By Elena Chang
NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When Christina Pirtle found herself in substantial debt stemming from hospital and doctor’s bills and credit cards, the single mom and student tackled it head on by working with a financial counselor.

Not only did she want to improve her credit score so she could buy a house, Pirtle wanted to be responsible for her financial decisions. She took the first step to reducing her debt by getting help from a counselor at Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc., a National Foundation for Credit Counseling member agency in Topeka, Kan.

The counselor helped Pirtle, a 43-year old senior administrative assistant in the financial aid department at Washburn University in Topeka, prepare a budget, find ways to save money with coupons and search for ways to generate extra income.

While it wasn’t easy, Pirtle was able to eliminate $3,132 or 47% of her debt and also paid off her car loan and her washer and dryer in just six months.

“I felt that I wanted to be held accountable for my actions and updating my progress with a counselor not only did that, but she was very encouraging and helped me find resources in my area that I may not have known about on my own,” she said. “I think it’s a great resource and opportunity to utilize the mentoring and counseling to help you figure out what you need to do to go forward with your goals.”

Consumers should conduct a “financial check-up” several times a year, and many people evaluate their finances during the middle of the year, said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC.

Over 1.5 million consumers in 2013 sought help to their questions and found solutions to their concerns about debt, housing, budgeting and bankruptcy from a NFCC member agency.

The number one reason that led people to seek counseling was “poor money management,” eclipsing “reduced income,” which had held the top spot since 2009. While many consumers are earning more because the economy is improving, they still need to learn to manage it well, she said.

Paying off a huge chunk of debt meant Pirtle dedicated much of her spare time to her goal. One of the most important tasks that she tackled first was disputing items on her credit report that were inaccurate, settling with some companies and using her income tax refund to pay them off.

Pirtle used coupons, utilized local food distributions which didn’t entail income requirements, bought food on sale in bulk and froze it and utilized apps like Ibotta and Shopkick to get rewards towards cash.

She went the extra mile and in her spare time donated plasma and referred friends and family to donate also in order to receive rewards and even recycled cans on a regular basis. When she wasn’t working, she found herself also driving her family members who paid her for mileage and gas.

Pirtle didn’t stop there and cut her entertainment budget by borrowing movies from the library instead of renting them and attended a coupon workshop to save money on groceries. Her counselor taught her the importance of having a savings account that she could dip into for emergencies.

When she had extra money, she allocated the money toward a savings account or paid off more debt.

“Don’t get frustrated or discouraged,” Pirtle said. “You are working towards a goal and in the end, and you will feel great in what you have accomplished.”

Financial problems can occur at any stage in a person’s life – 24% of people seeking counseling were 25-34 year olds, 23% were 35-44 years old and 21% were 45-54 years old. Addressing problems early on can help mitigate problems before they become serious and difficult to recover.

The NFCC found that the average household income was $35,081, with an unsecured debt of $17,548, resulting in an unsecured debt to income ratio .50.

“Owing too much relative to your income resulting in a high debt-to-income ratio not only makes it harder to meet all debt obligations, but can hinder future borrowing,” Cunningham said.

Consumers seeking help carried an average of 5.7 credit cards. The number of credit cards a person has is not as important as how they manage them, because maxing out the lines of credit will harm a person’s credit score, she said.

“Consumers are smart to contact a trusted organization for financial help,” Cunningham said. “However, the one mistake many of them have in common is that they wait too long to reach out assistance. Delaying taking action allows the problem to escalate, often causing financial damage that could have been prevented.”

Consumers who have questions about how to address their debt can find a local agency by clicking here.

–Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet