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When to call in financial cavalry

  • Story Highlights
  • If you're swamped with debt, you may need to contact a credit counselor
  • A counselor can put you on a budget or payment plan
  • Filing for bankruptcy may be the only solution for some with insurmountable debt
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By Jen Haley
CNN
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(CNN) -- Krista Wallis, her husband, Joe, and her 19-year-old son from a previous marriage were living a pretty good life in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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If worries about debts are interfering with work or home life, you may want to consult a credit counselor.

"We had a nice brick house, a three-car garage, we bought a pool. We had the big-screen TV," Wallis says. "It kept accumulating."

But in 2006 as rumors of job cuts at her husband's company became rampant, the couple put their house on the market and moved to a less-expensive home.

He lost his network consultant job, and the bills started piling up. "We had the holidays. It was Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had utility payments. It hit us all at once," Wallis says.

It was just the beginning of their financial spiral.

"I would start to shuffle the credit cards. I can pay this bill now, but I'll pay that one later," Wallis says. "Every month it got to the point where everything kept getting pushed back. Everything was in turmoil. There was no light at the end of our tunnel. We had to get help."

That's when the Wallises went for credit counseling in January at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Central Oklahoma, a member of the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Consumers can check out the foundation's Web site at www.nfcc.org or call the nonprofit counseling network at 800-388-2227. Advisers can meet with people face to face or provide guidance over the phone while callers can remain anonymous. The initial consultation is free, and you're not under any obligation to the company.

One of the most telling signs that you need to seek help is if you're having trouble paying the minimum balances on your credit cards, says credit expert John Ulzheimer. Borrowing from friends or family to pay off current debts or taking out new loans for old debt is another sign. And if thoughts about debt is interfering with your job, you may consider going to a professional counselor.

"If you feel like you're in financial trouble, you usually are," says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "We have over 900 offices. Every single day people walk in with grocery sacks filled with bills."

Credit counselors generally add up your debt and living expenses. Counselors can help you work out a budget, point out where you could be saving or teach you how to pay down your debts in order of priority.

But sometimes aggressive self-budgeting isn't enough. That's when you might consider going through a debt-management plan, or DMP, that's offered by credit counselors.

Under such a plan, counselors try to negotiate with your creditors for lower monthly payments, lower interest rates and forgiveness from late fees and over-limit fees. It may cost you less than $20 a month to set up this kind of plan, but you won't be turned away if you can't pay, according to Cunningham.

You'll pay off your debts, and within five years, you'll be debt-free.

That's the kind of plan for which the Wallises signed up.

"We have to watch our budget. To be limited by money, to not be able to get spring flowers, to not get a new light fixture, it kills me. But it helps to know all my credit card debt will be completely gone in five years if we can just hold on and battle through," Wallis says.

If five years sounds like a lot of time, Cunningham has added up how long it could take to pay off the average consumer debt of about $9,000.

With an average credit card interest rate of 18 percent, even if the consumer never put a new charge on the card and always paid the minimum payment on time every month, it would take 47 years to become debt-free. Over that period, the consumer would pay an extra $23,994 in interest.

Using a credit counselor or going through debt-management plans won't have a negative effect on your credit score, although your credit report may include a note that your debts were paid through a nonprofit counseling center.

"If you're in a debt-management plan, don't expect lenders to treat you favorably," Ulzheimer says.

However, once you've gone through the plan and paid back all your debt, it can only boost your credit score.

But a plan doesn't mean there won't be difficult moments. Wallis recalls how she felt when she cut up all her credit cards at the counselor's office.

"It was really hard to do," she says. "Those cards are like a part of who you are. It was bittersweet. It was exciting because we were beginning a new era. But it was sad to have to lose all of that."

But Wallis says she has no regrets. "Looking back, those cards did me no good. I felt almost redeemed or proud or accomplished. I really had the courage to [cut up those cards]," she says.

For some people with insurmountable debt, filing for bankruptcy may be the only solution.

Bankruptcy puts a black mark on your credit that can last from seven to 10 years. You'll have to undergo counseling from a government-approved organization either in person, by phone or online. The counseling session could run an hour to an hour and a half and could cost about $50. If you can't afford to pay, the agency will provide the counseling for free.

It costs from $1,200 to $1,500 to file for bankruptcy. You likely will lose any stocks, bonds or mutual funds that you have. And of course, there are those debts you can't get rid of such as student loans or tax liens.

If this is an option you're considering, you should contact a credit counseling agency. You may be referred to an outside bankruptcy attorney.

Of course, if you've just come across a temporary rough spot such as a job loss or unexpected medical bills, you can try one last stand against the credit card company.

Some credit card companies have in-house counseling, or loss-mitigation departments that may work with you to set up a payment plan if you temporarily can't keep up with the bills.

The trick is to get to the right department, Ulzheimer says.

"You don't want to end up in the collections department. And you don't really want to talk to the front-line service people," he says. Instead, ask for the in-house credit counseling division. And make sure the credit card company is reporting your account "in good standing" on your credit report.

It's never easy to talk about money problems. But asking for help is the only way to get it.

"It was this reality check. It's really that bad," Wallis says about her debt. "I'm that out of control. Finally we said we cannot do this on our own. We have to figure out something else."

Now things are improving, she says.

"My credit score is going up. My payments are being made on time, and I've readjusted my thinking about debt. Priority comes first, play comes last," she says. "But you do have to go have fun once in a while." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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