Managing Debt

How to Pick a Good Credit Counseling Agency

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When unexpected bills wipe out your savings or force you to max out your credit cards, you may be tempted to sign up with a credit counseling agency that promises to help you out of a financial jam.

After all, many ads from credit counseling companies say they can eliminate your debts, stop creditor calls, and even restore your credit scores.

While it’s easy to fall prey to individuals or businesses promising a quick financial fix, the truth is that getting out of debt often takes time, commitment, and often the assistance of a trustworthy, properly licensed/registered credit counseling agency.

So as you consider your options – everything from a debt management plan to bankruptcy – here are six tips to keep in mind when choosing a credit-counseling agency.

1. Rely on Word-of-Mouth

One good way to find a reputable credit-counseling firm is to ask friends or relatives if they’ve used a trustworthy company that they would recommend. Word of mouth is often the best advertising because your family members or pals likely won’t suggest a company if they haven’t had a positive experience with the business.

While most individuals are loath to discuss their financial circumstances (especially when they’ve faced economic setbacks), you can still discreetly ask around for recommendations from people you know and trust.

2. Consider Your Credit

If you’re just getting started evaluating all your options, think through how each alternative will impact your credit score. Bankruptcy will hurt your credit rating, while credit counseling and a debt management plan may be the best option for preserving your credit standing. After all, with the latter two options, you’re not looking for a way to avoid paying your bills; you just want to find a way that makes it possible for you to pay your bills within a doable plan.

3. Check the Agency’s Breadth and Depth of Experience

When you’re trying to find a credit counseling agency, seek out those that offer a range of services, from pure and simple help with your budget to a monthly debt management plan that will get you back on track with creditors.

Because people rarely experience just a single credit or debt problem (such as credit card debt alone), you’ll find that credit counselors typically also offer other services. Among these services are: pre- and post-bankruptcy filing, general credit counseling and debtor education, housing counseling, homebuyer education, reverse mortgage counseling and even student loan counseling. You may or may not need some of these services.

4. Seek Agencies That Emphasize Financial Education

Be leery of firms that want to immediately put you in a debt management program or sign you up for various services without taking the time to understand your complete financial picture or give you some basic personal finance education. Without proper financial education you may indeed eliminate your debt, but you could wind up with the same problems down the road. So seek agencies that strive to provide you with information, tools and resources to help you make better ongoing financial decisions, like saving more money, using credit cards wisely, and creating and sticking to a budget.

5. Watch Out for Exorbitant Fees

For any credit counseling agency you work with, be sure to ask about their fees. The fees an agency charges should be reasonable, and most importantly, suitable for your budget. Avoid paying large monthly charges or upfront fees to any company – especially if they ask for hefty cash payments before they’ve even done any work.

6. Choose Properly Licensed Agencies

If your state of residency requires credit-counseling agencies to be licensed/registered, the agency you choose to work with must abide by that requirement. So make sure you check them out and are satisfied that any firm you’re considering is properly licensed as mandated by law.

To do this part of your due diligence, check the website of your state attorney general and/or state consumer protection agency to look at a list of licensees (if that is a state requirement) as well as complaints that may have been filed against the company.

Also, realize that sometimes whether or not a firm is designated as a “for profit” entity or a nonprofit can be a bit misleading. The truth is that if an agency, whether for profit or nonprofit, isn’t properly licensed/registered, its taxable status becomes irrelevant. Once an agency has met all state requirements as applicable, they will be audited by the state. Unscrupulous agencies will be weeded out.

By using these six tips, you’ll be able to find credible, trustworthy and affordable credit counseling agency when you need it.

[Editor’s note: As you pay down your debt, it can be helpful to follow your progress by checking your credit scores regularly. You can get your credit scores for free using online tools from sites like Credit.com. It’s also important to regularly check your credit reports, which you can do for free through AnnualCreditReport.com, to stay informed on your accounts and to make sure they’re accurate.]

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