America's love affair with debt is starting to be a problem.
Consider: Average total debt per American with a credit file stood, in September 2013, at $37,952 in mortgage debt and $15,898 in non-mortgage debt, according to a new study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. And if that wasn't bad enough, more than one in three Americans have debt in collection.
No doubt many of these and other Americans, young and old, are wondering whether it make sense to use a credit counseling agency, or to seek other ways to reduce their debt. But how should they go about finding such help? Experts recommend the following.
Same process for young and old. The process of evaluating and selecting a legitimate agency would be, with one exception, the same for those 65 and older as it would be for those under age 65, says Gail Cunningham, a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), a financial counseling organization based in Washington, D.C.
What's the exception? "If debt is the issue that prompted them to seek help, a person approaching retirement might want to set his or her goal to be debt-free by the time they retire," says Cunningham. Of note: It usually takes a maximum of five years if a person goes on a debt management plan or DMP.
What's in a name? Eleanor Blayney, a certified financial planner and the consumer advocate of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, suggests learning the differences between debt management, debt consolidation, and debt settlement when thinking about getting help. "And when evaluating any firm to help you with your debt, make sure that debt management, which includes credit counseling, and a payment plan to reduce debt, is a major feature of the service provided," she says.
In the main, experts recommend working with a nonprofit agency. But remember this. "Nonprofit doesn't mean free or even low cost," says Erik Carter, a senior resident financial planner with Financial Finesse, a financial education company based in El Segundo, Calif. "Make sure you understand all the fees you may be charged and ask what support they can offer if you can't afford them."
What to avoid. Avoid "debt settlement" companies, says Carter.
Others agree. "Debt consolidation is just one debt management option and generally involves refinancing your unsecured debt with a new loan," says Blayney, who is also president of Directions for Women, a McLean, Virginia firm that teaches women about money. "Beware of companies that say they are debt consolidators, but are in fact in the debt settlement business. This last service is of dubious value, usually comes at a high price, and often leaves the debtor in worse shape than before."
According to Blayney, debt settlement involves negotiating down the amount owed, and the debtor is usually advised not to pay anything on the debt or to contact creditors while these negotiations are going on. "This service does nothing to stop the harassing phone calls, which is often why people are considering some form of debt relief service in the first place," she says.
In good company.
Search for credit counseling agencies associated with reputable organizations such as the NFCC and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, says Carter.
An initial evaluation is generally free, and additional services, such as a debt repayment plan, are very reasonably priced, says Blayney. "You may find you do not need to go further, to a debt consolidation firm," she says.
Carter also recommends checking whether the agency is included in the United States Trustee Program's list of credit counseling agencies approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling. Also, he suggests checking with your state's Attorney General's office and local consumer protection agency for any complaints filed against them.
"Debt issues can be emotional and are often best handled face-to-face," says Carter. "Try to find a local one in your area that offers in-person counseling."
Carter says this is especially important when you're older. "Retirees should find someone they can work with face-to-face," he says. "They may also want another family member involved if they're at all cognitively impaired."
Cunningham says those already retired will have to tell their credit counselor about all sources of income, many of which will be fixed, and that they may have limited opportunities to increase income for debt resolution purposes.
What services are offered? Once you've narrowed down your search, ask what services are offered and how they're delivered, says Carter. "Do they just consolidate debt or will they help you develop a more comprehensive cash management plan to avoid falling back into debt? Are the counselors accredited by a non-affiliated third party? Are they paid more if you sign up for certain services? Will all information be kept confidential and secure? What's in the written contract?"
Go it alone.
Consider too that there may be a lot you can do yourself to lower your debt burden, says Blayney. "Contact your creditors directly, and ask if they will consider a lower interest rate, or if they will modify the amount outstanding," she says. "You could also take advantage of offers by lower interest-rate credit card companies to accept transfers of outstanding debt on other higher rate cards."
Beware, however, of "teaser" rates that are good for only a limited time, and then revert to high rates once again, says Blayney.
Consider a reverse mortgage. For retirees who need debt relief, a reverse mortgage is an option, though you do have to pay off any existing mortgages on the home before getting one. "These loans have become more consumer-friendly: Lower fees, and now available as lines of credit, in addition to upfront loans," says Blayney, "Because the house will secure the mortgage, the rates are almost certainly going to be lower than unsecured personal debt, which is a plus for seniors."
Still, a reverse mortgage is not something to use without consulting with experts and family. "There are other features that retirees, and their children and beneficiaries, need to carefully consider before going this route," Blayney says. "One negative is that refinancing through a reverse mortgage is not accompanied by an overall look at the existing debt, and the reasons why it exists in the first place."
Robert Powell is editor of Retirement Weekly, a service of MarketWatch.com. Email him at email@example.com