When credit counseling is (and isn't) a good idea

Certified consumer credit counselors are employed by nonprofit agencies to provide financial education services and counseling for credit, debt, bankruptcy, housing and other issues. Many services are low-cost or free.

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A part of a U.S. $100 bill.

Managing your finances — especially when you have a lot of debt — can be overwhelming. With determination and the right resources, you may be able to mend your finances on your own. But if you’re struggling to pay your bills or to tackle mounting debt, you may need help.

One option is working with a credit counselor. Certified consumer credit counselors are employed by nonprofit agencies that are accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. These agencies provide financial education services and counseling for credit, debt, bankruptcy, housing and other issues. Many services are low-cost or free.

We talked with Thomas Nitzsche of Clearpoint, an NFCC agency and member of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor network, about when credit counseling is a good idea for consumers.

In what cases does it make sense to talk to a credit counselor?

There are a number of scenarios. For instance:

  • If you are struggling to meet your monthly credit card and/or mortgage payment, considering bankruptcy, or just want help setting and meeting your financial goals, it’s a great idea to seek free advice and resources.
  • If you are considering or have been turned down for a consolidation loan for your unsecured debt (for instance, credit cards and personal loans), you might be a good candidate for a debt management plan administered by the credit counseling agency.
  • If you are considering purchasing a home, a credit counselor can provide pre-purchase counseling.
  • If you are struggling with debt, a credit counselor can help you navigate the crowded debt-relief space, avoiding scams and damage to your credit score.

How will working with a credit counselor help you?

Your credit counselor will listen to your financial goals and then gather your information to help you organize your finances, develop a budget and create a personalized action plan to meet your goals. For most clients, this usually involves improving their credit, repaying debt or achieving their housing objectives, such as buying a home, obtaining a reverse mortgage or avoiding foreclosure.

The counselor can pull your credit report and offer a detailed review, in most cases also providing your FICO credit score and pointing out discrepancies to dispute, dings to avoid in the future and ways to improve your score going forward. Once the review is complete, your counselor will provide next steps and appropriate referrals to local resources for help with specific issues you may be facing. Referrals may be for things like utility or down payment assistance, local grants, free or reduced-cost health or dental clinics, directions on filing for financial assistance on a medical bill and many other resources. This initial consultation is free, with no obligation.

What role do debt management plans play in working with a credit counselor?

A debt management plan is one option available to you when working with a credit counselor. It is a full repayment of your unsecured debt with reduced interest rates. On average, a debt management plan reduces interest rates by half and total monthly payments by 20%, according to Clearpoint’s findings. Most debt management plans last less than four years and, on average, we’ve found that clients increase their credit score by 106 points in the first 36 months. The average client’s debt load at Clearpoint is nearly $26,000 spread across six creditors, but even the most indebted consumers can benefit from debt management. There are nominal fees for a debt management plan, which vary by state but do not exceed $50 per month. In cases of extreme financial hardship, fees may be reduced.

We find that about one in five consumers who seek credit counseling eventually enroll in a debt management plan to lower their interest rates and payments on existing unsecured debt. In addition to helping you consider a debt management plan, a credit counselor can point you to educational tools such as online learning platforms and calculators, which will help deepen your understanding of financial concepts.

For whom is a debt management plan a smart option?

A debt management plan might be a good choice if you have steady income, sufficient to cover your living expenses plus your modified monthly debt payments to your creditors. A good rule of thumb is that if your non-mortgage debt-to-income ratio is above 15%, you may not be able to effectively self-pay your debt; thus a debt management plan could be a good option.

While there’s no credit score stipulation for a debt management plan, consumers with higher credit scores may be able to consolidate their debt via a balance transfer, or other method that has higher net savings compared with a debt management plan. However, the education that accompanies a debt management plan is an added benefit for some consumers, especially since other debt relief options, such as the use of a debt settlement company or “credit doctor,” can be risky. Debt settlement requires a severe default, which damages credit, and there is no guarantee that the creditor will agree to the settlement. There can also be tax implications and fees that add to your total debt.

Debt management plans work best if your debt is still being handled by the original creditor, not a third-party collection agency. If your debt is already in collections, or you do not have sufficient funds to cover your living expenses even after making changes to your budget, then the debt management plan may not be the best choice. If you are more than 90 days past due (“in collections” or “charged off”), you may need to consider reaching a payment arrangement or settlement agreement directly with your creditors, or seeking legal advice if this is not possible. If your budget is negative even after making all possible cuts and trying to increase your income, you may need to seek legal advice to see whether you are eligible for bankruptcy and, if so, which chapter. In some rare cases, if you are “judgment-proof” or the debt is “time-barred,” you may not have to take any action at all. A credit counselor can help you determine the best course of action based on your individual circumstances.

Thomas Nitzsche is the media relations manager of Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions.

The article When Credit Counseling Is (and Isn’t) a Good Idea originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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