If you or someone you know is in financial hot water, consider these options: self-help using realistic budgeting and other techniques; debt relief services, like credit counseling or debt settlement from a reputable organization; debt consolidation; or bankruptcy. How do you know which will work best for you? It depends on your level of debt, your level of discipline, and your prospects for the future.

Self-Help

Developing a Budget

The first step toward taking control of your financial situation is to do a realistic assessment of how much money you take in and how much money you spend. Start by listing your income from all sources. Then, list your “fixed” expenses — those that are the same each month — like mortgage payments or rent, car payments, and insurance premiums. Next, list the expenses that vary — like groceries, entertainment, and clothing. Writing down all your expenses, even those that seem insignificant, is a helpful way to track your spending patterns, identify necessary expenses, and prioritize the rest. The goal is to make sure you can make ends meet on the basics: housing, food, health care, insurance, and education. You can find information about budgeting and money management techniques online, at your public library, and in bookstores. Computer software programs can be useful tools for developing and maintaining a budget, balancing your checkbook, and creating plans to save money and pay down your debt.

Contacting Your Creditors

Contact your creditors immediately if you’re having trouble making ends meet. Tell them why it’s difficult for you, and try to work out a modified payment plan that reduces your payments to a more manageable level. Don’t wait until your accounts have been turned over to a debt collector. At that point, your creditors have given up on you.

Dealing with Debt Collectors

Federal law dictates how and when a debt collector may contact you: not before 8 a.m., after 9 p.m., or while you’re at work if the collector knows that your employer doesn’t approve of the calls. Collectors may not harass you, lie, or use unfair practices when they try to collect a debt. And they must honor a written request from you to stop further contact.

Managing Your Auto and Home Loans

Your debts can be unsecured or secured. Secured debts usually are tied to an asset, like your car for a car loan, or your house for a mortgage. If you stop making payments, lenders can repossess your car or foreclose on your house. Unsecured debts are not tied to any particular asset, and include most credit card debt, bills for medical care, and signature loans.

Most automobile financing agreements allow a creditor to repossess your car any time you’re in default. No notice is required. If your car is repossessed, you may have to pay the balance due on the loan, as well as towing and storage costs, to get it back. If you can’t do this, the creditor may sell the car. If you see default approaching, you may be better off selling the car yourself and paying off the debt: You’ll avoid the added costs of repossession and a negative entry on your credit report.

If you fall behind on your mortgage, contact your lender immediately to avoid foreclosure. Most lenders are willing to work with you if they believe you’re acting in good faith and the situation is temporary. Some lenders may reduce or suspend your payments for a short time. When you resume regular payments, though, you may have to pay an additional amount toward the past due total. Other lenders may agree to change the terms of the mortgage by extending the repayment period to reduce the monthly debt. Ask whether additional fees would be assessed for these changes, and calculate how much they total in the long term.

If you and your lender can’t work out a plan, contact a housing counseling agency. Some agencies limit their counseling services to homeowners with FHA mortgages, but many offer free help to any homeowner who’s having trouble making mortgage payments. Call the local office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the housing authority in your state, city, or county for help in finding a legitimate housing counseling agency near you.

Debt Relief Services

If you’re struggling with significant credit card debt, and can’t work out a repayment plan with your creditors on your own, consider contacting a debt relief service like credit counseling or debt settlement. Depending on the type of service, you might get advice on how to deal with your mounting bills or create a plan for repaying your creditors.

Before you do business with any debt relief service, check it out with your state Attorney General and local consumer protection agency. They can tell you if any consumer complaints are on file about the firm you’re considering doing business with. Ask your state Attorney General if the company is required to be licensed to work in your state and, if so, whether it is.

If you’re thinking about getting help to stabilize your financial situation, do some homework first. Find out what services a business provides, how much it costs, and how long it may take to get the results they promised. Don’t rely on verbal promises. Get everything in writing, and read your contracts carefully.

Credit Counseling

Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free educational materials and workshops. Their counselors are certified and trained in consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Counselors discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.

Most reputable credit counselors are non-profits and offer services through local offices, online, or on the phone. If possible, find an organization that offers in-person counseling. Many universities, military bases, credit unions, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate non-profit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.

