Many Americans feel they’re destined to struggle with their debts all alone. But they shouldn’t. In fact, credit counseling agencies exist specifically to help borrowers with debts understand their financial situations and options.
Can credit counseling really help borrowers better their personal finances? According to research cited by the FDIC, consumers who receive credit counseling “have statistically significant improvements in debt reduction” compared to those who aren’t counseled. What can credit counseling do for borrowers?
The study outlines a few potential benefits:
- Bring more awareness to the reality of household finances
- Help boost financial literacy for more informed decision-making
- Boost support and accountability while managing personal finances
- Use debt management to favorably change the “composition or cost of debt”
Reaping these potential benefits from consumer credit counseling starts with choosing the right counselor.
Here are some tips on how to go about evaluating a consumer credit counselor.
Know Your Debts & Needs
It’s difficult to find a well-matched credit counseling professional if you’re not even sure what you hope to gain from your sessions. This is a time to get specific. Do you need help with general budgeting and reducing credit card debt? Are you specifically looking for pre-bankruptcy counseling? Are you in need of assistance when it comes to avoiding home foreclosure?
Be prepared to communicate your challenges and goals. The more you can tell a potential credit counselor during an initial consultation, the more closely you can see whether he or she aligns with your needs.
Furthermore, take the time to learn all about credit counseling ahead of time so that you know exactly what to expect. Online resources like the Bills.com consumer credit counseling center and many others outline every step of the process, as well as some of the big positives and negatives.
Vet Agency and Counselor Qualifications
Another facet of choosing an effective credit counselor is vetting the qualifications of that person, and the agency the person represents.
A good rule of thumb is to start your search using a database of industry accredited agencies. For instance, agencies that are certified as members of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling must pass annual audits and operate according to strict standards. For example, such agencies must do an in-depth review of each borrower’s financial situation before enrolling the borrower in a debt management program. This ensures that consumers get the most from their experience, while helping to weed out scam companies.
After checking out an agency’s credentials, you’ll also want to interview any prospective counselors about their work experience and professional qualifications. These candidates should have no problem providing this information early on in your conversation, whether or not you agree to enroll.
Make Sure It’s a Good Match
On a more personal level, you also want to make sure you feel comfortable communicating with your counselor. As NerdWallet advises, you want to make sure a counselor is a good fit for your needs and goals. So, be sure to ask the counselor about their approach to working with clients.
Use the initial free consultation as a barometer for how well you get along with a counselor and how well you believe an individual can help you with your financial situation.
Consider How Much You’ll Pay in Fees
While the first meeting with a non-profit credit counselor should be free, you may face fees if you decide to enroll in an official debt management program. Avoid nasty surprises down the line by asking about any and all fees up front.
Evaluating a consumer credit counselor means doing your research on the process, agency, counselor, and fee structure before signing anything.
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