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Could a credit counselor help me?

If you're juggling multiple debts without a plan, struggling to get by on a limited income, or just want financial guidance, a credit counselor may be able to help you create a personalized plan. Here's what you should know before you get started.

Credit counselors are trained to take a holistic look at your finances and help you reduce debt and use credit responsibly. Counselors review your finances, including your income, expenses and debts. Depending on your needs, they can help you create a personalized budget, a debt repayment plan or a general plan of action for your finances.

A counselor may be able to help you develop a plan to break out of a paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, to get out of debt or to prepare to buy a home. Or, a counselor may be able to help if you’re looking for general financial education or a plan to make sure you’re covered in the case of something unforeseen.

Most reputable credit counseling agencies operate as nonprofit organizations. The counselors are certified and trained in credit, debt management and financial education.

Watch out: To avoid unethical credit counseling agencies, steer clear of anyone who can’t confirm that they’re certified, won’t answer basic questions unless you reveal personal details, requires money upfront or promises to make your debt disappear without any work on your part.

The Federal Trade Commission has recommendations for locating reputable credit counselors and avoiding scams, and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling also maintains a list of agencies. You can also check the Better Business Bureau for complaints.

Watch out: You may see companies advertised as “debt settlement agencies.” These companies typically charge a fee and claim to resolve your debt for you. These programs can be very risky, warns the FTC, and may even break the law.

An agency should be able to show you that they’re certified and licensed to provide services in your state. Then ask what services they offer, what fees you'll be expected to pay, and how they safeguard your personal information. If a credit counselor can't answer these questions or puts you ill at ease, keep looking.

Many nonprofit credit counseling agencies charge nothing or very little for an initial consultation. The agency should be clear and straightforward about any fees that are required.

Watch out: If an agency requires you to pay a lot of money upfront, or if the counselor pushes you to sign up for extra fee-based services or make a “contribution” to the agency, look elsewhere.

Expect to share information about your income, debts, expenses and use of credit, as well as your short- and long-term goals. If you’re expecting changes to your finances, like a reduction in salary, that’s important, too. The more honest you are, the better they'll be able to understand your financial situation and offer strategies for paying off debt and managing credit.

A reputable counselor won’t have a limit. You may need just one session to set up a workable budget. Or if you might benefit from a plan to repay unsecured debt, you might sign up for repeat sessions and pay small, ongoing fees you pay it down. You can talk with a counselor before you sign up to make sure that kind of program will accomplish your goals.

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Disclaimer

The material provided on this website is for informational use only and is not intended for financial or investment advice. Bank of America and/or its partners assume no liability for any loss or damage resulting from one's reliance on the material provided. Please also note that such material is not updated regularly and that some of the information may not therefore be current. Consult with your own financial professional when making decisions regarding your financial or investment management.

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