How Credit Counseling Can Help You

Credit counselors offer free budgeting assistance and other services to help your finances.

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Written by Sean Pyles
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Edited by Kathy Hinson
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Nonprofit credit counseling agencies offer money advice, including some free assistance — no matter your financial situation. You might want their help if you've recently lost your job and are struggling to figure out your budget or want to explore your debt payoff options.

While you can likely get the help of a nonprofit credit counselor near you, many agencies offer assistance over the phone or online nationally. Nonprofit credit counseling agencies offer a variety of services, including general personal finance advice, homeownership counseling and more.

Here’s a detailed look at what's offered, as well as how to choose an agency and get started.

Services available at credit counseling agencies

The five main services available from credit counseling agencies are:

  • General budgeting: A free initial session, typically an hour long, explores your financial life, including income, expenses and financial goals. At the end of this session, you and the counselor may decide you could benefit from additional counseling, including debt counseling or help managing your credit.

  • Debt management plan: A counselor creates a plan to consolidate your consumer debts and lower the interest rate on your credit card debt, setting up one monthly payment to pay off the debt over three to five years. The plan typically has a set-up fee and monthly fee.

  • Bankruptcy counseling: The two financial education sessions that bookend the bankruptcy process: one before you file and one before your debts are discharged. Both carry a small fee.

  • Student loan counseling: Repayment options are discussed, and a counselor may facilitate conversations with your loan issuers. There may be a free tier of service and paid offerings.

  • Housing counseling: Whether you’re having trouble making rent or are a first-time home buyer, there are a variety of counseling options available to help you better understand and manage the cost of housing. There may be a fee, depending on the service chosen.

While credit counseling agencies typically offer many if not all of these services, they are primarily known for their debt management plans. Debt management plans are a form of debt relief that is less drastic than bankruptcy or debt settlement.

In addition, many agencies offer educational courses and resources online, often for free.

What to look for in a credit counseling agency

The first step to working with a credit counseling agency is finding one that you’d like to work with. Consider:

Accreditation and certification: Ensuring the agency you’re working with is accredited and certified is a good way to verify that it’s a reputable agency. Be wary of any for-profit company that purports to be a credit counseling agency.

Most nonprofit agencies are members of either the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America. Both of these groups have certification requirements to ensure a standard level of education and quality among counselors. They also require accreditation, in which an outside body checks that standards of practice are being met.

Access: When choosing a credit counseling agency, ask yourself how you’d rather receive services: over the phone, in person or online. While many agencies are accredited in 50 states, most only offer in-person counseling in select locations.

Cost: Price of services varies by agency, state and individual financial need. Before you commit to a service, verify how much you’ll pay monthly so you fully understand the overall cost.

Be aware that nonprofit credit counselors are different from for-profit credit repair companies, which offer services you can often do on your own.

Credit counseling services are also different from debt settlement, which is marketed as a quick fix but it’s not a good option for most people.

Getting started

Take a few minutes to gather the details of your finances before calling a credit counseling agency. The initial session will cover everything in your budget from a mortgage to movie tickets, so the more details you have in hand, the better.

Shop around. You can try the free initial session at more than one agency in order to compare. You’ll likely have an ongoing relationship with the one you choose, so you’ll want to be sure that you can afford the fees and feel comfortable working with its agents.

» LEARN: How credit counseling works in Canada

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