3 options for dealing with the February financial freak-out

February is oftenthe month of reckoning for people losing their grip on credit card debt: YourJanuary bill may be bloated with holiday spending, debt realitiesignored during the holidays re-emerge, and the new year has brought a chancefor a fresh financial start.

So where do youturn first?

Kim McGrigg,spokeswoman for Money Management International, says now is the timeto assemble a financial team. The members of that team will vary depending onthe extent of your debt, but some may include a credit counselor, financialplanner or financial therapist, she says. Here are some avenues for help:

CreditcounselingNonprofit credit counseling agencies are a good place tostart. Services are available all over the country and the agencies shouldoffer a free initial assessment.

Look for one that is accredited by a nationalorganization such as the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agenciesor National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Check them out with your stateattorney general, local consumer protection agency and the Better BusinessBureau to see whether consumers have filed complaints. Counselors will help youassess your needs and, if you have severe debt, may recommend you enroll in adebt management plan.

"A debt management plan enables you toconsolidate your debt payments into one manageable monthly amount," says SoraiaDearaujo, vice president of operations for InCharge Institute in Orlando, Fla.Debt counselors will work with your creditors to lower your interest rates, puttogether a plan to pay down your debts and help you create a monthly budget andmoney management plan, she says.

If a debtmanagement program is recommended, payment to the counseling agency varies bystate, but typically runs up to $50 to set up the plan and $30 to $40 per month toadminister your repayment plan. Get awritten agreement on all costs and fees. If you can't afford the monthly fee, a reputable service will waive it.If they won't, look elsewhere.

Financial planners "A financialplanner can be a great help, especially if you are in a stage where you areworking on your investment planning and college planning and retirement planning," McGrigg says.

The designation CertifiedFinancial Planner (CFP) is one of the most respected certifications, but thereare many others. The Securities and Exchange Commission advises consumers tofind out a potential adviser's credential and what organization issued thecredential, and then contact the organization to verify whether theprofessional remains in good standing with the organization. The FinancialIndustry Regulatory Authority offers an explanation of credentials on its website.

Fees for financialplanning differ on whether the pay structure is by commission, in which the planner getsa percentage of the products you purchase through them; fee-only, in which the plannergets only the fee they charge for their services; or fee-based, in which the plannergets a combination of fees for their services and a percentage of the productsyou buy through them. Make sure the pay structure is spelled out in writingbefore you sign on.

FinancialtherapistsThis is an emerging field, and it's an option after a consumerhas tried credit counseling and financial planning and just can't make a planwork, says Ted Klontz, vice president of the newly formed FinancialTherapy Association (FTA) and co-author of "Mind Over Money."

Financial therapists look for underlyingpsychological reasons for a consumer's flawed relationship with money.

"This is forpeople who know better but can't do better," Klontz says. "You cannot followthrough on what you know to be the right thing to do."

Finding the best-qualified therapist foryour situation is tricky because there is no specific certification for thisspecialty. Under the definition developed by the FTA, financial therapists can be financialplanners, financial counselors, therapists, psychologists, social workers andothers who provide advice, counsel and therapy.

The best financial therapists are thoselicensed in both social work or psychology and financial planning or creditcounseling, says FTA founding member Joseph Goetz, assistant professor ofthe Family Financial Planning Program at the Universityof Georgia.

Finding thebest person may take some interviewing. Ask a potential financial therapistwhat kind of questions they would ask, how much experience they have in thefield, how many people they have helped and how they have helped them, Klontzsays. Also ask what they charge.

Initialassessments should be free, those in the field say. After that, therapytypically runs from $100 to $200 an hour.

First, look withinBefore youseek any outside help, ask yourself some questions, says Saly Glassman, managingdirector of investments with Merrill Lynch and author of "It's About More Than the Money." "It's so easy to push this off onto a creditanalyst or counselor. The key to managing debt is to understand how you got thedebt in the first place."

The emotionalforce of the holidays may have helped derail your long-term financial plan,Glassman says. She recommends this exercise to get back on track: Rank yourpriorities, such as health, career, family, hobbies and philanthropy, then askyourself if you have been true to those priorities. "If my No. 1 priority isfinancial security and my last priority is family, and I blew the financialsecurity by buying something that would please my family, then I am not livingthe priorities." Revisiting the list through the year will help keep you out oftrouble, she says.

How to avoid the same money mistakeThere are steps you can take now to avoid being in the same spot a year fromnow:

  • If you're getting a tax refund this year, use it to open a savings account so you can start building an emergency fund and don't have to rely on credit cards for holidays or unexpected expenses, says John Szalicki at Cambridge Credit Counseling outside of Springfield, Mass.
  • Open your mail. People piling up debt "are overwhelmed and afraid of what they're going to see," Dearaujo says. Get a clear picture of what you owe.
  • Figure out what you really spent over the holidays -- not just the gifts, but the travel, the clothing, the postage, the cards and the food, McGrigg says. Divide that number by 12 and that's the amount you should put away each month to get you through the end of the year without credit trouble. "You'll be very happy come December," she says.

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