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Credit Counseling: What It Is, How It Works, Credit Impact & More

Consumer Credit Counseling

Credit counseling is the process of educating consumers about personal financial management as well as the steps that one can take to either avoid accumulating unsustainable balances or escape them with minimal damage. The ultimate goal of credit counseling is to help consumers mitigate financial difficulties through careful budgeting, enrollment in debt assistance programs, and the long-term adoption of responsible monetary habits.

Not only are there different types of credit counseling companies and professionals (nonprofits usually are best), but there are also various types of counseling services – from budget analysis to court-mandated bankruptcy counseling.  A credit counselor will be able to analyze your finances and steer you toward the proper improvement plan.  It is your job to find a trustworthy counselor who knows what he/she is talking about, and we will give you the tools and information necessary to do so below.

How Does Credit Counseling Work?

Most people don’t know what to expect from a credit counseling session.  That’s normal.  But you do want to be prepared because it will give you a sense of comfort as well as enable you to more knowledgeably discuss potential solutions with your credit counselor.

Credit counseling programs typically begin with an initial consultation where you discuss your finances as well as the options that are available to you and the terms of your agreement.  This is often referred to as entrance counseling and in almost all cases it will be free of charge.

How you proceed from there will depend on the nature of your financial difficulties and therefore the type of credit counseling service you need.  Consumers who go through bankruptcy, for instance, are required to complete pre-filing and discharge credit counseling programs through a U.S. Trustee Program-approved organization.  There is no such formal requirement with most types of credit counseling, however.

In most cases, the credit counselor will do a thorough review of your finances (again, remember to bring copies of all your bills).  They will then propose a solution based on their experience and understanding of not only what is necessary in a particular situation, but also what is actually viable.

At that point, cost may or may not become a factor.  Most credit counseling services are offered free of charge, particularly non-intensive “core services” like budget analysis, credit report awareness, and overall financial literacy seminars.  If you enter into a debt management program, bankruptcy counseling or, in some cases, reverse mortgage counseling, you may be required to pay recurring (e.g. monthly) service fees.

In addition to their know-how, a good credit counseling agency will bring a network of industry contacts to the table, enabling them to get your bills back on track as efficiently as possible.  The following are among the most common types of credit counseling that you should be able to find help with:

Budgeting & Saving Strategies:  A trip to the credit counselor doesn’t necessarily have to be precipitated by serious financial difficulties, such as defaulting on debt or declaring bankruptcy.  The process can actually be rather informal, with counselors helping their clients make sense out of their finances and improve their money management efficiency through helpful budgeting and saving strategies.

Such simple guidance can have a significant positive impact, considering that only 2 in 5 people have a budget and keep close track of their spending habits, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.  What’s more, the average household owes roughly $6,700 to their credit card company, according to CardHub data, and widespread consumer overleveraging actually helped the Great Recession become as bad as it was.

Understanding Credit Reports & Scores:  Despite how inherently important credit reports and scores are to modern money management – dictating the loans and credit card rates we get, the insurance premiums we pay, and even the jobs we’re eligible for – far too few people understand them.  A good credit counselor will not only clarify the relationship between credit reports, scores and everyday personal finance, but they will also help you parse your reports for errors and devise a personalized credit improvement strategy, if necessary.

Credit Card Debt Management:  Debt management is the most common course of action recommended by credit counselors, as the vast majority of people who seek counseling are having trouble making monthly payments on a number of different unsecured balances held with different lenders.  Credit counselors are uniquely positioned to negotiate on the behalf of their clients in such instances given their knowledge of the debt management process and deep network of industry contacts.

Student Loan Payments:  Outstanding student loan debt is now in excess of $1 trillion and rising.  Considering the prodigious cost of higher education as well as the hyper-competitiveness of the job market, this issue stands to become more and more significant over time.  The right credit counselor will be able to explain your rights and obligations as a student borrower as well as apprise you of your eligibility for various repayment assistance and debt forgiveness programs.

