Nonprofit credit counseling agencies provide free or low-cost financial education services and counseling on a variety of topics. Those looking for financial guidance, especially those who don’t have the resources to work with a financial advisor, may find the help they need through credit counseling.
We asked credit counselors Jeffrey Arevalo and Kim Sands of GreenPath Financial Wellness, a nonprofit credit counseling agency and member of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor, how people who don’t yet need credit counseling may still benefit from it.
Why might credit counseling make sense even for people who are not in financial distress?
Arevalo: Part of being financially fit is being proactive. Even if things are stable, life tends to throw us curveballs, and those who have a financial plan will be better equipped to handle those tough times. We have a tendency to be reactive when it comes to our finances, but that mindset can undermine our overall chances of financial success.
Sands: There are many times that seeking the assistance from a credit counselor could be beneficial. For some people it is an upcoming life change like getting married, having a baby or nearing retirement. Others may just want to be able to save a little more, get a better handle on their budget or simply understand their credit report.
How might you use credit counseling to get a handle on your finances if you can’t afford a full-on financial planner?
Arevalo: Credit counselors can help you develop short- and long-term financial goals, which is the basis for a financially healthy life. They can also discuss strategies to help with day-to-day budgeting. They can provide referrals to community, state or federal services or to an appropriate contact for additional help with specific financial issues or questions. A credit counselor can point you to programs and resources — many at a minimal cost — that can help you with your ongoing finances. Unfortunately, the cost of ignoring your financial health can be much greater.
Sands: A free, one-on-one session with a certified credit counselor can help an individual gain a new perspective on their personal budget, credit, savings and more. A credit counselor can share educational tools and materials, develop a detailed financial plan and provide follow-up support.
Are there certain life stages or financial issues for which credit counseling can be particularly helpful?
Arevalo: Any stage in life can be a good time for credit counseling. From the person who is just starting to build their credit profile, to someone who is more established and is wondering if they’re on the right track financially, credit counseling can be very beneficial. A good counselor will identify financial strengths or weaknesses and help you develop a plan to harness or address them.
Sands: Most life stages and changes have a financial impact on your budget, whether you are going to college, just graduating, buying your first car or house, starting a family, losing your job, going through divorce or retiring. A credit counselor can be enormously helpful during these times.
For example, if you find out your job is being eliminated, that’s an ideal time to get help from a certified consumer credit counselor. Your counselor can help you develop a plan, including finding expenses you can reduce or eliminate and ensuring that you’re making the best use of your assets. He or she may also create a forecast budget, using estimated figures (like unemployment benefits, help from family, your own assets, etc.) to help you navigate the change. Your counselor can help you determine if you can or should use available credit (like credit cards, home equity, 401(k)s or lines of credit) in the short term. You’ll be able to receive continued follow-up sessions and support as needed.
GreenPath Financial Wellness is a nationwide, nonprofit financial counseling and education organization.