Guide to Credit Counseling: 7 Key Questions to Ask

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If you have little knowledge on the topic of personal finance and are struggling with your own money issues, you might want to think about getting credit counseling.

Credit counselors can help you set a budget and advise you on how to manage your debt, which can include credit card debt, student loan debt and even housing debt.

Reputable credit counseling organizations have certified counselors who are trained in consumer credit, budgeting, and money and debt management. Credit counselors will work with you to come up with an individualized plan to address any money problems you may have. This can be done in person, over the phone or online.

Seeking credit counseling is typically voluntary but can be required when filing for bankruptcy. In this guide, we’ll answer some key questions you might have about credit counseling and whether it’s right for you.

How do you find a credit counselor?

Before settling on a credit counseling organization, do your homework to make sure they are not only reputable but will also be the most helpful for your particular financial circumstances. Check with your state’s attorney general and consumer protection agency to see if there have been any complaints filed against the organization.

Ensure that the organization is accredited and certified. Check to see if they are members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America. Most non-profit credit counseling agencies are associated with these organizations.

When researching agencies, first ask what information or educational materials they provide for free. Organizations that charge for information are typically more interested in their bottom line than in helping you. Also, ask about the types of services they offer. Limited services can be a red flag. The fewer services they offer, the fewer solutions they may provide for you.

You should also attempt to understand the organization’s fee system — not only how much services will cost but also how employees are paid. If employees make more based on the number of services you receive, look for another credit counseling organization.

MagnifyMoney has come up with a list of some of the best credit counseling options, which is a great place to start. If you are looking for credit counseling as a pre-bankruptcy measure, the U.S. Trustee Program has a list of approved credit counseling agencies that can provide pre-bankruptcy counseling.

How much does credit counseling cost?

Credit counseling can involve both start-up and monthly maintenance costs. The Department of Justice says that $50 per month is a reasonable fee. Further, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) suggests that a start-up fee should not exceed $75 and monthly maintenance fees should not be more than $50 per month.

Credit counseling agencies may offer fee waivers or reductions, depending on your income levels. Where credit counseling is required, the DOJ says that, if household income is less than 150% of the current poverty line, the client is entitled to a fee waiver or reduction.

Other regulations, such as when fees can be collected and circumstances that would warrant a fee reduction or waiver, may also be outlined by your state.

How long does credit counseling last?

While the length of your credit counseling session depends on the complexity of your financial problems, sessions typically last 60 minutes. After the initial session, credit counselors will follow up to ensure you understand the actions you need to take and that you have been able to get started on the plan they developed. Another session may be necessary depending on how your financial situation unfolds following the first session.

What do you accomplish with credit counseling?

According to the NFCC, reputable counseling involves three things. First, there must be a review of a client’s current financial situation. You cannot move forward unless you know from where you are starting. Second, there should be an analysis of the factors that contributed to the client’s bad financial situation. You don’t want bad habits to undermine your progress. Lastly, there must be a plan to address the situation without incurring negative amortization of debt. Negative amortization occurs when the amount of debt you have increases because you aren’t paying enough to cover the interest, even though you are making payments.

Understanding these three factors of good credit counseling gives you a place to start in improving your financial situation.

What is the difference between credit counseling and debt management programs?

A debt management plan is just one solution a credit counselor may recommend based on your financial situation. Having a debt management plan is not the same as credit counseling.

A debt management plan involves the credit counseling organization acting as an intermediary between you and your creditors. Each month you will deposit an agreed upon amount of money to your credit counseling agency, which they will, in turn, apply it to your debts.

The credit counseling agency works with your creditors to determine how the amount will be applied each month, and negotiates interest rates and any fee waivers. It’s important to call your creditors directly to check whether they are open to negotiating interest rates or offering waivers for fees. In some cases, a credit counseling firm may promise to negotiate those items for you but be stonewalled when they discover a creditor isn’t even open to the discussion.

Before agreeing to a debt management plan, make sure you understand any fees associated and any choices you might be giving up. For example, some debt management plans may require you to give up opening up new lines of credit for a specified period of time. Remember that a debt management plan is just one of many solutions a credit counselor may advise you to consider.

How does credit counseling impact your credit score?

Not directly. While the fact you are in credit counseling may show up on a credit report, that does not affect your credit score. The actions you take as a result of credit counseling, however, can impact your score.

For example, if you don’t choose a reputable credit counseling agency, the agency may submit a payment on your behalf late to your creditors. So even though you submitted your payment on time to the credit counseling agency, your score may still be dinged. This is just one reason why it’s important to make sure you use a reputable credit counseling agency.

Who should consider credit counseling, and when?

While credit counseling is sometimes required, such as in instances of bankruptcy, you always have an ability to seek credit counseling.

Boston-based Bankruptcy attorney Julie Franklin explains, “For bankruptcy purposes, there are two course requirements — a debtor must complete the first credit counseling course prior to filing and obtain a certificate that is filed with the court in their initial bankruptcy petition documents. Post bankruptcy filing, the debtor is required to take a second course, and upon completion, the certificate that is issued must be filed with the court in order for the debtor to obtain an order of discharge.”

Anyone struggling with their personal finances can consider credit counseling as an option. Franklin also notes that “the first credit counseling course is a tool for debtors, as it compels the individual taking the course to closely examine the household assets, income, liabilities and spending habits to determine if there’s a way to save the debtor from having to file bankruptcy.”

If you are considering bankruptcy, you will have to attend some credit counseling anyhow, but doing so could also help you avoid filing for bankruptcy at all. Keep in mind that filing for bankruptcy will always have a significant effect on your credit score, and can hurt your changes for getting loans or new credit for years to come. If you can avoid it, you probably should.

Voluntary credit counseling might not help if you are already being sued to have a debt collected. However, you may be able to negotiate terms with the debt collector that result in a withdrawal of the suit if you agree to enroll in credit counseling and possibly a debt management program. Not all creditors will agree to such terms, but it is possible.

Bottom line

Many people run into trouble with their finances, whether they have too much credit card debt, are struggling to make their housing payments or just find general budgeting to be a challenge. Some people are dealing with more serious issues, such as potential bankruptcy. There are credit counselors available to help you with any difficult financial situation you may be facing. The most important thing is to ensure you work with a reputable credit counseling agency, so do your research first. A good credit counselor can help you get on the road to financial health, but working with a bad one can lead to more problems than you already have.

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Liz Stapleton
Liz Stapleton |

Liz Stapleton is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Liz here

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