This article is part of Money's January 2022 digital cover, which features 22 ways to make 2022 the best money year of your life. Browse all 22 articles here.
If you've ever felt like debt has a chokehold on your livelihood, you’re in good company.
The average American owes more than $90,000 (including mortgage, student loan, and other types of debt), according to the credit agency Experian. And no matter how up to speed they are on every money-centric self-help book, social media page and (ahem) website there is, for many, it's hard to know how to apply all that advice to everyday life.
Luckily, when it comes to credit and debt management, there are a bunch of free resources that can put you back on the straight and narrow.
Here are some of the best-known—and best-respected—free financial counseling services out there, and what you can expect from each.
What to look for in credit counseling
You always want to be cautious when seeking out financial professionals, and credit counselors are no exception.
The good ones are usually non-profits, but as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns, “non-profit” status doesn’t guarantee affordability — or legitimacy. Some charge exorbitant (often hidden) fees, or neglect to offer advice without making you pay upfront. Along with the list below, the Justice Department’s state-by-state database of approved credit counseling agencies is a good place to vet candidates.
Also worth knowing: While many credit counseling networks offer free credit and budgeting services, a Debt Management Plan (DMP), a popular option for aggressively paying back creditors at a lower interest rate, usually does cost money. If collection agencies are already calling you nonstop, a DMP might be an attractive option, but it’s not the only one. So if it’s the only tool a credit counselor is pushing, take that as a red flag.
Free Financial Counseling List:
National Foundation for Credit Counseling
What it is: The NFCC is the largest credit counseling organization in the U.S., and requires its member agencies (some of which are on this list) to go through its own accreditation process. Many of those agencies also offer mortgage counseling, student loan counseling and bankruptcy counseling, though these services may come with a fee. Depending on where you live, NFCC counseling can be done online, in-person or over the phone.
Financial Counseling Association of America
What it is: The FCAA is another giant network of agencies. Unlike the NFCC, though, some of those agencies tap for-profit third-party providers for certain services (the FCAA itself is a non-profit). Member agencies are also accredited by third parties (like the Council on Accreditation (COA)) rather than an in-house standard. Still, the FCAA rigorously vets its members, and connects consumers in all 50 states to free debt and credit counseling through its website, hotline and in-person offices.
American Consumer Credit Counseling
What it is: This agency is based in Massachusetts, but offers over-the-phone counseling Monday through Saturday to anyone in the U.S. Credit counseling and budget consulting is free, and DMPs start at $7 a month with a one-time $39 enrollment fee. Consumer Credit offers fee waivers for people experiencing financial hardship.
GreenPath Financial Wellness
What it is: GreenPath offers a treasure trove of free tools on its website that anyone can access – like budget worksheets and other personal finance how-tos. The organization also does free budgeting and debt counseling, but charges fees for bankruptcy counseling ($50) and other services. DMPs vary depending on where you live and how much money you owe to creditors, maxing out at $75 for the monthly fee and $50 for the enrollment fee. All of these services are available online, over-the-phone, or in person at GreenPath’s more than 40 U.S. offices.
Money Management International (MMI)
What it is: MMI offers free 24/7 online and phone counseling nationwide, and in-person counseling in 25 states. Fees for Debt Management Plans vary: The average monthly fee is $24, and the average enrollment fee is $33, according to the company. The agency provides fee reductions and waivers for people experiencing financial hardship, and has a free online channel of workshops, webinars and budgeting tools. Its Clearpoint division caters specifically to low- and moderate-income families.
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