Credit card debt and other forms of debt can quickly get out of control. If your expenses have exceeded your income for some time, you may owe quite a bit of money in interest or owe fees due to late payments. Sometimes, a simple balance transfer or debt repayment strategy won’t solve the problem. If you’ve started to fall behind on your payments, you may require some expert assistance to get out of debt.
A credit counseling agency can help. Not only do these nonprofit companies help consumers avoid bankruptcy through debt management plans, but they also provide educational services to help you improve your money management skills. They can even provide assistance if you’re struggling to rent an apartment or looking to buy a home for the first time.
To help you find the support to reach your financial goals, here's our ranking of the best credit counseling companies, and what you need to know before you choose to use one.
The best credit counseling companies of January 2021
- Cambridge Credit Counseling
- GreenPath Financial Wellness
- Consolidated Credit
- InCharge Debt Solutions
- Money Management International
Cambridge Credit Counseling
Cambridge Credit is a not-for-profit agency offering services that include debt consolidation, financial education, and bankruptcy counseling. It also offers programs for homebuyers, including foreclosure intervention, reverse mortgage counseling, and courses for first-time homebuyers.
You can get free credit counseling from Cambridge to help you identify if a debt management plan might be a solution for you. The counselors at Cambridge have made impressive achievements on behalf of their clients — they’ve reduced monthly credit card payments by an average of 25% and helped clients free themselves of debt in an average of four years or less.
Cambridge Credit received high ratings from the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Affairs, and had the fewest number of complaints of all the companies on our list.
GreenPath Financial Wellness
If you’d like to sit down with someone in person and discuss your financial situation, GreenPath could be the best credit counseling company for you. Part of how GreenPath scored high our list is because it has physical locations where you can meet with a counselor. GreenPath offers both housing counseling and debt counseling, including help with student loan debt.
GreenPath also offers a program called the Simple Payment Plan, which is an online service that automates debt repayment for you. You’ll pay your bills through small, automatic withdrawals throughout the month, which ensures better budgeting and on-time payments. This is ideal for people who need a little help paying their bills but aren’t ready to enroll in a full-scale debt management plan.
Consolidated Credit is the nation’s largest nonprofit credit counseling agency. It’s focused on financial education, with a workplace program designed to help employers teach money management skills to their employees. Consolidated Credit also has more than 500 partnerships with nonprofit and government organizations in a variety of communities to deliver educational services.
It also offers financial solutions specifically geared toward military service members, veterans, and their families. And even if you choose to learn how to manage your money on your own, Consolidated Credit’s large library of free financial literacy resources can be helpful. Read our full Consolidated Credit review to learn more.
InCharge Debt Solutions
InCharge is another nonprofit credit counseling agency that provides free credit counseling and housing counseling with the option to enroll in a debt management plan. Since 1997, the agency has helped more than 3 million people pay off more than $3 billion in debt. It frequently provides free workshops and has an online library of financial literacy resources as well.
In addition to providing debt help, InCharge offers counseling to help you achieve financial goals such as buying a new home, planning for your children’s college education, or contributing to a retirement account. And if you’re a service member or veteran, InCharge has debt services designed specifically for you.
Money Management International
Money Management International is a nonprofit credit counseling agency that helps clients establish a budget, pay off debt, avoid foreclosure, and more. It also provides in-person workshops in certain areas, webinars, and free courses to help you improve your financial literacy skills. As with all the other companies, your initial credit counseling session is free and will help you determine whether a debt management plan is right for you.
MMI also uniquely offers a program called Project Porchlight, which provides free financial assistance to victims of natural disasters. The program can help you navigate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid applications, insurance claims, and personal financial recovery from losses.
What to look for in a credit counseling company
If you’re looking for help managing your finances, a credit counseling company could be a good fit for you. Here’s what to consider when choosing a company to work with:
- A nonprofit agency: For-profit companies don’t always have your best interests in mind. To ensure you’re not charged exorbitant fees, look for a nonprofit credit counseling agency.
- Accredited with certified counselors: Check to make sure the agency is accredited by an organization aimed at consumer protection, such as the Council on Accreditation (COA) or the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). In addition, individual credit counselors should be certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) or the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA).
- Services offered: When choosing a credit counseling company, you’ll want to make sure your specific needs will be provided for. For example, if most of your debt is due to student loans, choose a company that provides student loan counseling in addition to regular debt counseling. If you’re in the military, choose an agency that has targeted financial solutions for military members.
- Education: If you struggle with financial concepts, you’ll want to find an agency that offers financial education. Most credit counseling agencies have free resources available on their websites, but some also offer in-person workshops.
- Fees: In most cases, credit counseling is free, but signing up for a debt management plan likely comes with fees. If you are signing up for any services that require payment, make sure to get a quote in writing. Also thoroughly review any fees to make sure you understand the cost of the program versus how much you’re projected to save.
- Red flags: Watch out for credit counselors who are paid on commission. Don’t be afraid to ask your counselor about this. If they are uncomfortable answering or say they are paid on commission, you might want to switch to a different company. In addition, be wary of companies that charge high upfront fees (the companies on our list all offer free initial sessions) and/or request sensitive information early on in the process.
