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Help is Available for Finding Your Way Out of Debt

Consumer Credit Counseling Service
CCCS Sign (Credit: Michele Skalicky)

Debt can be overwhelming.  Being unable to keep up with the bills can affect not only your finances but all aspects of your life—your health and happiness included.  So when someone offers to help, the relief is significant.

One place that helps people become debt free is located along busy Glenstone Avenue southwest of where the street intersects with Portland.

Sound of traffic

Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a non-profit organization, helps approximately 300 people become debt free each year.

One thing you notice when you walk in the door is a large plastic jug filled with pieces of credit cards—cut up by their owners who are working toward managing their debt.

Tracey Blaue is director of education at CCCS.

She says they offer help with things like budgeting, using credit cards and other loans and more.

They also create debt management plans for clients.  CCCS works with creditors to lower interest rates on credit cards and other loans.

"You know,  25% interest rate, if we can get that down to 9, 10 percent, so instead of paying something paid off in 30 years, we're trying to get it completed in a five year period of time," she said.

Another benefit of the debt management plan, according to Blaue, is what’s referred to as “re-aging” an account.  Overdue accounts can sometimes be brought to current status so clients can start fresh.

Clients pay a set amount to CCCS who in turn pays the creditors until the debt is paid off—usually within a five-year period or less.

Blaue says most of the debt they see is credit card debt, but they also see a lot of auto debt where people owe more than a vehicle is worth.  And, she says, student loan debt is becoming more of an issue.  CCCS counselors recently met with MSU financial aid advisors and learned that a loan servicer is often more willing to work with a loan recipient who contacts them for help than with a debt management agency.

According to Blaue, many times when people are having financial difficulty, it’s due to lack of managing that money.  That’s another area where CCCS can help.  She says there’s no cost to make an appointment to learn how to manage your money, and you need to take action before it’s too late.

"We want to get people more educated  as to, 'do you have a budget?'  Do you have a plan?  Do you have some savings goals?'" she said.

Blaue says they help people help themselves.  Karen Catt, who paid off $14,000 worth of debt in 18 months with the help of a CCCS counselor, says learning to budget was one of the key components of becoming debt free.  And she liked that she had the freedom to decide how to spend her money.

If a client enters into a debt management plan, as Catt did, there’s a fee of $15 a month to pay for processing fees.

Bankruptcy is always an option, and Blaue says that becomes necessary when debt isn’t manageable.

"There's a lot of times people are filing because there's been some type of medical cause--you know, medical bills, it's huge.  And, you know, the smallest of problems can be thousands of dollars, so healthcare is a big problematic area," she said.

You don’t have to go through a credit counseling agency to get out of debt—you can try to tackle it yourself.  James Simmerman, professor of finance at Drury University, says the first thing you should do is address the behaviors that got you into debt in the first place.

Determine where you’re spending money unnecessarily and use the money you save to pay down debt.

If you have more than one credit card, he says, there are two options.  One is to pay the card with the higher interest rate off first.

"That is something, you know, in the long run financially you can say, 'hey, this saved me the most money.'  However, psychologically, if you pay off the smallest balance first, many times that kind of motivates you to say, 'hey, I got rid of this credit card, and then I can take everything I was paying toward this credit card and start paying it on the next one,'" he said.

He says there’s not necessarily a right way or a wrong way.

He says one thing that can help is to write down everything you spend so that you can see where your money is going. 

He suggests paying with cash when possible since studies have shown that people spend less when paying with cash than with a debit or credit card.

According to Simmerman, you should pay more than the minimum payment on your credit cards or you’ll be paying them off for a long time. 

And he says sometimes it’s necessary to take on a second job in order to pay off debt.

One place you might find help managing debt is at your workplace.  Missouri State University is just one employer that offers Core Financial Wellness to both its employees and students.   The seven-week course covers things like saving, staying out of debt and budgeting.  There are baby steps you follow.  MSU’s director of wellness Sheila Bowen says it’s important to offer financial wellness program to employees so they can become more productive workers.

"I'll tell you what, when employees aren't stressed and taking calls from bill collectors and can focus on their work they get a lot more productivity.  There's a term called presentism, which means they're there in body, but their head is elsewhere, so they're really not performing to the degree they should be at work," she said.

Another thing that might help some people get their finances back on track is a new program called “Sharpen Your Financial Focus,” an initiative of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.  The online financial assessment tool helps you create a snapshot of your current financial picture.  You can access it at sharpentoday.com.

You can find this and other stories in our Sense of Community Series on Debt in the Ozarks at ksmu.org.

For KSMU, I'm Michele Skalicky.