America has a debt problem. The average American has over $90,000 in debt, and many Americans are buried in high-interest credit card debt that seems to grow faster than they can pay it off. Many desperate people resort to payday loans or other high-interest loans and sink even deeper into the debt trap. The best credit counseling services can be a step out of that trap.
A qualified credit counselor can provide a crash course in personal finance and help you get back on track. They may also provide other services for people who are struggling under an impossible debt burden. There are no magic tricks and a credit counselor won’t make your debts go away, but counseling can be an important step toward freedom.
Let’s take a look at some of the best credit counseling services.
The Best Consumer Credit Counseling Services
The best credit counseling services will be accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA). Not all of their services will be free, but they will all offer a free initial counseling session and they will never pressure you to take on a paid service.
The counselors we’ll discuss here are national in scope and deliver their services online, by phone, or at physical offices in some locations. It’s also worth considering local services in your area. Bigger doesn’t always mean better. Online searches or local directories will point you toward local counseling services.
Always be careful when looking for a credit counseling service. May are legitimate and professional. Others may be fronts for credit repair scams. Check the company’s reputation and don’t let yourself be pressured into any service.
GreenPath Financial Wellness
GreenPath Financial Wellness is a national nonprofit that’s been in business for over 60 years. Counselors are NFCC accredited. The company is based in Farmington Hills, MI but has over 50 offices nationwide. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all services have been offered by phone or online.
GreenPath offers a free initial consultation. This will help you clarify your needs and decide which ongoing services, if any, will help you most. GreenPath offers a full range of financial counseling services.
GreenPath has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, indicating that the company responds promptly to complaints on the BBB page. Online reviews are generally positive, though there are some complaints of communication issues and the number of reviews on most sites is too low to be a meaningful sample.
InCharge Debt Solutions
InCharge Debt Solutions is a nonprofit credit counseling service based in Orlando, Fla. They provide credit counseling and financial education across the country by telephone and online. They provide financial education services to U.S. service members through the InCharge Education Foundation. InCharge Debt Solutions is a member of the NFCC and is accredited by the Council on Accreditation.
InCharge offers a range of credit counseling, education, and financial management solutions. Your initial consultation will be a free financial review that should help you identify your problems and select further services.
InCharge has an A+ BBB rating and has responded to each of the 11 complaints on the BBB site. Online reviews are generally positive, with 1,951 reviews on Trustpilot giving an average of 4.8 of 5 stars. Several complaints revolve around communication failures and late payments to creditors. It is not always clear whether these are company failures or issues with the client understanding the process.
Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions
Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions is a division of Money Management International Inc. (MMI). The company has been in business for 57 years
Clearpoint is based in Atlanta, Ga., and has offices in California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. In partnership with other MMI divisions, they offer telephone and online counseling in over 20 states. Counselors are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In-person counseling is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Clearpoint is a nonprofit and a member of the NFCC and is a HUD-approved housing counselor. Their objective is to help consumers budget, understand credit, set financial goals, prioritize payments, and make good financial decisions.
Clearpoint has an A+ BBB rating. There are three complaints, all dealing with automated calls made on behalf of a mortgage investor that is a Clearpoint client. Reviews on other sites are generally positive but there are not enough reviews to draw a clear conclusion.
Consolidated Credit is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and it provides services nationwide. They are members of the FCAA and a HUD-approved housing counseling provider. They have been in business for 28 years and claim to have worked with over 10.2 million clients.
Consolidated Credit is heavily engaged in financial education, much of it offered free of charge. They have partnered with over 500 government agencies, municipal groups, and government agencies to provide financial education resources to those in underserved or financially challenged communities. They also work with schools to provide financial education to young people.
Consolidated Credit has an A+ BBB rating and all of the five complaints on the page have been addressed and resolved. The company has an average of 4.7 of 5 stars from 8,672 reviews on Trustpilot and 4.6 stars from 411 Google reviews. Most reviews on other sites are positive.
American Consumer Credit Counseling
American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC) is an NFCC-member nonprofit credit counseling group based in Miami Beach, Fla. They are based in Auburndale, Mass., and offer financial planning and management services nationwide. They also offer a complete range of financial education resources on their website, covering topics from budgeting and college planning to identity theft and tax debt.
