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What's the difference between a credit counselor and a debt settlement or debt relief company?

Answer:

Credit counseling organizations are usually non-profit organizations that advise you on managing your money and debts and usually offer free educational materials and workshops. Debt settlement companies offer to arrange settlements of your debts with creditors or debt collectors for a fee. 

Credit counseling services to help you deal with debt are different from debt settlement or debt relief companies in a number of important ways:

Credit counseling services that assist with debtDebt settlement companies
Usually non-profit organizationsUsually are for-profit companies that charge a fee for their services. Generally, these companies cannot charge you until after they perform services
Advise you on managing your money and debts and help you budget your paymentsOffer to arrange settlements of your debts with creditors or debt collectors
Reach agreed upon payment plans or agreements with your creditors to ensure that the creditors will not pursue collection efforts or charge late fees while on the planOften have no up-front agreements with creditors. Some creditors will not negotiate with debt settlement companies
Usually do not negotiate any reduction in the amounts you owe - instead, they can lower your overall monthly paymentTypically offer to pay off your debts with a lump sum payment that you save up in an independent account that you control
Do not advise you to stop paying your debt, but may help negotiate your monthly paymentsUsually advise that you stop paying your creditors until a debt settlement is negotiated with creditors, which may damage your credit and result in your being sued
Payment plans do not usually have tax implicationsDebt settlement may involve debt forgiveness, which may have tax implications


Credit counseling 

Credit counseling organizations are usually non-profit organizations that advise you on managing your money and debts. They usually offer free educational materials and workshops. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions.

Note: Credit counselors may help you organize a "debt management plan" for all your debts. Under a debt management plan you make a single payment to the credit counseling organization each month or pay period. The credit counseling organization then makes monthly payments to your creditors.

Under debt management plans credit counselors usually do not negotiate any reduction in the amounts you owe - instead, they can lower your overall monthly payment. They may do so by getting the creditor to increase the time period over which you can repay a loan.  They may also get creditors to lower the interest rates. Although most credit counseling organizations are non-profits, they may charge fees for their services that they take out of the payments you make to them.

Debt settlement

Debt settlement companies offer to arrange settlements of your debts with creditors or debt collectors for a fee. They typically offer to pay off your debts with lump sum payments that you have to save up before a settlement. If a debt settlement company requires you to save up funds in an account, these funds still belong to you. The account must be administered by an independent third party and be under your control. You are entitled to withdraw funds held in that account at any time without penalty.

Fees 

The Federal Trade Commission has adopted a rule that says you can’t be charged a fee until the debt settlement company has met three requirements:

  1. A successful result must be reached. The debt settlement company must have renegotiated, settled, reduced or otherwise changed the terms of at least one of your debts. 
  2. There must be an agreement between you and the creditor/debt collector. You must agree to the settlement agreement, debt management plan, or other result reached by the debt settlement company with your creditor or debt collector.
  3. You must have made a payment to the creditor. You must have made at least one payment to the creditor or debt collector as a result of the agreement negotiated by the debt settlement company. 

If you are considering debt settlement, make sure you carefully read your contract so you know how fees are determined.

Warning: Beware of debt settlement companies that charge up-front fees in return for promising to settle your debts. You can’t be charged a fee before they actually settle or reduce your debt. You should also be cautious of debt settlement companies that instruct or advise you to stop making payments to your creditors. If you stop making payments, you will likely damage your credit. You may face collection efforts, additional late fees, and penalty interest charges, and you might be sued. These fees and charges will cause your debts to grow larger. In this way, debt settlement may cause your total debt-load to grow, even if the debt settlement company settles one or more of your debts.

Other information to keep in mind:

  • Many creditors will not negotiate with debt settlement companies.  Also, many creditors and debt collectors will not negotiate how much they will settle for. Instead, they will have standard policies about how much loan principal they will forgive when you haven't made payments for a certain period of time. This means debt settlement companies usually can't get better terms than you could get by negotiating with your creditors and collectors yourself.
  • Debt settlement companies cannot guarantee the amount of money or percentage of debt that you might save by using their services. They also can’t guarantee how long the process will take. Beware of companies that say otherwise.  
  • Neither credit counselors nor debt settlement companies can erase all of your debts.
  • If you simply don't have enough income to pay what you owe, you may also consider filing for bankruptcy. Consult a bankruptcy attorney to learn more.

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The content on this page provides general consumer information. It is not legal advice or regulatory guidance. The CFPB updates this information periodically. This information may include links or references to third-party resources or content. We do not endorse the third-party or guarantee the accuracy of this third-party information. There may be other resources that also serve your needs.