Struggling with finances can be frustrating; it’s an issue many Americans deal with on a daily basis. In fact, 31 percent of Americans — that is, about 76 million people — are either “struggling to get by” or are “just getting by,” according to a May 2016 report by the Federal Trade Commission. From lack of income to poor money management, there are a number of reasons why many adults have a hard time dealing with their balance sheet.
Whatever the cause for their tough financial situations, most people want to get out of debt. The good news is that there is debt help available for people who feel they need it, including free credit counseling services. If you’re not sure if you could benefit from credit counseling, here are seven good indicators that can help you recognize if you have a problem.
1. You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck
By using up every paycheck on bills, credit card debts, and other expenses and spending, many Americans are finding themselves without a financial safety net. Forty-six percent of adults reported that they would not be able to cover a $400 emergency, according to the FTC survey,
If you don’t have an emergency fund, let alone any savings for retirement, you might find yourself on a slippery slope to major financial disaster. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, a credit counselor can help you manage your money and create both long- and short-term strategies for growing wealth.
2. You’re Late on Credit Card Payments
Americans have $953.3 billion in revolving debt, according to the May 2016 report by the Federal Reserve. What’s more is there’s over $3 trillion in outstanding consumer credit debt. Based on these numbers, it’s fair to say Americans use credit quite a bit.
However, the problem isn’t having the credit debt — it’s not paying it, or paying it late each month. Late credit card payments not only show financial mismanagement but can lead to poor credit scores and the inability to access more credit. This issue is particularly troublesome when it’s time to buy a house or car.
The best thing you can do is pay off your credit card balance every month, which looks good on your credit report. Getting your payments back on track is a smart start to regaining your fiscal footing. A debt counselor can help you with this in a number of ways, including speaking to creditors on your behalf to work on a debt settlement.
3. You Don’t Know Your Credit Score
It’s tough to make a money plan if you don’t know where you stand. Knowing your credit score is an important piece of the personal finance puzzle. Although credit reports are detailed accounts of debts and payments, the credit score is basically a review of the behavior reflected in the credit report. A credit score is the number that indicates your creditworthiness.
Lenders look at this score to determine whether or not they will lend an applicant money and at what rate. The same goes for home and car loans: The better the score, the better the interest rate.
You can obtain your credit score through the big three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian or Equifax or, possibly, through your bank. If you find that your credit score could use some major improvement, it could be a smart move to collaborate with a credit counselor to create a strategy for increasing your score.
4. Collection Agencies Contact You
Getting calls and letters from collectors might mean that, at some point, a bank or lender sold your debt to a third-party collector. If you owe the IRS money, private debt collectors are now authorized to collect that money on behalf of the federal government.
Also, it’s important to know if your debt in collections are “zombie” debts, meaning they might exceed the statutes of limitations as set out by the FTC to “provide relief from the problem of old, stale legal claims.” Some collectors will exploit the public’s ignorance of these rules and go after debts that are past the statute of limitations.
A credit counselor can help you sort through this old debt and figure out how best to handle it given your income and assets.
5. You Don’t Know How Much You Owe
Not knowing the total amount of your debt could be a red flag. This might mean you’re overwhelmed by the money you owe and are avoiding it, or it could be you that your finances are disorganized. Whatever the reason, it’s crucial to get that information so you can get a financial strategy in place.
You have a couple options for finding out how much you owe creditors. One way is to track down all of your bills and tally up the total. If that’s not feasible, then get a copy of your credit report. On it, you will see a list of everyone you owe money to and in what state that debt is.
Remember that your credit report might not be up to date. If an amount looks wrong, it’s a good idea to contact the lender to get the most accurate number.
6. You Depend on Cash Advances
Although using a cash advance when you’re in a pinch is sometimes necessary, depending on them to survive can put you into a tailspin of high interest rates and more debt.
Cash advance APRs can exceed 10 percent — sometimes by a lot. On top of that, interest is charged as soon as the money hits your pocket, and there’s typically no grace period.
By participating in debt counseling, you might be able to devise a long-term plan that will help you avoid these last-resort cash options in the future.
7. You Hide Financial Information From Your Spouse
A third of married couples didn’t know the amount of their spouse’s student loan debt, and 39 percent of married couples reported that credit scores are a source of stress in their marriage, according to a recent survey by credit bureau Experian.
Given these figures, it’s no surprise that spouses hide bad money habits from their significant others. But hiding financial information from your spouse is clearly an indication of financial mismanagement. This kind of secrecy can mean that your spending is out of control. Finding an impartial third party, like a credit counselor, can help you come up with a strategy to fix the problem.
Recognize If You Need Help — and Get It
If any or all of these warning signs ring true for you, it could be a good idea to find a reputable credit counselor. The FTC advises consumers to be wary of red flags — such as agencies that require you to provide details about your situation in exchange for information about their services — when looking for a credit counseling agency. A good agency should send you free information about its services with no strings attached.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is one resource that can immediately connect you with an NFCC-certified consumer credit counselor to help you get back on track. Whether you go with an NFCC counselor or another trustworthy advisor, take advantage of available resources to build your credit, improve your finances and lay the foundation for a better financial future.