Bad Credit Helper: How To Shop for a Credit Counselor

How To Shop for a Credit Counselor

It can be a vicious cycle. A financial hardship hurts your credit, your bad credit creates financial hardship, and on and on it goes. So what’s the solution?
A professional credit counselor could you help you find your way out of this nightmare. But, as with any major financial decision, choosing the right credit counselor should be done carefully.

In many ways, shopping for a credit counselor is a lot like shopping for a bad credit lender. While there are many respectable credit counselors out there who will keep your best interest in mind, there are still a number of not-so-respectable organizations that are just trying to make a quick buck (off of you!).

Think of those organizations as the payday lenders of credit counseling. And just like payday lenders, they should be avoided at all costs!

That’s why we asked three credit counseling experts for advice on how best to shop around for a credit counselor.

(If you want to know more about the basics of credit counseling, then check out our post: Do You Need Credit Counseling?)

Look for the warnings signs.

It’s unfortunate but true: If you have bad credit, low income, or are otherwise in a financially dangerous situation, there are predatory organizations out there looking to take advantage of you. You can learn more about predatory lenders in our ebook How to Protect Yourself from Payday Loans and Predatory Lenders.

So how can you tell the difference between the legitimate credit counselors and the scammers?

Gary Herman, President of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services (@ConsolidatedUS) warns that customers should, “Be cautious of any agency that charges an upfront fee for the initial debt evaluation.”

“You should also proceed with caution if the credit counselor attempts to push you into a debt management program without fully informing you of the other debt relief options available,” says Herman.

“If the fees exceed $79 per month, it’s definitely not legit because that exceeds all state regulations.”

According to Mike Sullivan, a personal finance consultant with national nonprofit credit counseling and debt management agency Take Charge America (@TCAsolutions), says upfront payments may be common with housing counseling, student loan counseling and even investment counseling, but that “it should be a warning sign with credit counseling.”

“Another warning sign,” says Sullivan, “is an offer to put a consumer on a debt management plan (DMP) without at least a 20-minute discussion and analysis.”

“It may well take an hour or more to determine if a DMP is the best solution, but a counselor anxious to get to the business transaction is not putting the consumer’s concerns first.”

Katie Ross, Education and Development Manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling, or ACCC (@TalkCentsBlog), adds that “any agency that promises to repair your credit is a red flag that they are less than reputable.  No agency can promise this.”

What kind of research should you do?

Before you start your work with a credit counselor, you should definitely do your research. That way, the odds that you’ll end up working with a less-than-reputable organization are drastically lowered.

According to Sullivan, “There are many factors to consider in selecting an agency, such as nonprofit status, counselor certification and state licensing.”

He recommends that you “Choose an accredited agency, such as Take Charge America, to ensure the agency employs the best possible business practices (mission and purpose, quality assurance, governance and administration, service environment, financial management, ethics and confidentiality, service delivery).

“Visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) at NFCC.org to find a list of accredited agencies to ensure compliance with best-practice standards.

“You can also start with the Better Business Bureau and find credit counseling agencies in your area that have A+ ratings and can ask if they are members of NFCC. Of course, not every good credit counseling agency is a member of NFCC and not every member agency can be the best, but it is a good place to start.”

According to Ross, the kinds of research that one should conduct before working with a credit counselor include “understanding exactly what the agency is offering and make sure they can help you with your financial issues,” reading the fine print of the agreement, getting everything in writing, and “contacting your creditors and see if they are familiar  with a particular agency offering this type of service.”

If your first contact with a credit counselor is over the phone, Herman recommends that you check and make sure that “the person you’re speaking with is a certified credit counselor and not a customer service representative.”

When it comes to specific criteria you should be looking for, Ross has a very helpful list:

  • Be sure the agency is charging you reasonable fees (not more than $50/month for a debt management plan), but this can vary by state.
  • The credit counseling agency should be non-profit.
  • The agency should have been in business for at least seven to ten years.
  • The counselors at the credit counseling agency should be certified by an independent organization.
  • The agency should be accredited by the International Standards Organization (ISO) or by the Council on Accreditation (COA).
  • The agency should be a member of one of the trade associations: either Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA) or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).
  • Consumers should consider checking with the Better Business Bureau for any consumer complaints made against the agency.
  • The agency you are considering should be licensed and bonded to do business in your state.
  • The agency’s willingness to waive the fees if you simply can’t afford them.
  • The agency should spend a reasonable amount of time for your consultation/budgeting session. At least an hour is needed.
  • The agency should provide you with a written budget based on your personal financial situation.
  • And lastly, the agency should be willing to offer free education to help you learn how to manage your finances. They should also provide ongoing education while in a debt management plan or even if you decided a DMP is not for you.

Consider some DIY financial solutions…

While credit counseling is a great financial solution for many people, it is by no means your only option. In fact, much of the work you do with a credit counselor is work that you can do yourself at home.

Of course, it helps to have a professional working it through with you. But with a little determination and a whole lot of perseverance, you can tackle most financial problems yourself.

“There is very little a credit counseling agency does that a consumer could not do alone,” says Sullivan. “Every consumer could create a budget, analyze cash flow, prioritize payments, negotiate credit card terms and institute a plan for getting out of debt in five years or less.”

Unfortunately, most consumers will not do all this by themselves, but just having a written budget and monitoring expenses for sixty days goes a long way toward taking control of your financial health.

Herman agrees. “If a household has cash flow available in their budget, they can implement a debt reduction plan on their own,’ he says. “You use your extra cash to pay off one debt at a time as quickly as possible, typically starting with the debt that has the highest APR first.”

“Consumers can also call their creditors individually to negotiate lower interest rates, which can make it easier to pay back a debt. In addition, there are several options for do-it-yourself debt consolidation, such as credit card balance transfers and personal debt consolidation loans.”

Lastly, there’s one piece of advice that Herman says is most important of all: “Having ten percent of your take home pay deducted from your check and put into a separate savings account will eventually make you successful.”

“The key to financial success is really saving; debt is just the way non-savers deal with expenses,” he says.

Do you have experience with credit counseling? Did you find it helpful? We’d love to hear from you! You can get in touch with us on Twitter at @OppLoans.

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Contributors
Gary Herman, President of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. (@ConsolidatedUS), is a consumer credit specialist and an AFCPE Certified Credit Counselor. He has been a part of Consolidated Credit for over 20 years and his expertise in establishing operations and marketing policies, hiring, and training financial counselors, has been a crucial advantage in Consolidated Credit’s success. As an expert who examines consumer credit trends, causes and effects of financial over-extension, Mr. Herman has been able to predict the needs of financially burdened consumers and provide Consolidated Credit’s certified counselors with the tools and educational materials required to keep ahead of the public’s needs.
Katie Ross joined the American Consumer Credit Counseling, or ACCC (@TalkCentsBlog), management team in 2002 and is currently responsible for organizing and implementing high-performance development initiatives designed to increase consumer financial awareness. Ms. Ross’s main focus is to conceptualize the creative strategic programming for ACCC’s client base and national base to ensure a maximum level of educational programs that support and cultivate ACCC’s organization.
Mike Sullivan is a personal finance consultant with Take Charge America (@TCAsolutions), a national nonprofit credit counseling and debt management agency. He has more than 25 years of experience educating consumers about a wide range of budgeting, credit, debt and saving issues, and was instrumental in building Take Charge America’s financial education department and community initiatives. More at takechargeamerica.org.