Need help paying off debt, understanding your budget or building your credit? You may want to seek credit counseling.
Nonprofit credit counseling agencies offer a variety of services, including general personal finance advice, homeownership counseling and more. Some services are free.
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, takes an overview of 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.
- Debt management plan: A counselor creates a plan to consolidate your consumer debts and lower the interest rate, setting up one monthly payment to erase the debt over three to five years.
- Bankruptcy counseling: The two financial education sessions that bookend the bankruptcy process: one before you file and one before your debts are discharged.
- Student loan counseling: Repayment options are discussed, and a counselor may facilitate conversations with your loan issuers.
- 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.
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, which deliver a harsh blow to credit scores.
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 can vary widely 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.
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.