ACCC complies with all state regulations and licensing requirements and provides services in all 50 states. They have offices in Massachusetts, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas, and provide services by phone and online anywhere in the USA. Offices are open for in-person sessions but masks and appointments are required.
ACCC has an A+ rating from the BBB. There is one complaint, and the company has an average of 4.8 of 5 stars from 108 reviews on the BBB page. They have a 100% 5-star rating from 145 Google reviews. The company is known for having low fees and will reduce or waive fees for individuals undergoing financial hardship.
Cambridge Credit Counseling
Cambridge Credit Counseling is a nonprofit credit counseling company based in Agwam, Mass. They provide services nationwide by telephone. They are a member of both NFCC and FCAA and provide HUD-approved housing counseling services. The company has been in business for 25 years.
Cambridge works with a wide range of financial issues and provides extensive financial literacy resources, including regular publications for children, young people, and adults.
All Cambridge counselors are fully certified by independent third parties and have an average of 14 years of experience. They are available for free initial consultations to help you clarify your issues and needs and decide what will be the best approach for your financial problems.
Cambridge Credit Counseling has an A+ BBB rating with no complaints. They have an average of 4.9 of a possible 5 stars from 414 reviews on Trustpilot and 4.5 stars from 118 reviews on Google.
Money Management International
Money Management International (MMI) is a nonprofit counseling service based in Stafford, Texas. They have been in business since 1958, making them one of the oldest credit counseling firms in the country. They are an NFCC member and a HUD-approved provider of housing counseling services.
MMI has offices in 25 states. In-person counseling has been suspended due to COVID-19 but counselors are available 24/7 to serve clients anywhere in the country by phone or online.
Money Management International has an A+ BBB rating. They have 18 complaints on their BBB page, all with responses from the company. They have an average of 4.87 of 5 stars from 141 reviews on the BBB page and 4.9 of 5 stars from 1,723 reviews on Trustpilot.
Apprisen was founded in 1955 as The Economy Budget Service Company, the first credit counseling service in the U.S. They adopted the name Apprisen in 2009 as they expanded beyond their base in Ohio to provide nationwide service. They provide phone-based and online services to clients anywhere in the U.S.
Apprisen takes a somewhat different approach to an initial consultation. You can submit your information to an automated system called IRIS, and within 24 hours you’ll receive a personalized action plan developed by an NFCC-accredited financial specialist. You can also choose a traditional free financial review session. Apprisen is a HUD-approved housing counseling provider.
Apprisen has an A+ BBB rating and an average of 4.97 of 5 stars from 127 reviews on the BBB page. Reviews on other sites are mostly good but the number of reviews is low.
DebtWave Credit Counseling
DebtWave is a San Diego-based provider of credit counseling services. They state that their counselors are certified through the Center for Financial Certification, but their website does not mention NFCC or FCAA membership or accreditation. They are licensed to provide credit counseling services in 46 states and Washington D.C. They cannot serve residents of Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, or New York.
DebtWave offers a narrower set of services than some providers. They are focused on helping consumers get out of debt and gain the financial knowledge they need to stay out of debt and manage their finances effectively. This may not be the service you need if your situation requires housing counseling or other specialized services.
DebtWave has an A+ BBB rating with no complaints and an average of 4.94 stars from 99 customer reviews on the BBB page. They have 4.9 of 5 stars from 124 Google reviews. The lack of accreditation from NFCC or FCAA may be an issue for some, but that may be a result of the company’s generally narrow focus on credit counseling and debt management plans.
What is Credit Counseling?
Credit counseling agencies provide a range of services. The most basic is the credit counseling session. A trained counselor will review your financial situation, discuss your needs and goals, and recommend steps that you can take to achieve your goals. This session is typically provided free of charge.
Most credit counseling services provide other services as well. Your counselor may recommend one or more of these. NFCC and FCAA member agencies typically provide these services:
- Debt management plans (DMP)
- Student loan counseling
- Financial coaching for small business owners
- Credit report reviews
- Homeownership counseling
- Reverse mortgage counseling
- Foreclosure prevention
- Bankruptcy counseling
Some of these services may be required in some situations: for example, bankruptcy counseling is mandatory if you are filing for bankruptcy.
