Dear Mary: I am out of money — there won't be a dime left after I pay my bills. I have been considering credit counseling to get some breathing room. My credit is shot, and I'm feeling desperate. By enrolling in credit counseling, at least the creditors would get regular payments and checks that don't bounce. Am I wrong to consider this kind of help? — Sandy
Dear Sandy: You're not wrong at all. In fact, credit counseling could be the way out of your financial straightjacket. I am a big fan of credit counseling, but it is not for everyone. And not all credit counselors are trustworthy. There are lots of sleazy groups out there masquerading as charitable nonprofit counselors. Make sure you are working with a reputable organization you can trust.
You want to speak with a credit counselor or agency that is certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or NFCC, such as Consumer Credit Counseling Services. Go to the NFCC website (or call the number on the website) to be connected with a certified credit counselor near you.
Expect an initial interview to determine whether you are likely to be successful in the program (that typically means you are unable to meet your current minimum payments, you are several months behind, you are employed and, if you are married, your spouse agrees to enter the program). The counselor will work with your creditors to come up with a payment plan you can handle, which could include lower interest, waived fees and restructured payments. The tricky part is that instead of paying your creditors every month, you will write one check to the organization and it will make the payments. The last thing you want is to give your money to a company that you have not checked out and that has not proven itself.
Even reputable credit counseling does not come without side effects. While your creditors may agree to a scaled-down payment plan, they will likely report you as a deadbeat to the credit bureaus. That could blemish your credit report for at least seven years, but that's the price you might have to pay to get yourself back on a good financial track. On the other hand, many people report that credit counseling had a positive effect on their credit history.
Credit counseling is not going to be a walk in the park. It's hard work to get out of debt. But doing the right thing by repaying your debts will make you a better person and give you hope and a future. And it won't cost you a cent to find out whether it can help you.
Dear Mary: I wear contact lenses, so I am diligent to discard mascara after three months of use. What is the shelf life for other cosmetics and skin care products? I want to make sure I don't throw away products unnecessarily. — Reese
Dear Reese: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises that liquid foundation can be used for up to two years, or until it begins to separate. Toss face powder and eye shadow after three years. Lipstick is OK for three years, but discard it if oil beads up on the sides of the product. Replace mascara and liquid eyeliners every three months because they are prime targets for bacteria, whether you wear contact lenses or not.
Sealed cosmetics have a shelf life of three to four years, so take advantage when you see a great sale. But no matter how great the bargain, don't buy beyond your ability to use the products within a reasonable period of time.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.