If you’re concerned that you may fall behind on your payments (or even if you already have), you may have considered working with a credit counseling company to help you manage your money and debt. In addition, credit counselors typically provide free materials on budgeting and improving your knowledge about your finances.
If you decide to work with a credit counseling company, be sure to consider these important questions.
1) Have you reached out to your current creditors first? It’s always a good idea to reach out to your creditors to see if they have repayment plans or programs for financial hardship.
2) Is the credit counseling company willing to send you free information? Most credit counseling services should provide you with free education or information detailing the services they offer (before they charge you any fees or learn about your personal situation). The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggests checking with your State Attorney General’s office or local consumer protection agencies before selecting a company.
3) Does the company charge a fee? Make sure you understand the costs. Some credit counseling services charge a fee, while others are free. If possible, try to find a service offered through a non-profit organization (they’re more likely to be free). Even if they don’t charge for financial education or advice, there may be a cost if you decide to enter into a debt management plan. Under such a plan, you would make payments to the credit counseling company, which would then submit payments to your creditors. If you decide to participate in a debt management plan, credit counselors normally work directly with creditors on your behalf. Just remember that even if a company is making payments on your behalf, the debt is still your responsibility. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on all of your accounts and make sure payments are actually being made.
4) Are they making any promises? Sometimes a promise may be too good to be true. A credit counselor should never guarantee that all of your debt will go away. Be careful if a company requires you to pay a fee and promises to get negative information deleted off your credit report. Unless the information is fraudulent or incorrect, credit bureaus are unlikely to remove negative information. In addition, if the counseling company makes any promises or statements about your debt, ask for them in writing.
5) How will this affect your credit score? Generally, credit counseling will not have a direct affect on your credit score. However, be sure to consider how any outstanding debts will be reported. Normally, credit counselors do not negotiate for your balance to be lower, but double check. If a balance is reported as “settled,” it may reflect negatively on your credit history. When a debt is settled, that means it’s repaid for less than the original amount owed. Some creditors may agree to this, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be reported positively.
For more on choosing a credit counselor, read tips from the FTC.
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Disclaimer: LendUp is not providing financial, legal or tax advice. If you need or want such advice, please consult a qualified advisor.