Get the facts:
Credit Counseling and Debt Management Plans
The majority of the content in this article is provided by the United States Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov
If you’re having trouble paying your bills and are facing challenges getting caught up—especially if you’re getting calls or notices from creditors—it may be time to learn more about what you can do to correct your situation. If you’ve exhausted the options to work out of debt on your own, there are other resources you may want to consider. Before you decide on your next step, educate yourself about your options because the course you choose today may also impact your future.
Many credit counseling organizations are nonprofit and work with you to solve your financial problems. But be aware that just because an organization says its “nonprofit,” there’s no guarantee that its services are free, affordable, or even legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, which may be hidden, or urge consumers to make “voluntary” contributions that can cause more debt.
Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. If possible, find an organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.
Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.
Debt Management Plans
If your financial problems stem from too much debt or your inability to repay your debts, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you enroll in a debt management plan (DMP). A DMP alone is not credit counseling, and DMPs are not for everyone. You should sign up for one of these plans only after a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation and has offered you customized advice on managing your money. Even if a DMP is appropriate for you, a reputable credit counseling organization still can help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.
In a DMP, you deposit money each month with the credit counseling organization, which uses your deposits to pay your unsecured debts, like your credit card bills, student loans, and medical bills, according to a payment schedule the counselor develops with you and your creditors. Your creditors may agree to lower your interest rates or waive certain fees, but check with all your creditors to be sure they offer the concessions that a credit counseling organization describes to you. A successful DMP requires you to make regular, timely payments, and could take 48 months or more to complete. Ask the credit counselor to estimate how long it will take for you to complete the plan. You may have to agree not to apply for — or use — any additional credit while you’re participating in the plan. In addition, it’s important for you to know your participation in a DMP is noted on your credit report and could impact your ability to obtain credit in the future.
Be wary of credit counseling organizations that:
- Charge high up-front or monthly fees for enrolling in credit counseling or a DMP.
- Pressure you to make “voluntary contributions,” another name for fees.
- Won’t send you free information about the services they provide without requiring you to provide personal financial information, such as credit card account numbers and balances.
- Try to enroll you in a DMP without spending time reviewing your financial situation.
- Offer to enroll you in a DMP without teaching you budgeting and money management skills.
- Demand that you make payments into a DMP before your creditors have accepted you into the program.
You may be able to lower your cost of credit by consolidating your debt through a second mortgage or a home equity line of credit. Remember that these loans require you to put up your home as collateral.
What’s more, the costs of consolidation loans can add up. In addition to interest on the loans, you may have to pay “points,” with one point equal to one percent of the amount you borrow. Still, these loans may provide certain tax advantages that are not available with other kinds of credit.
Debt Negotiation Programs
Debt negotiation differs greatly from credit counseling and DMPs. It can be very risky, and have a long term negative impact on your credit report and, in turn, your ability to get credit. That’s why many states have laws regulating debt negotiation companies and the services they offer. Contact your state Attorney General for more information.
While creditors have no obligation to agree to negotiate the amount a consumer owes, they have a legal obligation to provide accurate information to the credit reporting agencies, including your failure to make monthly payments. That can result in a negative entry on your credit report. And in certain situations, creditors may have the right to sue you to recover the money you owe. In some instances, when creditors win a lawsuit, they have the right to garnish your wages or put a lien on your home. Finally, the Internal Revenue Service may consider any amount of forgiven debt to be taxable income.
Debt negotiation firms may claim they’re nonprofit. They also may claim that they can arrange for your unsecured debt—typically credit card debt—to be paid off for anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the balance owed.
The firms often pitch their services as an alternative to bankruptcy. They may claim that using their services will have little or no negative impact on your ability to get credit in the future, or that any negative information can be removed from your credit report when you complete their debt negotiation program. The firms usually tell you to stop making payments to your creditors, and instead, send payments to the debt negotiation company. The firm may promise to hold your funds in a special account and pay your creditors on your behalf.
Just because a debt negotiation company describes itself as a “nonprofit” organization, there’s no guarantee that the services they offer are legitimate. There also is no guarantee that a creditor will accept partial payment of a legitimate debt. In fact, if you stop making payments on a credit card, late fees and interest usually are added to the debt each month. If you exceed your credit limit, additional fees and charges also can be added. This can cause your original debt to double or triple. What’s more, most debt negotiation companies charge consumers substantial fees for their services, including a fee to establish the account with the debt negotiator, a monthly service fee, and a final fee of a percentage of the money you’ve supposedly saved.
Turning to a business that offers help in solving debt problems may seem like a reasonable solution when your bills become unmanageable. But before you do business with any company, check it out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and the Better Business Bureau. They can tell you if any consumer complaints are on file about the firm you’re considering doing business with. Ask your state Attorney General if the company is required to be licensed to work in your state and, if so, whether it is.
Some businesses that offer to help you with your debt problems may charge high fees and fail to follow through on the services they sell. Others may misrepresent the terms of a debt consolidation loan, failing to explain certain costs or mention that you’re signing over your home as collateral. Businesses advertising voluntary debt reorganization plans may not explain that the plan is a bankruptcy filing, tell you everything that’s involved, or help you through what can be a long and complex process.
You should be cautious of claims from so-called credit repair clinics. Many companies appeal to consumers with poor credit histories, promising to clean up credit reports for a fee. But you already have the right to have any inaccurate information in your file corrected. And a credit repair clinic cannot have accurate information removed from your credit report, despite their promises. You also should know that federal and some state laws prohibit these companies from charging you for their services until the services are fully performed. Only time and a conscientious effort to repay your debts will improve your credit report.
If you’re thinking about getting help to stabilize your financial situation, do some homework first. Find out what services a business provides and what it costs, and don’t rely on verbal promises. Get everything in writing, and read your contracts carefully.
For More Information
This information was provided by the Federal Trade Commission. For more information, see Fiscal Fitness: Choosing a Credit Counselor, at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre26.shtm
The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261.