Property Foreclosure:  No one wants short-term financial difficulties to rob them of their home.  A credit counselor may be able to help you avoid such an unfortunate event by analyzing your financial situation and helping to craft an improvement strategy.  In particular, a credit counselor will be able to explore your eligibility for a “Making Homes Affordable” loan modification or refinance program.  Such initiatives – which are designed to reduce monthly payments and enable distressed consumers to keep their homes – are part of the 2009 Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan, which was put into place in response to widespread Great Recession foreclosures.

Home Equity:  A person’s home is likely to be their most valuable asset.  As a result, it  sometimes makes sense to tap into the equity that you’ve accrued in your property in order to to garner a loan or line of credit with relatively attractive terms that you can use to refinance your mortgage, pay off debts, finance home improvements, pay for college tuition, etc.  But home equity loans, HELOCs, and reverse mortgages come with their fair share of complexity and risk.  A credit counselor can help you determine if it is wise to leverage your home equity as well as identify the best way to do so and problem-solve if you run into difficulties along the way.  

Bankruptcy Qualification:  While some people view bankruptcy as a quick, if painful, solution to their financial problems, it is neither straightforward nor a panacea.  There are various types of bankruptcy and a credit counselor can help you figure out which one is right for you, if any, as well as guide you through the process.  That includes helping you complete court-mandated entrance and exit counseling.

The plan that you, your credit counselor and all of your lenders ultimately agree to will specify all parties’ rights and obligations (including when payments are due) as well as the promised results and the repercussions of missed payments or other material breaches.  It is your job to verify, with the aid of a credit counselor, that you are doing the best thing for your wallet.  Then just abide by that agreement and make sure everyone else holds up their end of the bargain as well, especially in terms of how your accounts in question are classified on your major credit reports.

Debt Management Credit Counseling

Debt management – the process of negotiating an amended payment plan with a lender – is so widely relied upon within the credit counseling world that the two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably.  A credit counselor is likely to recommend debt management if the majority of your financial issues stem from unsustainable unsecured debts.  In such a case, having a credit counselor negotiate simultaneously on your behalf with all of your lenders, ultimately devising a mutually-beneficial payment plan, is the most logical course of action.

You just need to 1) find a credit counselor who can get you a good deal and 2) stick to the terms of the specified program until debt free.  Furthermore, make sure not to submit a payment to your credit counselor before all of your lenders are on board with the debt management program.  There are a lot of shady actors in the debt solutions industry, and many have been known to charge customers for work that is never completed.

It is important to note that even non-profits will charge for participation in a debt management program.  Money Management International, for example, charges debt management participants more than $30 per month if they do not qualify to have their fees waived due to financial hardship.  MMI, like most nonprofit credit counseling agencies, will not refuse service if you cannot afford their monthly fees. The organization’s average client sees their interest rate fall from 18.2% to 8.5% while enrolled in a debt management program.

If you aren’t thrilled with those figures, there is another option.  Consumers often attempt to negotiate a debt management arrangement on their own, i.e. DIY debt management.  This is often worth a shot if your debt is primarily concentrated with a couple of lenders, but it is very important that you are careful not to leave money on the table or agree to a plan that you will be unable to abide to, especially if you aren’t a skilled, confident negotiator.

“Most people think they know how to negotiate but actually lack fundamental skills, knowledge and protection,” says Nancy Erbe, professor of Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding at California State University, Dominguez Hills.  If someone decides to negotiate directly on their own behalf (represent themselves), they must be prepared to educate themselves about the relevant law and skilled negotiation.”

A lack of subject-matter expertise or negotiating savvy is a solvable problem, however, assuming that you’re willing to invest considerable time and effort.   Emotion and the apparent self-preservation instinct that all of our bad habits seem to have, on the other hand, are two particularly important roadblocks facing go-it-alone debt negotiators.  And one of our worst habits clearly is trying to keep pace with the treadmill that is an unsustainable lifestyle.

“Those who have learned to rely on debt as a lifestyle are ill prepared to negotiate a realistic debt workout agreement, or downsize, to a realistic sustainable lifestyle,” Erbe says.

You can read more about debt management in CardHub’s Debt Management Guide.

Bankruptcy Credit Counseling

Federal law requires anyone who is contemplating chapter 7, 11, 12, or 13 bankruptcy to receive pre-filing credit counseling as well as pre-discharge financial literacy counseling if they ultimately declare and go through the process.  That makes sense, after all, considering the significance of declaring bankruptcy and how difficult it can be to get back on the right financial track after you complete the process.

