If you are living paycheck to paycheck and/or bothered by debt collectors, or you can't seem to get on top of your financial situation, you may want to consider the services of a credit counselor. Many credit counseling programs are nonprofit and will work with you to solve your financial problems.

Beware, however – just because a program says it is “nonprofit” doesn’t guarantee that its services are free or affordable, or that its services are even legitimate. In fact, some credit counseling programs charge high fees (some of which may be hidden), or urge you to make “voluntary” contributions that can cause you to fall deeper into debt.

Most credit counselors offer services through local offices, on the telephone, or on the Internet. If possible, find one that offers in-person counseling.

Many universities, credit unions, military bases, housing authorities, and branches of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service operate nonprofit credit counseling programs. Your financial institution, local consumer protection agency, and friends and family also may be good sources of information and referrals.

Credit counseling programs that are reputable will advise you on managing your debt and your money, help you to develop a budget, and usually offer free educational materials and workshops.

Their counselors are certified and trained in the areas of consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. They should discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to solve your financial problems.

A legitimate credit counseling program should send you free information about itself and the services it provides without requiring you to provide any details about your situation. If it doesn’t do that, consider that a red flag and go elsewhere for help.

Once you’ve developed a list of potential credit counseling programs, check them out with your state Attorney General, local consumer protection agency, and Better Business Bureau. They can tell you if consumers have filed complaints about them. (But even if there are no complaints about them, it’s still not a guarantee that they’re legitimate.)

The United States Trustee Program also keeps a list of credit counseling programs that have been approved to provide pre-bankruptcy counseling.