Choosing a Credit Counseling Agency
Not everyone who promises to help you with your debts is honest. Debt relief and credit repair scams are out there, and it’s easy to fall for them when you’re desperate. Here’s what to look for in a credit counseling service.
- It should be nonprofit. Most reputable credit counseling services are registered non-profit organizations. If you aren’t sure, ask.
- It should be accredited. Look for NFCC or FCAA membership.
- It should provide a free initial session. Reputable credit counselors should provide you with an initial consultation with no charge.
- There should be no sales pressure. If a counselor pressures you to take on a paid service, look elsewhere. Reputable counselors may recommend a paid service, but they will explain it clearly and be sur eit’s your free choice.
Run some internet searches on the agency and check prospective organizations with your state Attorney General and local consumer protection agency. Check the Better Business Bureau page and search for complaints. Zero complaints is not a guarantee of a legitimate service and even good services may have some complaints
How Much Does a Consumer Credit Counseling Service Cost?
Credit counseling — the initial service provided by credit counseling agencies — should always be free. Other services, including debt management programs, may have costs.
Debt Management Plans (DMPs) will have an initial fee and an ongoing monthly fee. These fees may vary with your situation and debt load. The initial fee will typically be less than $50. Monthly fees may range up to $79 but are often less.
Bankruptcy, housing, and student loan counseling fees may vary.
A reputable credit counseling agency will disclose all fees upfront, so if you want to know what a specific agency charges for a given service, ask. Many of the services discussed above disclose fees on their websites. Many credit counseling services will provide discounted or even free service to individuals who are under serious financial stress.
What Happens In a Credit Counseling Session?
Your credit counseling session will be most effective if you assemble complete information about your income, assets, and expenses before it starts. Take some time to write this information down before you speak to a credit counselor.
A credit counseling session will take around 30 minutes, sometimes as much as an hour. Most sessions are now conducted online or over the phone, so you won’t have to leave home.
Your counselor will want to know your name, location, and contact information. You’ll also need to share information about your income, assets, and expenses. Your counselor will do a soft pull on your credit record (which won’t affect your credit) to get a list of your debts.
The counselor will ask you about your goals and your perceived problems and help you develop a personal plan to improve your financial situation. The counselor may recommend a debt management plan, student loan or housing counseling, or other specialized services. In this case, the counselor will fully explain the process and cost.
Use your initial counseling session to evaluate the counselor. You should feel completely comfortable talking to the counselor on both a personal and a professional level. If you aren’t, you may wish to consult another agency.
How to Find a Certified Credit Counselor
Both the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Financial Counseling Association of America offer search functions that can help you find certified counseling services. You may select national services like those we discussed above, or you can look for services that operate in your state or city.
Both of these organizations require members to provide a complete range of services, hire certified counselors, and adhere to strict non-discrimination standards. The FCAA Standards and Best Practices and the NFCC Member Quality Standards outline the full requirements that member agencies must meet.
Questions to Ask
It’s important to ask questions before committing yourself to work with a credit counseling agency.
- What services do you offer?
- Are educational materials available for free? Avoid organizations that charge for information.
- Will you help me develop a plan for avoiding problems in the future?
- What are your fees? Get a quote in writing.
- What if I can’t afford to pay your fees?
- Can you help me fix my credit score?
- Will I have a written agreement or contract?
- Are you licensed to offer your services in my state?
- What are your counselors’ qualifications?
- How are your employees paid? (commission or salary)
- What are your completion rates for debt management plans.
A reputable credit counselor should be able to answer all of these questions clearly, directly, and without hesitation.
Nonprofit Credit Counseling Agencies vs. For-Profit Organizations
Many for-profit companies provide some of the services that nonprofit credit counseling services provide. Some may try to pass themselves off as credit counseling agencies. Here are some types of for-profit companies you may encounter.
- Debt settlement companies (sometimes called debt relief companies) will try to negotiate with creditors to reduce your debts.
- Credit repair companies will dispute negative records and try to get them removed form your credit file.
- Tax relief companies will try to negotiate payment plans or other soultion for tax debt.
Many of these companies will charge substantial sums to do things that you could do yourself. Some are outright scams. Always do research into any company you are considering using. If you aren’t sure if a service is non-profit, ask.
