About a year after he almost filed for personal bankruptcy, Mark, a 28-year-old Aberdeen resident who works as a graphics printer, finds himself reducing his debt and making ends meet.
"Things are under control," he said. He credits the turnaround to the help of a financial counselor who showed him how to develop a budget for his monthly income of $1,200.
Getting his personal finances under control cost the printer no more than his time, thanks to two non-profit financial counseling services available to county residents, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Bel Air and a program operated by the county's cooperative extension office.
The financial counselor who assisted the printer was Marvin Kastama, a retired Conowingo resident who is among approximately 60 volunteer counselors trained through the county office of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's volunteer credit financial counseling program.
The program provides training sessions for prospective financial counselors each year, said Kathleen A. Smith, a home economics extension agent.
The trained counselors work with families to help them develop spending plans, negotiatewith creditors when payment problems arise, and hone record-keeping and other money management skills.
Mark was among the 31 new clients who received help through the counseling program last year. Smith said many clients are middle-income wage earners who have overextended credit obligations.
Mark was unemployed because of a work-related injury and was collecting workmen's compensation when he approachedthe extension office. He was nearly $7,000 in debt and struggling topay rent, utilities and car payments.
"My counselor felt it wasn't necessary to file bankruptcy," Mark said. The counselor decided Mark needed some more intensive assistance and referred him to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service.
Consumer Credit, a non-profit organization, is another free financial service available to county residents. The group offers confidential and extensive debt management advice through its Bel Air and other offices throughout the state.
Said Mark, "The Consumer Credit Counseling Service agreed to work with me to pay things off. Things are under control now."
Consumer Credit requires clients to bring in a list of bills and proof of wages. Clients are then steered to one of three different solutions: setting up a personal budget, credit card debt management or legal help.
Clients without moderate financial problems are given in-depth budget counseling.
"A lot of people come in here that don't live under anykind of a budget," said John Gengler, Consumer Credit's educational director. "We counsel them on setting up a spending plan."
In moresevere credit debt situations, clients are asked to give up credit cards immediately. Consumer Credit then becomes a liaison between the client and creditors to manage the credit debt.
Under that plan, the client gives a monthly sum to Consumer Credit, which disperses money to creditors. Payments will be lower but will be extended over a longer period of time, said Gengler, a Bel Air resident.
Consumer Credit, though, cannot do anything to help with secured loans such as home or property mortgages or car loans, Gengler said.
For clientswho do not have enough income to handle debts, Consumer Credit will recommend legal advice.
Both Gengler and the extension office's Smith said they are seeing increasing numbers of people apply for theirfree services.
"We've been swamped with phone calls," Gengler said. "We're seeing more professional people -- white-collar people -- who are either being laid off or cut back from work. Many had credit extended quite freely and are now, because of changes in the economy,experiencing difficulty."
In its Harford office, Consumer Credit served 1,270 clients in 1990, compared to 834 in 1989. That represents a 65 percent increase.
How much credit Consumer Credit managed for Harford clients in those two years was not available.
The county extension program counselors have seen a rise in inquiries for helpwith finances, too.
"We always have a waiting list of potential clients," said Smith. "The economy has made more people come to us andwe expect that this is going to increase. We were seeing the red flags in December."
The extension service plans to offer financial counseling seminars this month and next. So far, about 10 people have enrolled in the extension office's financial counseling program, whichwill be held 9 a.m. to noon on Jan. 22, 25, 29 and Feb. 1, 5 and 8.
More volunteer counselors are always needed for the program, Smithsaid. Her office can handle only as many clients as she has counselors.
Kastama and his wife, Patricia, a retired Harford teacher, went through the training program three years ago. They help clients whocome not only through the extension office but also through a similar program at their church.
"It's rewarding," Kastama said. "It's helped us, too. We've learned more about insurance, wills and getting out of debt and staying out of debt. You would be surprised how much more money you actually have to spend if you stay out of debt."
For more information on the volunteer counseling program, call the extension office at 838-6000.
For more information about Consumer Credit Counseling Service, call 838-6112.