take your payments and vamoose.

Consumer Credit Counseling Service of South Florida, 800-355-2227, is a reputable credit-repair company. It gives free advice, though it may assess a monthly fee if you enroll in its credit repayment program. The company will negotiate with your creditors to devise a payback plan.

Q: I was laid off last November, but since I worked for a nonprofit, I was told by my state employment office that I am not eligible for unemployment benefits. Are there any benefits I am entitled to?
B.G., Wilmette, Ill.

A: I'm afraid you're out of luck as far as official government unemployment assistance is concerned. It simply does not apply in your case, says Bern Colleran, of the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

In most states, nonprofits can exempt themselves from participating in unemployment insurance plans. Since many nonprofits do not pay into the state jobless fund, their employees have nothing to claim when they are laid off.

Rules differ by state about when a nonprofit must participate. Before taking a job with a nonprofit, check with the potential employer or the state jobs agency about unemployment benefits. You may still want to join the organization even there is no safety net, but you can adjust your finances accordingly to anticipate any layoff.

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