A few months ago, after I had written an article on debt consolidation services , I started emailing Jay, the voice behind Debt Podcast  and Managing Attorney at the Debt Relief Law Center of New York , who gave me a little more education on the subject. I asked him, and he generously agreed, if he’d be willing to write a series of articles on these subjects and this is the first of them – an explanation of what credit counseling is, what to expect, and to be aware of.
Credit counseling, also known as debt consolidation, is professional counseling provided by organizations that help consumers find ways to repay their debt – through careful budgeting and management of money. This is usually performed by the credit counseling agency taking over your debt payment; you agree to pay a certain amount each month to the credit counseling agency, which is then paid out among all of your creditors.
There are many non-profit credit counseling organizations are nonprofit that will work with you to solve your financial problems. But just because an organization says it is “nonprofit,” there’s no guarantee that its services are free, affordable, or even legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, which may be hidden, urge consumers to make “voluntary” contributions that can cause more debt, urge consumers to enter “debt repayment plans” they simply cannot afford.
Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, the Internet, or on the telephone. If possible, it probably best to find an
organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.
Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Legitimate counselors will discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.
If your financial problems stem from too much debt or your inability to repay your debts, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you enroll in what is knows as a “debt management plan” or “DMP”. A DMP alone is not credit counseling, and DMPs are not for everyone. You should sign up for one of these plans only after a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation, has offered you customized advice on managing your money, and has analyzed your budget to make sure that the proposed DMP is one you can afford. However, remember that all organizations that promote DMP’s fund themselves in part through kickbacks from the creditors involved, which are called “fair share”, so you have to be wary as to whose best interest the counselor has in mind.
Even if a DMP is not appropriate for you, a reputable credit counseling organization still can help you create a budget and teach you money management skills. In a DMP, you deposit money each month with the credit counseling organization, which uses your deposits to pay your unsecured debts, like your credit card bills and medical bills, according to a payment schedule the counselor develops with your creditors. Your creditors may agree to lower your interest rates or waive certain fees, but it’s always best to check with all your creditors, just to make sure they offer the concessions that a credit counseling organization is promising you. A successful DMP requires you to make regular, timely payments, and could take 48 months or more to complete. Ask the credit counselor to estimate how long it will take for you to complete the plan. You may have to agree not to apply for — or use — any additional credit while you’re participating in the plan, and a DMP is absolutely useless if your problems stem from or involve your secured creditors holding your car, truck or home as collateral. DMP’s are also useless if your problems stem from alimony, child support or overdue taxes.
If you’re not disciplined enough to create a workable budget and stick to it, can’t work out a repayment plan with your creditors, can’t keep track of mounting bills, or need more help with your debts than can be achieved by merely having a few of your unsecured creditors lower your interest rates somewhat, it makes NO sense to consider contacting a credit counseling organization.
The bottom line is this: If all you need is a little lowering of your interest rates on some unsecured debts, a DMP might be the answer. However, if what you really need is to reduce the amount of your debt, bankruptcy may be the only solution.
This article was written with assistance from John T. Orcutt, Esq.,  a consumer bankruptcy attorney in North Carolina.