Debt Management Plans
A debt management plan is a form of debt consolidation, but you won’t have to take on any new debt. Instead, you will make a single monthly payment to the credit counseling agency, which will use it to pay all of your creditors. A debt management plan typically takes 30 to 60 months to complete.
The credit counselor will also negotiate with your creditors. They will try to get your interest rates reduced and may be able to get better terms. Counselors are experienced at these negotiations and have a good success rate. Many creditors are more willing to negotiate when you are in a debt management plan, as it’s a sign that you are taking action to deal with your debt problem.
You may be required to close credit cards and your agreement may require you to avoid taking on new debts. Debt management plans are an effective way to get out of debt but they require some sacrifices and discipline.
The NFCC reports that only 21% of the people who start debt management plans complete them successfully. If you cancel your plan any concessions negotiated with your creditors will no longer be in effect.
Which Debts Aren’t Included in the Debt Management Plan?
Secured debts like a mortgage or a car loan are not usually included in a debt management plan. Your credit counselor will consider these debts when helping you design your overall payment plan, but you will still make the payments directly, not through the credit counseling service.
Most debt management plans focus on credit card and medical debt, but any unsecured debt can be included, including scheduled payments like utilities and rent. Creditors are not required to participate in a debt management plan or offer concessions.
How Will Enrolling in a Debt Management Plan Affect My Credit?
Enrolling in a debt management plan may have an initial negative impact on your credit score. You will probably have to close some credit accounts, which will decrease the length of your credit history and could raise your credit utilization. This could cause a short-term drop. You will not be applying for new credit at this time, so that won’t matter.
If you stay with your debt management plan you will be making your payments on time every month, and that is the single most important element in building great credit. By the time you finish your plan, you should see a significant improvement in your credit.
Want to know more about credit counseling? Check out this video.
Other Debt Relief Options
Credit counseling and debt management plans are not the only way to get out of debt. You can do much of the same work yourself, and there are other methods for addressing a serious debt problem.
Hire a Debt Settlement Company
Debt settlement companies negotiate with creditors to reduce the amount that you owe. They will not just try to get better terms, they will try to get the creditor to settle for an amount less than the original debt. They will typically charge a percentage of the reduction they achieve in your debt loan.
Debt settlement can reduce your debts substantially, but the debts will be reported on your credit history as settled for less than the original amount. This can have a serious impact on your credit.
Negotiate With Your Creditors
You can negotiate with your creditors directly, and you may be able to get better terms. Be aware that unless you are a skilled and experienced negotiator it will be difficult to achieve the same results as a professional counselor supported by a reputable institution.
File for Bankruptcy
Bankruptcy is a scary prospect. Many of us think of bankruptcy as an admission of defeat, a financial death sentence. It isn’t. Most people who file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy have better credit a year later than they did when they filed. Bankruptcy can get creditors off your back and give you a fresh start.
Bankruptcy is a solution if you owe more than you could possibly pay back. It’s the last option you want to consider, but in some cases, it’s the only option that makes sense. A free credit counseling session can help you decide whether bankruptcy is the right option for you.
The Bottom Line
If your debts are causing you serious stress, it’s worth talking to a credit counselor. If you are worried that your debts might cause you serious stress, it’s worth talking to a credit counselor. The earlier you start, the better!
Remember that your first session will be free, and there is no obligation to take on any further services. There’s really nothing to lose: you get free professional advice and everything else is optional.
You may or may not decide to start a debt management plan or take on any other service offered by a credit counseling agency, but if you’re in financial difficulty it’s at least worth considering a session with one of the best credit counseling services.
Where Can I Find Free Credit Counseling?
You can get free credit counseling through non-profit organizations belonging to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA).
There is no government program that will pay your debts or provide other direct debt relief.
Secured debts are backed by collateral. A home loan or a car loan are secured debts: if you don’t pay the lender can seize the home or car to cover the loan. Unsecured debts are not secured by collateral. Secured debts have less risk for the lender and usually have lower
Many credit counseling agencies are approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD and offer a range of housing counseling, homebuyer counseling and foreclosure prevention counseling services. They do not offer direct assistance, though they may be able to recommend assistance programs.