Tighten the belt in 2009

A weekly solution to a problem affecting your finances.

Problem: You're drowning in credit card debt.

Solution: Consider working with a non-profit credit-counseling agency. Consumers seeking help with debt need to tread carefully. As Americans' credit card bills have spiraled out of control, the airwaves have filled with advertisements for "debt-settlement" services that say they'll help consumers settle debts for a fraction of what they owe. But they often charge high up-front fees, and their strategies can drag down clients' credit scores and even make their debt burden balloon.

Non-profit credit-counseling agencies offer a different approach. After reviewing your financial situation, the agency might offer you a debt-management plan, which will help you steadily pay down the full amount owed over three to five years. Creditors will often reduce interest charges or waive fees for consumers participating in these plans.

A good place to start looking for a non-profit credit-counseling agency is, a Web site maintained by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The NFCC sets guidelines on fees that member agencies can charge consumers and requires agencies to provide services free if a consumer can't afford to pay. To find NFCC member agencies, click on "find a counselor now."

The Wall Street Journal