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Credit Counseling Basics

If you've got a big pile of credit card or other debt, you're living paycheck to paycheck, and you're feeling like you're barely holding things together, you might have considered calling in some help. If you find the right help -- a good nonprofit credit counselor who is licensed and able to offer what you need -- it can be a life-saver. The best credit counselors will take the time to understand your situation, help you develop a budget you can stick to, help you implement strategies to save money and reduce debt, and educate you on everything from home equity lines to saving for retirement, all for a fee you can afford.

But unfortunately, lots of credit services don't live up to those expectations. Folks with big debts are usually embarrassed and may be feeling desperate. They may not think they have the standing to quibble with the details of the "help" that's being offered -- and that makes the credit-rescue business attractive to certain less-than-scrupulous folks. Too often, that "help" comes with big hidden fees (or pressure to "donate" to the nonprofit), or wants your personal details before answering any questions, or tries to push you into a one-size-fits-all debt-management plan -- or worse, is just out to rip you off.

So how do you tell the good from the bad?

Sorting through the possibilities
First, some basics: A credit counseling organization is (usually) a nonprofit company that provides services and advice to people with personal financial problems. They may provide these services over the phone, over the Internet, or in person, and often (but not always) charge a small fee for their services.

The good ones:

  • Offer a range of services, including budget counseling and personal finance education in addition to debt-management plans.
  • Will send you free information -- including information on their fees -- without demanding that you provide details about your situation first.
  • Will meet with you in person.
  • Will help you develop a plan for developing better personal finance habits, not just for dealing with the problem you have right now.
  • Will waive fees in cases of genuine hardship.

To find these good counseling services, start with the member directory on the National Foundation for Credit Counseling's website. NFCC members are all nonprofits and are required to be licensed by their home state and meet certain accreditation standards. A NFCC listing isn't a guarantee that a counseling agency will give you what you need, but it's a good place to start building your list of possibilities.

That debt-management plan
No matter which counseling service you end up using, if you've got a pile of credit card debt, eventually you'll be discussing a debt-management plan. This is a formal program you enter into with the counseling firm, in which the counselors work directly with your creditors to try to get reductions in fees, interest rates, and monthly payments. They will also make all your debt payments on your behalf -- you make one monthly payment to the agency, and the agency sends it off to your creditors. Credit card issuers such as Discover (NYSE: DFS  ) or American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) accept these terms because they know they're more likely to get repaid if you're working with a counseling agency.

These plans have definite pros and cons. The pros are obvious and enormous: You get an affordable plan to pay off your debts and a lot of help sticking with it. You also may get some relief from past late charges and fees, as well as a lower interest rate going forward. And if bankruptcy was a possibility, the plan may help you avoid it.

While the cons aren't deal-breakers for most people, they do deserve review. First, your creditors will generally note  that you're in a plan and will report it to credit bureaus. It'll appear on your credit reports, and while a debt-management plan isn't quite as much of a black mark as a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, it'll make it hard for you to qualify for new credit until you've got at least a couple of years of good repayment history established. Second, you'll have no access to revolving credit -- your existing accounts will be suspended, and the counselor will usually require that you don't open new ones -- for the duration of the plan, typically three to five years. Again, don't let these concerns talk you out of seeking help, but go into it with your eyes open.

The upshot
If you're buried in credit card debt, finding your way to the right credit counselor -- and getting enrolled in a debt-management plan, if that's appropriate for your situation -- could be one of the best things that's ever happened to you. If credit counseling is a possibility for you, your next step is to check out theseprimers from the Federal Trade Commission. They'll give you much more detail on the ups and downs of finding the right counselor and dealing with a debt-reduction plan, and they will leave you ready to hit the ground running.

Want more great advice on improving your personal finances? Check out our Motley Fool Green Light newsletter service. Each month's issue offers excellent tips that together can save you hundreds of dollars -- guaranteed. Get full access free for 30 days -- there's no obligation to buy.

Fool contributor John Rosevear invites you to send him your comments, questions, and ideas. He does not own any of the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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John Rosevear
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John Rosevear is the senior auto specialist for Fool.com. John has been writing about the auto business and investing for over 20 years, and for The Motley Fool since 2007.

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