Pre-bankruptcy credit counseling basically services as an introduction to how bankruptcy works, including a breakdown of the advantages and disadvantages.  It may also include a review of your budget.

Pre-discharge counseling is designed to ensure that you are prepared to lead a sustainable financial lifestyle once bankruptcy becomes a thing of the past. One reason this is necessary is that people who have recently completed bankruptcy or a debt workout arrangement are often inundated with new financing offers because lenders know that you once again have some disposable income to play with.

Each such session should take roughly 60 – 90 minutes, and at the end you will receive a U.S. Trustee Certificate of Completion that will be filed with the court and noted on your records. You can find a list of approved credit counseling organizations on the U.S. Justice Department’s website.

It is important to note that credit counselors are not used in place of bankruptcy attorneys.  Hiring a bankruptcy attorney is typically a wise idea, as their job will be to focus on negotiating the terms of your bankruptcy agreement, while the credit counselor will help you initially determine if filing is wise and then ultimately adhere to government financial literacy requirements.

Student Loan Counseling

The Consumer Financial Projection Bureau in May 2013 estimated outstanding student loan debt to be roughly $1.2 trillion and rising.  Given the rising cost of education, the rocky economy and hyper-competitive job market, many people are being haunted by their student debt for years and years after they last attend a class.  That essentially stunts your personal economic growth, delaying when you first buy a car or a house, and thereby hurting the economy at large.

A number of legal and regulatory initiatives have therefore been launched with the aim of easing the financial burden on recent college graduates and, in turn, helping to stimulate economic growth.  While such consumer protections can be undoubtedly helpful, they can be complex and confusing as well.  And that is precisely why credit counseling can be so helpful to student borrowers.

Credit counselors, whether they work for a nonprofit credit counseling company or for a university’s financial aid office, will be able to:  1) breakdown where you stand; 2) apprise you of your options; 3) make a recommendation for how you should proceed; and 4) help you integrate useful budgeting and savings tactics into your daily life.  In short, a credit counselor will help you save money and avoid serious penalties – both monetary and otherwise – that might stem from your educational debt burden.

A credit counselor will also be able to explain your rights and obligations as they relate to various forbearance programs that are offered to help young people who are drowning in student debt, including:

  • Student Loan Rehabilitation:  Student loan rehabilitation is a federal program that gives students debtors a one-time opportunity to consolidate their defaulted student loans using a direct consolidation loan.  A credit counselor can help you choose one of the various direct consolidation loan repayment plans as well as help you improve your overall financial management in order to avoid re-defaulting.
  • Student Loan Consolidation:  If you have not defaulted on your student loan, you will not be eligible for the federal direct consolidation program.  However, your credit standing may be good enough to qualify for a new credit card or loan at a lower rate.  This would allow you to pay off some or all of what you owe your student loan provider, essentially transferring the debt obligation to a new lender offering better terms.For example, you could effectively consolidate your student loan debt with your credit debt via balance transfer in order to get a 0% intro period and pay off the rest of what you owe with no interest.  A credit counselor can advise you about what strategy is most viable for your situation as well as the best way to implement it.
  • Income-Based Repayment:  This is a federal program designed to make student loans more affordable on a monthly basis.  To qualify, you must be eligible for a partial financial hardship.  A credit counselor can determine if you meet the requirement as well as help you apply.
  • Student Loan Forgiveness:  People who make 120 monthly student loan payments while working full-time in public service jobs are eligible to have their remaining balance forgiven.  Credit counselors can help you identify jobs that qualify as well as enroll in the program.

It’s not all about the students, however.  Parents also tend to have a lot on the line when student loan repayment issues arise and credit counseling is needed.

“Student loan debt continues to be on the rise, and much of this is in the form of private educational loans which do not provide the same protections as federal loans in terms of interest rates, deferment/cancellations, multiple payment plans, etc.,” says Brad Barnett, senior associate director of the Office of Financial Aid & Scholarships at James Madison University as well as an accredited financial counselor and a certified personal financial manager.  “Most private educational lenders require co-signers for traditional undergraduate students, and that co-signer often ends up being the parent, which makes the parent just as legally responsible as the student.”

