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Ask the Expert: How can I become debt free for free?

Question: My husband and I have raised two beautiful daughters, paid their way through college, and helped pay for their weddings. Now they’re on their own, and so are we. While we were always frugal, my husband and I are still carrying $12,000 on three credit cards.

Now that it’s just us, we can afford our lifestyle. But I want to pay off those credit cards so we can enjoy our retirement. Being new to the Internet, I searched online for “how to get out of credit card debt” – and I saw literally thousands of results!  Many were for companies hawking “solutions.”

Are these companies legitimate? And if they are legitimate, how do I decide on the right one? Some say they can get me out of debt “for free”? Is that true?

— Jody, Pennsylvania

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

Howard Dvorkin on credit card payment orderGetting out of debt is never free, Jody. However, it should never cost you extra.

Let’s tackle your debt in the proper order. First, you should try fixing it yourself, using the same Internet that recently confused you.

That means checking out Debt.com’s financial calculators and financial education booklets to make sure you know exactly where your money is going — and how it can serve you better. Using these online resources is totally free.

In almost three decades of counseling Americans on their finances, I’ve learned that even the savviest are often leaking dollars in dribs and drabs, often without knowing it. Once you better understand where you are right now, you can accurately chart a path to become debt free.

In your case, that probably means credit counseling. You can read all the details about that on our resource page, but here are three key things to know…

1. Credit counseling agencies are nonprofit. Consultations are free and fees are minimal. Never pay for a consultation, and never pay fees up front. That’s actually against Federal Trade Commission regulations.

2. Get a consultation. Since it’s free, you have nothing to lose. A counselor will ask you all about your finances, and because you used the tools I mentioned above, you’ll be able to give detailed answers. That counselor will study your situation and recommend what to do next.

3. Make sure your counselor is certified. How can you find out? Simple, just ask. If they’ve taken the test, they’ll enjoy boasting about it – because it’s not an easy test, and lying about it will get them in big trouble.

4. Check out their references. The best credit counseling services have A-plus ratings from the Better Business Bureau and recommendations from groups like the United Way.

So how do you find one of these reputable credit counseling agencies? I’ll do it for you. Click here and fill out the form.  One reason I created Debt.com was to help match up Americans with debt problems to proven, reliable companies that can help them. You’re under no obligation when you fill out that form.

Tell me what happens, Jody.

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Have a debt question?

Email your question to editor@debt.com and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a  CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.

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