Do You Need Help From a Credit Counselor?

How to recognize the warning signs—and what might be holding you back.

Your school's financial aid director should be ready to discuss student debt issues with you.
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However, make sure the debt collector calling you is legitimate. Debt collectors are required to operate under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Two signs you could be dealing with a deceptive debt collector are if they call outside the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. or use profane language (both are outlined by the act). If the debt doesn't sound familiar, ask the collector for documentation.

You're living paycheck to paycheck. This means every cent you earn is spoken for, and you're putting yourself or your family on a slippery slope, Cunningham says. If you experience even the slightest financial hiccup, you'll fall behind. You need some wiggle room each month for unforeseen expenses, such as auto repair.

Often, this can be fixed by pinpointing places where you can cut discretionary spending. A credit counselor will go through your budget line by line to help you figure out ways to reform bad spending habits.

Debt is creating tension in your household. If debt is a source of arguments between you and your spouse, a credit counselor can reduce the strain by providing ways to minimize your debt. If you and your spouse do everything you can to avoid talking about money, that's also a sign you need help.

You hide bills and financial information from your spouse. Cunningham calls this "financial infidelity," meaning you have a secret financial life apart from your spouse. You may have credit cards your spouse doesn't know about, or you lock purchases in the trunk of your car because you don't want your spouse to see you carrying them inside. You may even get your own post office box, so that if your spouse beats you home, he or she doesn't get to the mail before you.

You're using cash advances or payday loans. This indicates you've created a lifestyle beyond which your income can support. Cash advances and payday loans come with sky-high interest rates, and using them will only dig you deeper into debt. "I see many people who are repeat users of payday loans, in which case they need credit counseling desperately," Jones says.

You don't know how much you're in debt. If you've lost track of how much you owe or to whom you owe it, Cunningham says you've "buried your head in the financial sand."

Says Vered: "A lot of times consumers will come in with a bunch of unopened bills in a plastic bag because they've gotten to the point where they're scared to find out how much they owe." If that's the case, it's time to face the facts. Delaying the inevitable will only do more harm.

You're maxing out your credit card each month. Some may do this because they like to spend money, but consider talking with a credit counselor if this is the only way you can pay your bills. Maxing out your card damages your credit score, as it raises your credit utilization ratio—the ratio between your credit-card balance and credit limit—which credit experts say should be kept under 15 percent.

You're pulling money from a retirement account to pay your debts. Dipping into a retirement account should be a last resort, as you'll incur substantial penalties and fees for early withdrawal. Says Cunningham: "A retirement account is appropriately named—it's for your retirement, not for your daily living."

Although the Bosticks found the help they needed, they shouldn't have waited until they were in six-figure debt before consulting a credit counselor. Be proactive and utilize a credit counselor at the first sign of trouble.