As a result, neither student borrowers nor their parents should feel shy about seeking the aid of a trained credit counselor, whether it’s to just get answers to a few questions or for a more formal arrangement.  There is, more likely than not, a handful of them already on campus anyway.

Reverse Mortgage Counseling

Reverse mortgages can be dangerous.  Not only did they rear their ugly heads when the real estate market collapsed in 2007 and homeowners were left under water:  owing more to lenders than their homes were worth.  People getting into trouble with reverse mortgages also stands to be an increasingly important issue moving forward, considering the aging population as well as the fact that people seem to be taking out reverse mortgages earlier in life and with an emphasis on upfront lump-sum payouts rather than monthly disbursements, according to a 2012 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report to Congress.

“Fixed-rate, lump-sum loans now account for about 70 percent of the market,” the report reads.  “The availability of this product may encourage some borrowers to take out all of their funds upfront even though they do not have an immediate need for the funds. In addition to having fewer resources to draw upon later in life, these borrowers face other increased risks.  Borrowers who save or invest the proceeds may be earning less on the savings than they are paying in interest on the loan, or they may be exposing their savings to risky investment choices. These borrowers also face increased risks of being targeted for fraud or other scams.”

That is why a qualified credit counselor can come in handy.  Whether it’s helping you to determine if a reverse mortgage could be beneficial and, if so, how to structure it or assisting you with mitigating the damage associated with a reverse mortgage gone back, having someone who is both knowledgeable and experienced in your corner certainly pays big dividends when it comes to doing what’s best for your wallet and garnering some much-needed peace of mind.

What you need to be careful about, however, are the shady companies and professionals that try to position themselves as consumer advocates but are really interested in taking advantage of people who are thirsty for a simple fix to their complex financial problems.  Seniors are a particularly vulnerable group given the fact that they have been building equity in their homes for a longer period of time as well as the cognitive losses one naturally sustains as they age and the notion that you can’t take money with you when you die.

You do not want to fall for their tricks.  Thankfully, researching companies online and checking out their accreditation status with major industry watchdog groups like the Better Business Bureau and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling will enable you to avoid falling for any traps.

Does Credit Counseling Hurt Your Credit?

The impact of credit counseling on your credit standing depends on the severity of your financial difficulties as well as what measures are taken to correct them.

Simply meeting with a credit counselor will, of course, have absolutely no bearing on your credit score.  However, the missed payments that might have led you there will.

Any time you fail to abide by the terms of an agreement with a lender or you enter into a program that materially alters those terms (i.e. lowers the monthly payment or forgives debt), it will be noted on your credit reports and thus cause credit score damage.  That is the case with debt management, debt settlement, bankruptcy, or pretty much any other debt solution that you could think of, short of scrimping, saving and paying in full – which isn’t even an option for many of the folks who are considering credit counseling.

The point is that debt problems breed credit score damage, which means your job at this point in time is mitigation.  You want to find the path of least resistance to debt freedom, and it can’t hurt to seek the expert opinion of a trained credit counselor offering a free consultation.

In other words, don’t let the threat of credit score damage derail you from exploring a course of action that might be beneficial in the long run, perhaps even preventing more significant credit score ramifications.

Consumer Credit Counseling Services

A credit counseling company can be either a great asset or a great liability.  It largely depends on the type of company that you decide to do business with.

Credit counseling services are offered by two basic types of companies, those with a for-profit business model and organizations with nonprofit status.  Nonprofit credit counselors tend to be the least expensive and most trustworthy, but that is more a rule of thumb than gospel.  Credit counselors vary widely in terms of reputation and effectiveness even within the nonprofit and for-profit categories.  It is therefore extremely important that you do a bit of research into a given organization before entrusting one of its credit counselors with your finances.

Below you can find a brief overview of a few of the most popular credit counseling companies, or types of credit counseling companies, in both the nonprofit and for-profit segments of the industry.

