By 2007, at ages 57 and 68, Francine and Jim Bostick had racked up more than $120,000 in credit-card debt. They were juggling payments left and right to meet the minimum amount due each month on their 13 credit cards. When they reached their breaking point, they turned to Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc., in Topeka, Kan., for help.
Fast forward five years and the Bosticks—after working second jobs, living on a tight budget, and putting $2,500 each month toward their debt repayment plan—are now debt-free. "They're a perfect example of how it's never too late to seek help from a credit counselor," says Gail Cunningham, vice president of membership and public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a network of accredited and certified credit-counseling agencies.
The Bosticks weren't the only ones who have accumulated a substantial amount of debt. In the wake of the Great Recession, with the country's unemployment rate reaching the highest level since the Great Depression, many Americans were forced to take on crippling amounts of debt.
As a nation, Americans owe $721 billion on outstanding credit cards, according to the Federal Reserve. The average U.S. household with at least one credit card owes nearly $15,950 in credit-card debt, according to CreditCards.com. Yet only a fraction of people seek aid from a credit counselor.
That can be partly attributed to the bad rap credit-counseling agencies have gotten by being confused with debt-settlement companies. Credit counselors advise people on how to make better budget and lifestyle decisions and develop a debt-management plan to pay back their creditors. Many counseling sessions are free (those with fees typically charge about $20 per session). Meanwhile, debt-settlement companies offer to negotiate with a person's creditors to slash the amount of debt they own—and many charge clients a large fee for their services.
Unfortunately, the debt-settlement industry is rife with scam artists and fraudulent groups, which has made it more difficult for credit counselors to earn people's trust. "Many debt-settlement agencies have made promises they can't keep, and they've effectively blurred the lines between them and us," Cunningham says.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, formed in 2010, has started to quell some of those problems, but for many years deceptive debt-settlement agencies operated without a watchdog. "You couldn't turn on the radio without hearing those ads saying things like, 'We'll settle your debt for cents on the dollar,'" says Allie Vered, vice president of education and public awareness for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, headquartered in Richmond, Va.
Others may be afraid that consulting a credit counselor will hurt their credit score, but talking to one has no impact on a person's credit or credit report.
What's also stopped people from reaching out to credit counselors is the sense of shame that can accompany having to admit they owe a lot of debt. But Brian Oliver, vice president of counseling at CredAbility in Atlanta, says that's less of a problem now that credit counselors have made themselves accessible by phone and online. "Walking into a physical location can be intimidating, especially if the person doesn't want to admit face-to-face how much they're in debt," Oliver says. The ability to get help remotely alleviates some of the fear, he says.
Are you thinking about talking with a credit counselor but aren't sure if you need one? If any of these things apply to you, experts say a credit counselor can help:
Debt collectors are calling you. This might be the most obvious red flag, but it's also a sign that you should have sought help from a credit counselor long before reaching this point, according to David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. "The earlier you can get to a credit counselor, the better," he says, adding that it's never too late to seek help.
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.