American households are carrying more debt than ever, with U.S. consumer debt nearing $4 trillion in March 2018. As far as credit card debt, household averages were just shy of $16,000 in 2017.

As our technological world continues to develop and more convenient services and must-have products hit the market, it’s hard to imagine consumer debt doing anything but going up.

If you’re finding that your financial situation isn’t as stable as you thought, that your debt is starting to transition from manageable to an issue, it’s time to research debt relief options. This article will serve as your jump-off point in deciding the best course of action for your situation.

How Much Do You Owe and to Whom?

Before diving into research and vetting providers, you need to bite the bullet and take care of perhaps the most difficult part of debt relief: determining exactly how much you owe and to whom. Maybe you already know this, but chances are you don’t; it’s common for people in debt to not want to know their exact overall balance. It’s actually a big contributing reason why their debt might become out of control.

With a clear view of your overall balance, how much you owe each creditor, the interest rate for each account and when payments are due — you’ll have a much better idea of your situation’s severity.

Debt Relief Strategies

Debt relief, contrary to many people’s understanding, isn’t an actual plan in itself, but an umbrella term including many different plans that range depending on a debtor’s financial situation.

  • Debt Management Plan

When you can’t pay your various accounts on time and certain interest rates are leaving you further in a hole, debt management plans help by consolidating your loans into one monthly payment. With debt management plans, you’ll usually pay a company one payment, which will then distribute it among your various creditors in exchange for a monthly fee. Debt management won’t affect credit scores as much as more serious debt relief options (which we’ll get to below).

  • Debt Consolidation Loans

Debt consolidation plans combine all your unsecured debt into one monthly payment with a lower interest rate. Oftentimes a new loan with a friendlier interest rate is taken out to help debtors pay their balances. Debt consolidation plans, like debt management, reduce a lot of stress on a debtor as one payment is easier to make than eight. Debt consolidation also protects your credit comparatively well.

  • Credit Counseling

Opting for credit counseling means working with certified counselors trained in all things credit, budgeting and financial wellness. Credit counseling agencies often have non-profit status, but don’t let that mistake you for free services; many will charge fees—sometimes expensive ones—for their services, which include a consultation of your financial situation with the goal of recommending an actionable plan. Many credit counseling agencies even offer debt management plans. Even if you don’t go through with credit counseling, you can get a lot of good educational resources from them for free, at least, if they’re legitimate.

  • Debt Settlement

Debt settlement involves working with a company that negotiates with your creditors to reduce your overall debt. These companies charge fees on the debt they’re able to resolve, but you’re only required to pay the fees if you agree to pay the debt. Don’t get caught with a shady company that forces you to pay upfront. That’s a scam.

Many debt relief providers exist, so the best way to figure out which company to work with is by looking at online reviews, going to each company’s website and finally, calling each up to get a feel for their customer service and care.

Make sure you have the basics about what each company does before calling them, so you can make the best use of your time with a customer rep. For example, you can easily find out what Freedom Debt Relief offers by looking at their services page, allowing you to ask more personalized questions for yourself when you talk to them on the phone. Debt settlement programs hurt credit scores and usually take two-to-four years to resolve.

  • Bankruptcy

If you want to handle your debt through the court system, you’ll have to decide between declaring chapter 7 and chapter 13 bankruptcy. And it’s not that hard of a decision. If you have assets and an income, you’re better off declaring chapter 13, which requires you to make court-ordered payments for three-to-five years in order to keep your belongings.

If you don’t have many assets and don’t have the funds to make the payments anyway, you’ll have to declare chapter 7, which is a much quicker process but strips your personal assets and decimates your credit score.

Here’s a solid resource on assessing if bankruptcy is right for you (with plenty of additional resources should you desire them).

General Tips on Avoiding Scams

Regardless which debt relief option suits your financial situation, some key details can indicate a potential scam. When you’re speaking with companies to get a feel for their services and how they operate, ask as many questions as you can. In fact, ask more questions than you planned.

Per the FTC, any debt relief company that tries to make you pay upfront is scamming you. Likewise, any company that guarantees to wipe away all your debt is lying through their teeth. No provider—regardless how successful their track record—will be able to have all your debt forgiven. Guaranteeing any percentage of resolved debt is scam-persuasion tactic.

Legitimate companies will be happy to answer all your questions and won’t try to push you toward a particular debt relief strategy.

Trying to decide on the best course of action when you’re dealing with debt can be exhausting; you’re already overwhelmed, stressed, unsure—it’s hard to imagine any choice providing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Take a deep breath, tell yourself that “this, too, shall pass” and do your due diligence researching the above links and calling different companies. If you put in the time, you’ll be well on your way to becoming your best financial self.