Non-Profit Credit Counseling:

  • National Foundation for Credit Counseling – Founded in 1951 and boasting 85 member agencies with more than 600 offices throughout the United States, the NFCC is both the largest and oldest nonprofit credit counseling organization in the United States.  An NFCC stamp of approval is a distinct signal of quality in the credit counseling space.
  • Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies – The AICCCA is another national credit counseling network and accreditation body.  It establishes guidelines and standards of conduct for its member organizations in addition to engaging in a variety of advocacy efforts.
  • Christian Credit Counseling – “Christian credit counseling” is neither the name of a particular company, nor indicative of any sort of religious requirement for consumer participation.  Rather, the term describes a segment of credit counseling companies that base their services on Christian values.“‘Christian’ Credit Counseling simply means that we approach the issue from a Christian/Biblical value perspective,” Larry Rosebure, operations manager for the nonprofit Christian Credit Counseling Service, told CardHub.“We have had many clients over the years who have been attracted by our higher commitment to long-term behavioral change and relationship based counseling.  As long as the client is comfortable with and tolerant of our value base, we are happy to serve their needs in any way we can.”
  • Colleges & Universities – Not only do institutions of higher learning provide student loan counseling to enrollees, but many also offer free financial literacy programs and money management clinics to local populations.

For-Profit Credit Counseling:

There are undoubtedly a number of admirable for-profit credit counseling companies.  But with so many great non-profits operating in the space, you have to wonder:  why pay for something you can get for free and without concern regarding ulterior motives?  We therefore recommend that you look for a credit counseling organization with “501(c)(3)” status, which denotes it as a verified nonprofit.

What to Look For in a Credit Counseling Service:

What to Look For

What to Avoid

Positive Reviews: Consider Better Business Bureau ratings & WalletHub reviews when researching credit counselors. Anything Too Good to Be True: Predatory companies know what indebted consumers want to hear and they’ll use that to take advantage of them.Building a thorough understanding of how the credit counseling & debt management processes work will reduce your odds of getting taken advantage of.
NonProfit Status: The various nonprofit organizations that operate in the credit counseling space typically are the most trustworthy options available to consumers.You can find a nonprofit credit counselor in your area by visiting the National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s website. Upfront Costs: Reputable credit counseling companies do not charge for services yet to be performed.
Industry Connections: Since debt management is a likely course of action, it’s good to have a credit counselor that is part of a large agency.The bigger the agency, the more industry ties it is likely to have. Online or Phone Consultations: You need to look a credit counselor in the eyes before handing over your financial life to them.If a particular credit counselor is too busy to meet in person, that indicates they don’t have the time to give your case the attention it deserves.
A Clear Fee Structure: Knowing exactly how much you’ll have to pay is essential to planning & reputable companies don’t try to trick their customers. Conflicts of Interest: If your credit counselor refers you to third-party service providers, it is fair to ask if the counseling agency has any financial ties to the recommended organization.You want unbiased advice based on what is best for your finances, not what will make the counselor the most money.
Realistic Expectations: The ideal credit counselor is a pragmatist who can clearly explain your viable options, rather than selling you a bill of goods. Overburdened Counselors: Every credit counseling case is unique, so you don’t want to do business with someone who employs a factory-line approach in order to meet the demands of a high caseload.
Free Initial Consultation: You’ll want to make sure that you’re comfortable whoever is counseling you, so the ability to schedule an in-person introductory meeting is essential. Credit Repair Companies: The for-profit credit “repair” or “relief” companies that advertise on TV & the radio are the exact type of companies you want to avoid.

Expert Advice – Finding a Credit Counselor

Back to All Experts

Peter Carnevale

Professor of Management and Organization, University of Southern California, Marshall School of BusinessMy advice is to get opinions, preferably more than one, just as if you were getting physicians’ opinions on a medical condition. These matters can be tough, and complicated, and a person should never go alone. There are great resources online. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice has a list of approved credit counseling agencies by state and judicial district, and these often are offered in a variety of languages
Back to All Experts

Terry L. Clower

Director, Center for Economic Development and Research, University of North TexasWithout meaning to cast dispersions on highly qualified and ethical for-profit credit counseling services, my suggestion is to first look to community-based, non-profit organizations, and then do lots of homework on their history, performance, and references.

Ask for and contact references. Check with the Better Business Bureau. If you were charged with a serious crime you did not commit, would you open the phone book and randomly pick an attorney to represent you?

