debt counseling

Will Credit Counseling or Debt Management Hurt My Credit Score?

If you’ve gotten yourself deep in debt, or have fallen behind on your monthly bills you may be wondering if credit counseling or debt management can help.

Despite the promise of assistance that credit counseling companies firms offer, many consumers nonetheless remain worried about using a credit counseling agency for fear of potential damage to their credit scores.

Here are three myths about credit counseling – as well as the facts and the truth about how credit counseling and debt management relate to your credit rating.

Myth: Using a Credit Counselor Will Automatically Lower My Credit Score

Fact: Credit Counseling Itself Has No Impact On Your Credit Score

Explanation: When you go to a credit-counseling firm, the company or organization will typically enter you into a debt management program, or DMP. These are monthly repayment programs that allow you to consolidate all your bills into one payment.

Once you’re enrolled in a debt management plan, a notation that says “DMP” is entered on your credit report. In the past, this notation did lower your FICO credit score. However, that hasn’t been the case for several years.

Officials from Fair Isaac Corp., the creators of the FICO credit score, have been very clear in saying that entering into a debt management plan does NOT lower your credit score and the DMP notation is not counted against you at all when your FICO score is calculated. In fact, FICO’s own website tells consumers: “a debt management plan may be right for you.”

Myth: Using Credit Counseling Means I’ll Pay Less than My Total Debt Owed

Fact: With Credit Counseling, You Pay What You Owe, But There Are Other Breaks

Explanation: For starters, don’t confuse a debt management plan with debt settlement. The two are completely different things. Debt settlement does allow you to pay less than you owe – but that comes as a price: namely, your credit. (Read more about why I don’t recommend debt settlement).

(Related Reading: Will Debt Settlement Appear on My Credit Report?)

When credit counseling firms put you in a debt management plan, they’re not asking your creditors to allow you to pay less than you owe. You actually pay your outstanding debt. What credit counselors do negotiate, however, are the interest rates and late fees you’re paying.

For example, many member firms of ACCPros, the Association of Credit Counseling Professionals, can get consumers’ interest rates knocked down into the single digits or even to 0%. These rates are pre-negotiated by the credit counseling agency, so they’ll be able to tell you – before you even sign up – what your new rate would be, based on the credit cards you enter in the DMP.

By lowering your interest rates, you’ll pay less in interest and finance charges, which helps you to get out of debt faster.

The typical DMP lasts anywhere from three to five years, depending on your debt levels, overall budget, and monthly income.

Myth: If I Use a Credit Counseling, They Will Force Me To Close All My Credit Cards

Fact: Credit Counselors Don’t Always Require You to Close All Your Credit Cards

Explanation: It is true that credit counselors generally frown upon clients continuing to use credit cards – after all their goal is to get you out of debt, and they feel that continued use of credit cards is an unnecessary temptation, as well as a sure-fire way to keep piling on debt. Plus, as a condition for giving you a low-rate deal, and perhaps waiving late charges or over-the-limit fees, some creditors will also want you to stop using their cards and just focus on debt repayment.

Consequently, credit counseling agencies do, in fact, typically request that you halt using your credit cards and/or close the accounts. However, this isn’t universally the case.

Many credit counseling agencies will allow you to use just one card. Likewise, certain credit counselors will permit the use of a specific type of credit card – such as a corporate credit card that may be issued to you and required on your job. Usually, if you keep a card open, that card is NOT entered in the DMP repayment plan.

So don’t automatically think that credit counseling isn’t an option solely because you can’t let some or all of your credit cards go.

Under normal circumstances, no one would fault you for trying to hang on to a credit card “just in case” or “for emergencies.”

But if you’ve gotten to the point where you need to use a credit-counseling agency, the experts there will question your desire to retain a credit card. They will want to be sure that you’re not using credit as a crutch to maintain a certain lifestyle or to buy things that simply aren’t affordable given your budget.

Now that you know the facts about credit counseling, you’re better prepared to make an informed choice and decide whether it’s right for you.

Like any get-out-of-debt strategy, going to a credit-counseling firm isn’t a magic bullet. But overall, I’m a proponent of using credit counseling – especially if it can help you avoid serious problems down the road, such as delinquencies, credit defaults, or even bankruptcy.

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