I am a recovering addict. Will I ever recover, financially?

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I am 37 years old and spent most of my 20s and 30s dealing with mental illness. Long story short, I was severely depressed and struggled with addictions that made it difficult to hold a job or maintain my physical health. Through a mix of incredible luck and support from AA, I was able to get sober two years ago and am now in a paid job (I do administrative work at a doctor’s office), with health insurance and all.

While I’m relieved to be in a place of relative stability, I know I’ll be working on overcoming my past for the rest of my life. One of the biggest ways it affects me is that my finances are absolute shit. My credit score is terrible (in the 400s, last I dared to check it), I have student loans despite never finishing college (about $18,000, I think), and I’m about $9,000 in debt to the credit card. I don’t even really know where to start, especially since maintaining a functional life is relatively new to me. I can recover from my depression and addictions day after day, but will I ever recover financially? I feel like I will pay for this for the rest of my life and never really recover.

I understand why your finances seem like an insurmountable obstacle right now. But as far as I’m concerned, you Already done the hardest part. Facing and managing mental illness and addiction to build a stable life with a good job and a strong community? This is the most soul-scraping job there is. I am not minimizing your financial difficulties, because I know they are stressful in a different way, but you have already put together the tools you need to deal with them, namely a support system, a decent income, a desire to be responsible and a daily ethics.

I also want to emphasize that you are not alone. Most people, regardless of their demons, can relate to feeling behind on their finances. Everyone tells you to start saving in your 20s, but few Americans actually do. They are too busy, not sure how to do it, juggling debts and other priorities, the point is, they have their reasons, just like you have yours. Most everyone I know feels like they are a late start pulling themselves out of financial precariousness. So, as much as you can, let go of the idea that there’s a standard to be met, because there really isn’t. Everyone deserves the comfort that financial security can bring, but there are endless ways to get there.

Your first step is to take stock of all your numbers and write them down. This includes what you earn, what you owe, the interest rates on your debts, your credit score (sorry!), what your minimum monthly payments are, and how much you typically spend in a month. Try to approach these figures with a neutral stance. They’ll bring up some fuzzy self-judgment, but do your best to adopt the cold detachment of a detective or scientist who’s just assembling facts and information. Better yet, enlist a friend to sit with you as you go through the bills and calm down if he starts to plummet.

Once you have a clear picture of your finances, you have a couple of options. The first is to consider debt counseling. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is a non-profit organization that can connect you with a certified credit counselor, ideally one who has previously worked with clients in recovery from mental health and/or substance abuse disorders. It’s quite common for our credit counselors to assist people dealing with debt issues related to a mental health crisis, says Bruce McClary, vice president of communications at the NFCC. When he was a credit counselor himself, he says he worked with countless people in your shoes.

The credit counseling process goes like this: You call the NFCC, they put you in touch with a counselor, and in almost every case you have an initial session, free of charge to go over your finances and talk about a plan. Your counselor can advise you on issues such as finding out if you qualify for student loan forgiveness, how to improve your credit score, and how much money you can afford to invest towards your debt each month. If you don’t like the counselor vibe, call the NFCC back and ask them to set you up with someone else. You are in charge here.

The initial consultation may give you enough material to work with. But if you want more direct support, you can sign up for credit counseling for the long term (that is, until your debts are paid). If so, your credit counselor will come up with a debt management plan that involves consolidating some (or all) of your debts, lowering the interest rate, and creating a payment plan that is feasible for you. This process won’t be free (most plans cost around $35 a month, says McClary), but it will almost certainly save you money if you stick with it.

Your debt management plan will come with ongoing access to your credit counselor, and you should make use of it. If your circumstances change (for example, you lose your job or have a medical emergency), your advisor should adjust your payment plan accordingly. They also have connections to other support groups, such as Debtors Anonymous and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and can make reports if you need to.

One downside to credit counseling is that it can initially reduce your credit score by a few points when you sign up, because it consolidates your lines of credit. (Again, this only happens if you agree to enroll. Your credit score won’t be affected if you simply call the NFCC for an initial consultation.) However, Ohio State University research has shown that people who enroll in a plan debt management professionals see a significantly higher increase in their credit scores over a 2.5 year period than those with similar debts trying to tackle it on their own.

Finally, if shit hits the fan and you lose more than one debt payment without by telling your credit counselor that something is wrong, your debts will revert to your previous creditors or debt collectors, and you’ll be back in the same rough spot you’re in now (though probably not worse). But if you stick to your plan and work with your advisor, you’ll have a clear timeline and goal. Most people who sign up for credit counseling pay off their debts in four to five years, McClary says. It won’t be easy, but it will be simple.

So, that’s an option. Another is to tap into your current support network for advice. Ask around for recommendations, someone you trust has a certified financial planner they like (the emphasis is on certified!), ideally someone who has experience working with recovering clients, who can meet you for an now and help you settle your debt payment options? You could also look for a certified financial planner online, ideally through the XY Planning Network; most will offer you a free 15-minute phone consultation so you can assess if they’re right for you. If someone is trying to sell you something or promising results that sound too good to be true, run.

A financial planner will cost more upfront than a debt management counselor (an hourly rate might be a few hundred dollars), but on the plus side, you won’t have to commit to a rigorous schedule. They can also give you more holistic advice that goes beyond debt management, such as how to start saving and making other strategic financial decisions.

Your third option is to use your existing assets to manage your debt more independently. You can read books on personal finance (here’s a good list to choose from; Paco de Leon’s Finance for the People is another good one) and enlist friends and mentors to help you make a plan and stay consistent (you can do the same for them , mashed potato). You can set up a weekly money date to review your cash flow and payments (actually, do it no matter what). You can find other communities online, like this excellent Womens Personal Finance group on Facebook. Professional help can be great, but there is tons of free information and support that will teach you just as much at this stage. It all depends on how much range you feel comfortable with. Don’t be shy about creating tons of scaffolding if you know you work best with it.

One more thing: you’ll screw up, you’ll feel hopeless, and you’ll worry about paying off your debt for the rest of your life. Don’t let these very normal thoughts overwhelm you. There is a world of people who are ready and happy to help. Keep them close and hold on.

The Cuts’ financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Send your money riddles tomytwocents@nymag.com.

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