Talk to the credit counseling agency or debt representative without up-front payment. If they spend a good part of the interview managing your expectations, meaning being honest that you do not get to walk away from your debt, that’s a good sign. If they promise to eliminate your debt, but you must pay an upfront fee, check for a clear path to the door — and use it!

Questions to Ask a Credit Counselor

Asking the right questions is essential to hiring the right service provider in any industry.  Doing so will enable you to cut through the marketing fluff, address the nuts and bolts of your business relationship, and avoid potentially costly surprises.  So, here is what you should be curious about.

  1. Does your organization have 501(c)(3) status?
  2. Is your organization accredited?  If so, by whom?
  3. How is the organization funded?  Does it have financial ties to any for-profit companies?
  4. Are you and your colleagues trained and certified as credit counselors?
  5. How long will the credit counseling process take and how much will it cost?
  6. Are services provided in-person, online, or over the phone?
  7. Will you provide the terms of our agreement in writing?
  8. How will my credit standing and tax obligations be affected?

Credit Counseling Alternatives

In addition to various state and local laws, there are a number of federal regulations in place to make the credit counseling market more transparent as well as to curb various unfair practices in the industry.  Many were implemented in response to the economic hardship of the Great Recession, the complexity of the personal finance industry, and the numerous rule changes that consumers have been forced to internalize in recent years.

  • Credit Repair Organizations Act:  This section of the Consumer Credit Protection Act is meant to prevent credit “improvement” or “repair” companies – the ones that advertise on the radio most – from flat-out lying to consumers and charging for services never to be performed.  Unfortunately, far too many predatory companies operate in the financial improvement space, looking to take advantage of desperate consumers.  That is one important reason to work with a well-reviewed nonprofit credit counseling service.
  • Fair Debt Collection Practices Act:  This law prevents debt collectors from harassing and lying to consumers.  You can read more about your rights when dealing with debt collectors in CardHub’s Credit Card Bill of Rights.
  • Reverse Mortgage Stabilization Act:  This amendment to the National Housing Act gave the Department of Housing and Urban Development the authority to make the reverse mortgage market safer, following widespread improprieties.  A credit counselor can help you find a safe reverse mortgage as well as explore assistance plans if necessary.

Credit Counseling Alternatives

There is ultimately little reason to seek true alternatives to credit counseling.  Most credit counseling services – including initial consultations – are free, so there is no harm in at least hearing what a trained expert has to say.

That is not to say, however, that you should take any credit counselor’s word for granted.   Given that you are your own biggest advocate, supplementing your credit counseling efforts with additional research is a great way to take your financial future into your own hands.  The following are some great ways to do so.

  • Independent Research:  Independent research is a great way to at least supplement credit counseling efforts.  Being your own advocate is the most reliable way to ensure that you properly diagnose and treat your financial maladies as well as avoid getting taken advantage of.  Most of us could stand to brush up on our financial literacy anyway.
  • Informal Credit Counseling:  Bouncing some ideas of a friend or relative who is knowledgeable about personal finance also can be quite helpful, if for nothing else but moral support.  You obviously shouldn’t take anything they say for granted, unless they are licensed to provide financial advice, but you can ask questions, discuss strategy, and benefit from the perspective of someone who you know is in your corner.
  • Free Bankruptcy Consultation:  Depending on the nature of your financial situation, a credit counselor may inevitably suggest exploring bankruptcy.  If you have a feeling that might be the case, scheduling a free initial consultation with a bankruptcy attorney is a great way to get the information and guidance you require.  Even if you meet with a credit counselor as well, a bankruptcy consultation is still a good idea in the sense of getting a second opinion from a very knowledgeable source.

For more information about the Bankruptcy process, check out CardHub’s Bankruptcy Guide.

Image: Goodluz/Shutterstock

Editorial Disclaimer: Editorial content is not provided or commissioned by financial institutions. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and have not been approved or otherwise endorsed by any financial institution, including those that are CardHub advertising partners. Our content is intended for general educational purposes and should not be relied upon as the sole basis for managing your finances. Furthermore, the materials on this website do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Please let us know if you have any questions or suggestions.

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