Dear Debt Adviser,
Do you have to be late on credit card payments, etc., to utilize credit counseling? We are drowning in credit card debt but continue to make our minimum monthly payments. We’ve heard you have to be late on payments to use credit counseling. Any help is much appreciated.
— Kristin

Dear Kristin,
I am so glad you wrote. Millions of people are in — or are about to be in — your shoes.

As a youth, I was brought up on strong, silent screen heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Icons of few words and much action, these role models rarely accepted help unless they were full of lead, on the verge of heat stroke or surrounded by bad guys.

Our current icons may be different today, but what hasn’t changed is that we see ourselves as strong, take-care-of-ourselves Americans who don’t ask for help unless we have reached a sufficient pain threshold.

This may work in national myth and the movies, but in real life it is so much baloney.

Really strong and smart people stay that way by getting help before they get in serious trouble. So, the long answer to your question is no, you do not have to be late on your payments to seek help from a credit counseling agency.

The same applies to housing counseling agencies. More help is available to those who have not yet defaulted than those who have.

For help with nonmortgage bills, I suggest you contact a member agency of either the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The members of these organizations are nonprofit service organizations that will offer you a free initial counseling session.

You can expect to spend about an hour with a certified counselor reviewing your financial situation. You’ll need to have copies of your bills, statements and other monthly expenses, as well as your monthly income figures with you for your call, visit or Internet session.

The counselor will review the information and make specific recommendations based on your particular situation. Everything you discuss is in strict confidence, and the best agencies do this free.

After reviewing your finances, the counselor may recommend a debt management plan or offer you a written action plan that you can handle on your own. You will decide which path to choose.

If you enroll in a DMP, the credit-counseling agency will negotiate concessions on your accounts such as reduced interest rates, re-aging your accounts (where the creditor brings the account current, even if you haven’t made all the required payments) and/or eliminating fees. You will make one monthly payment to the credit counseling agency and the agency will disperse the payment to the creditors included in your DMP.

A typical DMP will last two to five years after which you will have paid all your balances on the accounts included in the plan. Expect to pay a modest setup fee and ongoing monthly fees of up to $50.

Many people ask me if enrolling in a DMP will hurt their credit. That is like standing on the sinking Titanic and asking if the life preserver will wrinkle your clothes. It may, but what’s your alternative?

I also want to let you and other readers know that you do not have to be late on your mortgage payment to seek housing counseling. Many AICCCA and NFCC members are also HUD-approved housing counseling agencies that can provide needed services for those who have questions about their housing situations. I also recommend the Hope Now Alliance, which can also be reached by calling (888) 995-HOPE.

Many homes in the U.S. have fallen drastically in value. As a result, many people are unable to use their home equity as a credit resource to make ends meet in a crunch.

If you know or believe that you will soon have trouble making your mortgage payment, seek help before you are late with a payment. As in the case of credit counseling, the best housing counseling is available for free.