People often seek out credit counseling when searching for debt relief options, like debt management programs or bankruptcy counseling. But credit counseling agencies offer other financial education and counseling services as well.
In some cases, people who don’t yet need such intensive debt solutions may still benefit from credit counseling. We asked Thomas Nitzsche of Clearpoint, a nonprofit credit counseling agency and member of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor network, about who typically gets credit counseling and how you can decide whether you need it.
Unfortunately, financial crisis is what traditionally has driven people to seek credit counseling. However, it’s important to keep in mind that most Americans are currently living just one paycheck away from a financial crisis of their own. Recent surveys have found that two-thirds of Americans would struggle to meet a $1,000 financial emergency, while nearly half of us would struggle to cover just a $400 emergency.
In some cases, clients come to credit counseling through their employer, lender or another party. Credit counseling agencies offer financial coaching to the customers of other businesses, so your employer or lender may have a relationship with a credit counseling agency to provide you with free support to keep you financially healthy and to prevent or resolve any financial issues. An example of this type of counseling would be post-modification counseling, which is paid for by your mortgage lender and provided by the credit counseling agency after you receive a home loan modification. Another similar example is early-intervention counseling, where a credit counselor may proactively reach out to you at the request of your creditor if they notice that your finances seem to be slipping.
The average age of those who receive counseling at Clearpoint is 43, and their household budget is short by $134 each month. We also find that participation in every service we offer skews female, with the exception of bankruptcy counseling, at 51% male. In 2015, women comprised two-thirds of our incoming debt management program clients.
At Clearpoint, the average credit card debt of those who seek counseling is nearly $26,000 across six accounts. For those specifically seeking student loan counseling, the average is a staggering $85,000 in debt — a $10,000 increase since 2014. The financial stress on those who seek credit counseling is further evidenced by an average credit score of just 585.
The good news is that, on average, Clearpoint’s credit counselors help their debt management clients increase their credit score by 106 points in 36 months. Reduced stress is reported by 75% of all credit counseling clients after receiving services, and clients frequently tell their counselor that the hardest part of the process was coming to terms with their situation and picking up the phone or going online to make the appointment for counseling.
If you feel you could improve at keeping a household financial spending plan, want to improve your credit score or need help repaying outstanding debt, you are a good candidate for credit counseling. There’s no charge for initial consultations, so you have nothing to lose but 60 to 90 minutes of your time.
Credit counselors won’t give legal or investment advice, but if you find yourself stressed or unable to save as much as you would like, talking with a counselor accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling can help you refine your budget and develop short- and long-term financial goals. If you have never reviewed your credit report or if you don’t know your credit score, a credit counselor can help you understand it and, in most cases, provide your FICO score for free.
Those concerned with making their next credit card or mortgage payment, or who have already defaulted on their debt, are obviously good candidates for seeking advice from a credit counselor to help them get back on track and resolve their situation. If you have been turned down for a debt consolidation loan on credit card debt, you could be an excellent candidate for a debt management plan through the credit counseling agency. We find that on average, these plans reduce interest rates by half and total monthly payments by 20%, and last around four years.
Thomas Nitzsche is the media relations manager of Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions.