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They ensure member agencies pass rigorous standards set forth by the Council on Accreditation or another approved third party, and that their counselors pass a comprehensive certification program. Financial institutions don't give preferential treatment to any one organization, nonprofit or otherwise.
Even if they are members of such organizations, though, be picky. So while the agencies and employees vary, the plans are all structured the same way: Your counselor determines how much it will take to pay your creditors in full in three to five years.
Here's what you need to know about consolidating accounts through an agency. Instead, they have preset arrangements with most financial institutions, many of which lower interest rates and fees, so more of your payment goes toward the balance rather than finance charges. With something as precious as your finances, be exceedingly careful about who you work with.
Their debt consolidation programs, called debt management plans, can help you get back on track -- but they can also be unnecessary and even detrimental when done through a poorly run organization or for the wrong reasons. These agencies do not make loans, nor do they settle debts.
When one account is satisfied, the others receive a larger portion of your payment, which speeds up the repayment process. Those you owe will still be sending you account statements, which you'll have to monitor and send in.
If most of your liabilities include other types (tax debt, unpaid child support or old parking tickets, for instance), these plans won't help.
The agency should be organized, send payments and statements on time and offer strong consumer education and support. The payment is usually around 2.5 percent of the total debt, though in hardship situations, there is some wiggle room. Why consolidate bills if you can't pay for basic expenses or if there are better alternatives?
You can stop the plan at any time, and you can also pay more -- and get out of debt faster -- when you have extra funds. You wouldn't, which is the reason consolidation begins with a counseling appointment where your entire financial situation is assessed.