Dear Savvy Senior: My husband and I, who are both 66 years old, have fallen behind on our mortgage payments and have accumulated quite a bit of credit card debt over the past few years. Where can we get help? — Drowning in Debt
Dear Drowning: Unfortunately, credit card and mortgage debt have become a growing problem for many older Americans who often face medical-related expenses on top of their mortgage and other growing costs. Here are some tips and services that can help.
Credit card counseling
To help you get a handle on your credit card debt, a good place to turn is an accredited credit counseling agency. These are nonprofit agencies that offer free financial information and advice on how to handle financial problems.
Depending on the significance of your credit card debt, they can help you sort out your finances and set you up in a debt management plan (DMP), which allows a counselor to negotiate with your creditors to lower your interest rates and eliminate any late fees and other penalties.
The agency will then act as a consolidator, grouping your debts together into one payment that you would make, and distribute those funds to your creditors. Typically, the first counseling session is free, but a DMP comes with monthly fees of roughly $20 to $75 a month, depending on the state.
To locate a credible agency in your area, use the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website at NFCC.org (800-388-2227) or the Financial Counseling Association of America FCAA.org (800-450-1794).
But make sure that you don’t use a debt settlement company that claims to settle all your debt or cut it in half for a fee without counseling. Most of these companies use deceptive practices and will only leave you more in debt than you already are.
If you have fallen behind on your mortgage payments, or if you have already received a letter or phone call about missed payments, you should contact your lender immediately to explain your situation and see whether you can work out a payment plan. Be prepared to provide your financial information, such as your monthly income and expenses.
You can also get help from a foreclosure prevention counselor. These are HUD-approved, trained counselors who will work with you, examine your financial situation and offer guidance on how best to avoid default or foreclosure. They can also represent you in negotiations with your lender if you need them to.
To find a government-approved housing counseling agency in your area, use the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or Financial Counseling Association of America websites or phone numbers previously listed. Or, for a larger selection of housing counseling options, see the Department of Housing and Urban Development website at HUD.gov — click on “Resources” at the top of the page, then on “Foreclosure Avoidance Counseling,” or call 800-569-4287.
You also need to make sure you’re not missing out on any financial assistance programs. The National Council on Aging’s website (BenefitsCheckUp.org) contains a database of more than 2,500 federal, state and local programs that can help seniors with prescription drug costs, health care, food, utilities and other basic needs. The site will help you locate programs that you may be eligible for and will show you how to apply.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.