Dear Savvy Senior:
What resources can you recommend to help seniors with financial problems? I hate to admit it, but I've fallen behind on my house payments and have accumulated quite a bit of credit card debt over the past few years. Where can we get help?
-- In debt At 70
Dear In debt:
There are actually a number of free and low-cost resources available today that can help seniors who are struggling with credit card and/or mortgage debt. Here's where you can turn to for help.
To help you get a handle on your credit card debt, a good place to start is at a credit-counseling agency. These are non-profit agencies that offer free financial education and advice on how to handle financial problems.
And if your debt is significant, they can set you up in a debt-management plan (DMP) that 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 distributes those funds to your creditors. Most agencies charge a one-time $30 set-up fee and a monthly maintenance fee of around $20 for a DMP.
To locate a credible agency in your area, use the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website at debtadvice.org or call 800-388-2227.
Do not use a for-profit 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 then 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 if 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 housing foreclosure avoidance counselor. These are HUD-approved, trained counselors that will work with you, examining 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 website or phone number previously listed. Or for a larger selection of housing counseling options, see the Department of Housing and Urban Development or call 800-569-4287.
Another helpful resource you should know about, and one your counselor can help you explore, is the Making Home Affordable program. Created by the Obama Administration in 2009, this program offers struggling homeowners the opportunity to modify or refinance their mortgage to make their monthly payments more affordable.
It also includes the Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives Program for those who are interested in a short sale or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure. To learn more about these programs and their eligibility requirements see makinghomeaffordable.gov or call the Homeownership Preservation Foundation's HOPE Hotline at 888-995-4673.
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 2,000 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.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.