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Credit Crunch : A counseling service helps its clients solve their debt problems and avoid bankruptcy.

June 20, 1991|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the cost of living increases, many senior citizens on fixed incomes find it more difficult to make ends meet.

As a result, some are also plagued by consumer debt.

But the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Ventura County can help.

This nonprofit community service was established to help people solve their debt problems and avoid bankruptcy. Its counselors are certified by the National Foundation for Consumer Credit.

There are also offices in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

People age 50 and older make up 15% of the service's clientele.

According to Shirley Anderson, president and executive director of the Ventura office, most of the seniors counseled are having problems with credit cards. "Often, they had several cards while they were married," she said. "But now they are widowed, living on a fixed income and can't continue to make the payments.'

In other instances, Anderson said the problem starts when credit card companies send cards to senior citizens who, in turn, use them for day-to-day survival.

"We see many cases where there are monthly medical expenses not covered by insurance," Anderson said. "Seniors generally get cash advances from the cards to pay these bills or to buy groceries. And it creates a snowball effect."

To qualify for help, a person needs some form of income, Anderson said. It can be welfare assistance, a pension or Social Security. Here is how the service works:

Obtain an application form by phone or mail. Complete it, showing all your income, expenses, debts and creditors. Then make an appointment for an interview with a counselor. During the session, the counselor will analyze your financial problems and recommend a solution. In some cases, no further action is needed and no fee is charged for the session.

If your monthly obligations exceed your income, you may need to use the debt management program and will be charged a fee of up to $20.

Your creditors will be notified that you have applied for help in meeting your obligations.

And your counselor can usually arrange with creditors to reduce the amount of your monthly payments by extending them over a longer period of time.

Then, using a money order or cashier's check, you send the payments early to your credit counselor. And he or she will disburse them to each creditor.

There is no charge or obligation for the actual counseling or advice you receive.

If, however, you use the debt payment plan, the service charge of 6.5% of the monthly payment (not to exceed $10 a month), is charged to offset operating costs. This fee is included in the monthly payment you arrange with your counselor.

With some patience, you should be able to repay your debts and reclaim some peace of mind.

Moreover, you will have learned how to manage your financial affairs more efficiently.

* FYI

* The Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Ventura is at 3445 Telegraph Road, No. 100, Ventura 93003. 644-1500. The service's educational pamphlets include "How to Avoid Money Management Mistakes," "How to Reduce Your Food Bill" and "How to Handle Credit."

* The pamphlet "What to Do if You're Denied Credit (D13285)" and a booklet, "Your Credit--A Complete Guide D13286," are available free of charge by writing the American Assn. of Retired Persons Fulfillment, 1909 K St., NW, Washington 20049. Be sure to indicate the stock number.

* For a free catalogue listing free and low-cost federal publications of consumer interest, including several titles on money management, credit and banking (pages 8-9), write Consumer Information Catalog, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.

* If you have questions about the Equal Credit Opportunity Act or your credit rights as an older or widowed person, write ECOA, Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington 20580.

CREDIT QUIZ

More than one yes suggests that you need help to prevent debt problems. If you answer yes to all 10, you are in trouble.

1. Do you use cash advances on credit cards to pay current bills?

2. Do you charge every day or on small items?

3. Has the number of money arguments in your household increased?

4. Do your credit card charges and installment purchases exceed 20% of your net income after your housing expense is deducted?

5. Do you have to reduce your credit payments to afford food and housing?

6. Are you unable to save money for occasional expenses or a planned event?

7. Do monthly bills overlap before you can pay them?

8. Do you borrow additional money before an old loan is repaid?

9. Is your total credit indebtedness more than you can repay in 12 months?

10. Do your charge account balances increase each month?

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