There is an escape route for millions of Americans trapped in debt: it’s called credit counseling. Credit Counseling educates consumers on the root cause of debt and provides financial tools to steer them away from maxed-out credit cards and dead or dormant savings accounts.
Consumers can choose to receive credit counseling through an online credit counseling application or by calling a certified financial counselor. Both processes require the same information and take about the same mount of time.
Fast Facts about Credit Counseling
- Certified credit counselors are trained in the following: budgeting; credit; collections and debt management; consumer rights and responsibilities and bankruptcy.
- Financial and personal information offered by clients is confidential. Meeting with a counselor, and identifying a debt solution, won’t impact your credit score.
- Anyone considering a non-profit debt management plan or bankruptcy, must first undergo credit counseling.
Certified financial counselors conduct 20-40 minute interviews to gather information about a person’s financial situation. They are trained experts at evaluating the data, educating clients on debt relief options and explaining the pros and cons of debt management plans. Every solution is customized based on the consumer’s income and debt obligations. Help is available for making and balancing budgets, using credit effectively, managing money and starting a savings plan. It is not a “One Size Fits All” process, but the goal is the same for every client: Eliminate debt.
The Federal Trade Commission recommends contacting non-profit credit counseling agencies for in-person, over-the-phone or online interviews. Most non-profits offer credit counseling for free or at minimal cost.
The FTC website warns that non-profit status does not guarantee the services are free and suggests careful research before choosing a credit counseling company. If there is a cost, reputable firms will disclose their fee structure up front, in writing.
InCharge offers credit counseling services for free. The company has received an A-plus rating from the Better Business Bureau and counseled more than one million consumers since 1997.
What happens in a credit counseling session?
Credit counseling can be done in person, over-the-phone, or online. A client will answer questions about income, expenses, budgets and assets. It is best to have this information available when you begin the process.Clients answer questions about the circumstances that caused financial problems; steps taken to address the debt; cash flow available every month and any assets that could be used in solving the problem.
The information gathering usually takes twenty to thirty minutes. For clients who use the online counseling tool, a solution is presented based on the information provided. For clients speaking with a counselor on the telephone, the debt relief options are described in detail. Possible solutions include a Debt Management Program (DMP), bankruptcy, or further counseling.
Certified Financial Counselors at InCharge offer those options, plus referrals to other services (like those offering student loan solutions, mortgage counseling, etc), if that serves the client’s best interests. Read more about what happens during credit counseling.
Selecting a credit counseling agency
Choosing a credit counseling agency is similar to choosing a home or automobile. It pays to do research and seek advice from trusted sources, before making a final decision.
There are many places to go for credit counseling – non-profit agencies, credit unions, for-profit agencies, religious organizations, military family service centers – but not everyone involved in those organizations is qualified for this very important job.
Take time to do research and speak with family or friends who have been through the experience, before choosing a credit counseling agency.
Some important things to consider:
- Make sure the agency is licensed and accredited. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) requires member organizations to adhere to strict standards and regular audits for data security, counselor accreditation and results-oriented customer service.
- Be sure the organization is certified by Council on Accreditation before signing up for their program.Be certain the counselors are certified, preferably by the NFCC.
- Contact the state attorney general or Better Business Bureau for records of complaints and how the agency responded to complaints.
- Does the agency offer educational workshops and reading materials?Ask for a contract. Get everything – fees, services, time in the program – in writing.
For-Profit vs. Non-Profit Credit Counseling
There are many choices available for credit counseling, but both the FTC and the NFCC suggest you work with legitimate non-profit credit counseling organizations. The NFCC, which certifies Financial Counselors and companies, has approved 83 non-profit agencies. No for-profit companies are accredited by the NFCC.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that 100 percent of the money that consumers send our approved agencies, goes to the creditors,” Pam Carter, the senior director of membership at the NFCC, said. “We don’t hold anything back. That’s not always the case with the for-profit agencies.”
Financial counselors for non-profits operate under strict state and organizational guidelines designed to insure they act in their client’s best interests. Non-profits are frequently audited by states to insure they comply with all of that state’s regulations. Non-profits must demonstrate that they are acting in the best interests of all of their clients. For example, InCharge offers clients monthly newsletters with money-saving tips and stories of people who have gotten out of debt to help motivate clients to do the same.
InCharge also does community workshops and provides financial calculators that allow people to track their progress while eliminating debt.
- NA, (2012, November) Choosing a Credit Counselor. Retrieved from https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0153-choosing-credit-counselor
- NA, ND Credit Counseling Guidelines. Retrieved from http://www.nfcc.org/CreditCounseling/counseling_guidelines.cfm
- NA, ND Tips on Choosing a Credit Counseling Agency. Retrieved from http://www.bbb.org/us/article/tips-on-choosing-a-credit-counseling-agency-6104