But be aware that “non-profit” status doesn’t guarantee that services are free, affordable, or even legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling organizations charge high fees, which they may hide, or urge their clients to make “voluntary” contributions that can cause more debt.

Debt Management Plans

If your financial problems stem from too much debt or your inability to repay your debts, a credit counseling agency may recommend that you enroll in a debt management plan (DMP). A DMP alone is not credit counseling, and DMPs are not for everyone. Don’t sign up for one of these plans unless and until a certified credit counselor has spent time thoroughly reviewing your financial situation, and has offered you customized advice on managing your money. Even if a DMP is appropriate for you, a reputable credit counseling organization still can help you create a budget and teach you money management skills.

In a DMP, you deposit money each month with the credit counseling organization. It uses your deposits to pay your unsecured debts, like your credit card bills, student loans, and medical bills, according to a payment schedule the counselor develops with you and your creditors. Your creditors may agree to lower your interest rates or waive certain fees. But it’s a good idea to check with all your creditors to be sure they offer the concessions that a credit counseling organization describes to you. A successful DMP requires you to make regular, timely payments; it could take 48 months or more to complete your DMP. Ask the credit counselor to estimate how long it will take for you to complete the plan. You may have to agree not to apply for — or use — any additional credit while you’re participating in the plan.

Debt Settlement Programs

Debt settlement programs typically are offered by for-profit companies, and involve them negotiating with your creditors to allow you to pay a “settlement” to resolve your debt — a lump sum that is less than the full amount that you owe. To make that lump sum payment, the program asks that you set aside a specific amount of money every month in savings. Debt settlement companies usually ask that you transfer this amount every month into an escrow-like account to accumulate enough savings to pay off any settlement that is eventually reached. Further, these programs often encourage or instruct their clients to stop making any monthly payments to their creditors.

Debt Settlement Has Risks

Although a debt settlement company may be able to settle one or more of your debts, there are risks associated with these programs to consider before enrolling:

1. These programs often require that you deposit money in a special savings account for 36 months or more before all your debts will be settled. Many people have trouble making these payments long enough to get all (or even some) of their debts settled, and end up dropping out the programs as a result. Before you sign up for a debt settlement program, review your budget carefully to make sure you are financially capable of setting aside the required monthly amounts for the full length of the program.

2. Your creditors have no obligation to agree to negotiate a settlement of the amount you owe. So there is a possibility that your debt settlement company will not be able to settle some of your debts — even if you set aside the monthly amounts required by the program. Also, debt settlement companies often try to negotiate smaller debts first, leaving interest and fees on large debts to continue to mount.

3. Because debt settlement programs often ask or encourage you to stop sending payments directly to your creditors, they may have a negative impact on your credit report and other serious consequences. For example, your debts may continue to accrue late fees and penalties that can put you further in the hole. You also may get calls from your creditors or debt collectors requesting repayment. You could even be sued for repayment. In some instances, when creditors win a lawsuit, they have the right to garnish your wages or put a lien on your home.

Debt Settlement and Debt Elimination Scams

Some companies offering debt settlement programs may not deliver on their promises, like their “guarantees” to settle all your credit card debts for 30 to 60 percent of the amount you owe. Other companies may try to collect their fees from you before they settle any of your debts. The FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule prohibits companies that sell debt settlement and other debt relief services on the phone from charging a fee before they settle or reduce your debt. Some companies may not explain the risks associated with their programs, including that many (or most) of their clients drop out without settling their debts, that their clients’ credit reports may suffer, or that debt collectors may continue to call them.

Before you enroll in a debt settlement program, do your homework. You’re making a big decision that involves spending a lot of your money that could go toward paying down your debt. Enter the name of the company name with the word “complaints” into a search engine. Read what others have said about the companies you’re considering, including whether they are involved in a lawsuit with any state or federal regulators for engaging in deceptive or unfair practices.

Fees

If you do business with a debt settlement company, you may have to put money in a dedicated bank account, which will be administered by an independent third party. The funds are yours and you are entitled to the interest that accrues. The account administrator may charge you a reasonable fee for account maintenance, and is responsible for transferring funds from your account to pay your creditors and the debt settlement company when settlements occur.

Disclosure Requirements

Before you sign up for the service, the debt relief company must give you information about the program:

The debt relief company also must tell you: