Rebecca Steele is the president and CEO of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, the largest nonprofit financial counseling organization in the U.S.
NFCC aims to help Americans lead financially healthy lives. It offers services such as debt management planning, foreclosure prevention and home ownership counseling through its network of 600 offices nationwide.
No one is turned away and its services are provided either free or for a modest fee.
Q: What is credit counseling?
A: Nonprofit credit counseling has been around for a while, but we have been working on updating it and providing more types of counseling services in the last few years, especially as it relates to the pandemic. We really think of ourselves as financial counseling for all the masses.
Q: What can someone expect?
A: One thing that really sets us apart are the counseling sessions. Anyone can reach out, either by phone or by an e-mail, and get assigned to one person to help you.
It starts with really listening to their situation and educating people on what their options are. Going through their budget: What is your income? What is your loss in income? What are your expenses? What is your housing situation? How do you get by and put food on the table?
We’ll work with them to really try to make their income balance their expenses and maybe even provide a little bit of savings. Now, that’s real challenging at this time, so sometimes we can’t do that.
When we can’t, we go through their options and what to expect. If they can’t pay a credit card bill, for example, we let them know what happens next. We want them to be aware of who’s going to be calling, what alternatives they have and how to talk to lenders, creditors and collectors. Because, you know, that’s really a big, scary thing. And you want to understand your rights and how you can get back on track.
Q: How many people does NFCC serve?
A: We expect to see anywhere from 1.2 million to 1.5 million this year through our network. We expect next year to be much larger than that; our forecast is over 2.5 million, maybe upward of 5 million.
Q: Has there been a change in demand because of the pandemic?
A: At the beginning of the crisis, we saw a spike in concerns and fear. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people calling to find out, ‘Hey, what do I do if I can’t make my payments?’
Very quickly, the government turned around with the CARES Act and provided really needed stimulus, especially for this lower income band. That helped them get through their rent payments. Their mortgages were able to go on a forbearance and there was a deferment on eviction. So, all of that served to really help, as well as the additional payments from the federal government and some of the supplemental state payments.
Now what we see is that has leveled off and some of that (pressure) has begun to climb back up. We’re really, really concerned, especially with the fact that there’s just not a safety net.
Q: So how does a counselor help?
A: One of the things credit counseling does is really serve as your trusted advisor. And that’s really a smart thing. There’s no judgment. And we’re not collectors, so we’re not working on behalf of any lender.
Trying to do it on your own, it’s really complex by virtue of how many credit cards you have, how many lenders, the housing situation.
The credit counselor works with the lenders, too. It’s about partnering with the lenders to have that open line of communication that is important. Our secondary purpose is to reach out to lenders, understand what a modified payment would be, how to reduce interest, how to reduce your cash flow obligations on a monthly basis, both in the short term and sometimes in the longer term, up to five years.
Q: How can a consumer distinguish between a good resource and one that's not?
A: There’s no Good Housekeeping seal. There’s a lot of choices out there; it’s almost like you are entering into this wild, wild west and that’s really scary.
A couple things that I always say are: look online and make sure that the nonprofit credit counselor has a specific nonprofit, 501 (c)(3) designation. Make sure that it is legitimate. You should never be charged fees upfront. There are no fees for that counseling service.
I would be cautious of aggressive sales tactics. I would be careful of someone that tells you to stop paying your bills. I would also be suspect if someone is not answering your questions and listening to you. You have to be so careful out there because there are so many bad actors and fraudulent companies.
Q: If you had to give one piece of advice to people, what would it be?
A: If folks are struggling, I would say: Hey, just pick up the phone or contact a nonprofit credit counselor immediately. Don’t be afraid. Just do it. Have an initial conversation. Even if it’s just 10 minutes to introduce yourself, get to know a little bit about what the counseling agency does, their background, the person you’re talking to. Do your homework, but act now, because even though you might be able to pay all your bills today, something might happen as a result of this pandemic, whether it’s a second shut down or slow down or something else.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length.