How you can improve your credit on your own
There’s nothing wrong with requesting assistance if you feel overwhelmed, but you don’t need to hire a credit counseling agency or turn to credit repair companies to help fix your credit or reduce your debt. Here are some steps you can take on your own to reach a healthier financial future:
- Review your credit report. The Fair Credit Reporting Act entitles you to a free credit report once annually, which you can access at annualcreditreport.com. You should review your report and check for errors, such as delinquencies that are more than seven years old, incorrect personal information or commingled accounts, or accounts opened by identity theft. If you find any issues, you may be able to improve your credit just by disputing credit report errors.
- Contact your creditors. If you’re struggling with debt, it’s possible you may be able to settle with your creditors directly, especially if you’re past due on your payments and have a lump sum of money you can offer to pay instead. Explain your situation and what you’re able to pay, and you could settle your debt for less than you owe. At the very least, you may be able to negotiate a lower interest rate, and you can always ask for a different due date if you’re only temporarily behind.
- Review your budget. Look for areas in which you may be able to cut your spending and devote more of your income to debt repayment. If you don’t currently have a budget, it’s time to create one. Start by tracking your spending, and then establish spending limits for different categories. An app like Mint or Dollarbird can help you keep track of it all.
- Come up with a repayment strategy. Once you have a budget and know how much of your income you can devote to debt repayment, come up with a plan. You might choose the debt avalanche method, which is the fastest and cheapest way to pay down debt, or the debt snowball method, which can feel more motivating. The important part is to pick a debt repayment strategy you’ll stick with.
- Consolidate or refinance. If you can reduce your interest rate by taking out a personal loan to cover all your debts, it will help you to get out of debt faster. Likewise, you might consider taking advantage of a 0% introductory APR offer on a new credit card and completing a balance transfer. This can give you some time to focus on repayment without worrying about accruing interest.
In determining our ranking of the best credit counseling companies, we looked at popular companies and ranked them according to a series of weighted factors that we consider critical to the consumer. We did not evaluate all companies in the category.
FinanceBuzz ranking criteria include:
- Certifications and accreditations: All companies listed are certified either through the NFCC or FCAA. If a company had additional certifications, accreditations, or affiliations those were taken into account in our ranking.
- Customer satisfaction: We examined the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and Consumer Affairs ratings. We looked at customer complaints as well. Companies with better scores and fewer complaints were ranked higher.
- Services offered: We looked at the kinds of services offered by each company, as well as the expertise and education they could provide for the consumer. Additionally, if a company offered in-person locations, we scored them higher based on accessibility.
FAQs about credit counseling
Does credit counseling ruin your credit?
Credit counseling doesn’t impact your credit. However, if you choose to enroll in a debt management plan, you’ll likely see your credit score drop in the short term and then rise significantly in the long run.
This is because debt management plans result in closed accounts, which can shorten the length of your credit history and increase your credit utilization ratio (the amount of debt you have compared to your available credit). Both of these factors can negatively impact your credit score.
However, as you pay off your debt, you’ll see your credit utilization ratio drop. You’ll also be making on-time payments consistently. Both of these factors will improve your credit score.
How much does it cost to use a consumer credit counseling service?
All the credit counseling agencies that made our list offer free credit counseling. You’ll pay fees only if you determine that a debt management plan is the right choice for you. Even then, you’ll likely save more by signing up for the program than you’ll spend on the service.
Some other credit counseling companies charge a fee for their credit counseling services, but these companies should be avoided as there are plenty of agencies that will meet with you for free.
What is the difference between credit counseling and debt settlement?
There are some important differences between debt management vs. debt settlement. Credit counseling agencies are usually nonprofit companies that provide financial education and help you save money by negotiating a lower interest rate and reducing your monthly payment. Debt settlement companies, on the other hand, are typically for-profit companies offering to settle your debt for less than you owe in exchange for a fee.
You should be careful with debt settlement companies as they’ll often charge upfront fees before communicating with your creditors. That means you’ll be charged even if the company is unsuccessful at settling your debt. In addition, debt settlement companies often advise you to stop making payments until your debt is settled, which can hurt your credit score. There may be tax implications with debt settlement as well.
Is consumer credit counseling a good idea?
It’s never a bad idea to get help from a credit counselor. The initial session is almost always free, your credit score won’t be affected, and you’ll be under no obligation to enter into a debt management plan. A credit counselor can help you establish a budget, get you out of debt faster, and help you prepare for important financial decisions, such as buying a home or improving your housing situation.
If you’re looking to improve your credit score or pay down debt, there are plenty of steps you can take on your own to achieve your goals. However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or falling behind on the minimum payments, it’s probably a good idea to set up a free credit counseling session. This can help you get a clearer picture of your finances and see a path forward.
Although debt management plans come with certain downsides, you may not have other options. A credit counselor can tell you honestly whether it’s a good idea to move forward with a debt management plan. And if it’s not the right solution for you, they can provide you with other advice for getting your finances back on track.
Just make sure you choose an accredited, nonprofit agency with certified counselors; any of the agencies that made our best credit counseling companies list will serve you well.