Past due stamp sitting on three bills. © Derek E. Rothchild, Stockbyte, Getty Images

By 2007, at ages 57 and 68, respectively, Francine and Jim Bostick had racked up more than $120,000 in credit-card debt. They were juggling payments to meet the minimum amount due each month on their 13 credit cards. When they reached their breaking point, they turned to Housing and Credit Counseling in Topeka, Kan., for help.

Fast forward five years and the Bosticks -- after working second jobs, living on a tight budget, and putting $2,500 each month toward their debt repayment plan -- are now debt-free. (Read their story in MSN Money's Frugal Nation.) "They're a perfect example of how it's never too late to seek help from a credit counselor," says Gail Cunningham, the vice president of membership and public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a network of accredited and certified credit-counseling agencies.

The Bosticks are far from alone in having accumulated big debts. In the wake of the Great Recession, with the country's unemployment rate reaching the highest level since the Great Depression, many Americans found themselves with crippling amounts of debt.

As a nation, Americans owe $721 billion on outstanding credit cards, according to the Federal Reserve. The average U.S. household with at least one credit card owes nearly $15,950 in credit card debt, according to Yet only a fraction of those people seek help from a credit counselor.

That can be partly attributed to the bad rap credit-counseling agencies have gotten by being confused with debt-settlement companies. Credit counselors advise people on how to make better budget and lifestyle decisions and develop a plan to pay back their creditors. Many counseling sessions are free (those with fees typically charge about $20 per session). Meanwhile, debt-settlement companies offer to negotiate with a person's creditors to slash the amount of debt they owe -- and many charge clients a large fee for their services.

Unfortunately, the debt-settlement industry is rife with scam artists and fraudulent groups, which has made it more difficult for credit counselors to earn people's trust. "Many debt-settlement agencies have made promises they can't keep, and they've effectively blurred the lines between them and us," Cunningham says.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, formed in 2010, has started to address some of those problems, but for many years deceptive debt-settlement agencies operated without a watchdog. "You couldn't turn on the radio without hearing those ads saying things like, 'We'll settle your debt for cents on the dollar,'" says Allie Vered, the vice president of education and public awareness for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Richmond, Va.

Others may be afraid that consulting a credit counselor will hurt their credit scores, but talking to one has no impact on a person's credit or credit scores.

A sense of shame can also keep people from seeking help from a credit counselor. But Brian Oliver, a vice president of counseling at CredAbility in Atlanta, says that's less of a problem now that credit counselors have made themselves accessible by phone and online. "Walking into a physical location can be intimidating, especially if the person doesn't want to admit face-to-face how much they're in debt," Oliver says. The ability to get help remotely eliminates some of the fear, he says.

Are you thinking about talking with a credit counselor but aren't sure if you need one? If any of these situations apply to you, experts say a credit counselor can help:

1. Debt collectors are calling you

This might be the most obvious red flag, but it's also a sign that you should have sought help from a credit counselor long before reaching this point, according to David Jones, the president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. "The earlier you can get to a credit counselor, the better," he says, adding that it's never too late.

However, make sure the debt collector calling you is legitimate. Debt collectors are required to operate under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Two signs you could be dealing with a deceptive debt collector: if he or she calls outside the hours of 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. or uses profane language (both are outlawed by the act). If the debt doesn't sound familiar, ask for documentation.

2. You're living paycheck to paycheck

This means every cent you earn is spoken for, and you're putting yourself or your family on a slippery slope, Cunningham says. If you experience even the slightest financial hiccup, you'll fall behind. You need some wiggle room each month for unforeseen expenses, such as auto repairs.

Often, this can be fixed by pinpointing places where you can cut discretionary spending. A credit counselor will go through your budget line by line to help you find ways to reform bad spending habits.

3. Debt is creating tension in your household

If debt is a source of arguments between you and your spouse, a credit counselor can reduce the strain by providing ways to minimize your debt. If you and your spouse do everything you can to avoid talking about money, that's also a sign you need help.

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