Even before financial markets began to collapse and the contours of social life and commerce were irrevocably altered by the coronavirus, Americans were already drowning in debt.

To the tune of $14.15 trillion, according to the 2019 fourth quarter report issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data.

While mortgage balances ($9.56 trillion) were the largest part of household debt, according to the report, student loans ($1.5 trillion) and auto loans ($1.33 trillion) also rang in high, as did credit card debit ($930 billion).

If there’s good news, it might be this: There’s help out there, especially in the Fargo-Moorhead area. And, in the weeks and months to come, help might be needed more than ever before.

Here are several places designed to help you keep your head above the rising debt waters.

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  • The Village Family Service Center

Tina Anim, program manager of the Village’s financial resource center in Fargo, said the nation’s debt is “a big problem.”

Financial counseling services from the Village, aimed at long term financial health and management, offer help.

“What we do, simply, is we get people financially independent,” Anim said. “We give people advice on how to manage their finances.”

The hope is to reach anyone who needs help, she said, regardless of their age, financial status, or where they’re at with their finances.

Services range from budget counseling to debt management, including possible consolidation, up to saving for retirement.

“You do not have to be to a point where you are literally drowning before you reach out to us,” she said.

The Village counseled 1,089 people from the Fargo Moorhead area in 2019, Anim said, helping to pay off $2.1 million in credit card debt. They service clients in both North Dakota and Minnesota.

Financial counseling sessions normally run $25 per session, but Anim stressed that because of their nonprofit status, anyone who needs the Village’s services won’t be turned away, even if they can’t pay the nominal fee.

For more information on the services they offer, call 800-627-8220 or visit www.thevillagefamily.org.

  • Lutheran Social Service Financial Counseling

According to a recent press release, LSS helped Minnesotans pay off $17.8 million worth of debt in 2019.

“People we serve often feel overwhelmed by debt and are just trying to stay afloat when their lifeboat has a serious leak,” said Becky Pakarinen, senior director of LSS Financial Counseling. “We can provide immediate relief by breaking it all down into manageable steps and creating a payment plan that includes negotiating lower interest rates so they can pay off debt faster.”

Debt triggers include student loans, unexpected medical bills, a lost job, or simply a failure to set a budget and stick to it, according to the release.

Pakarinen said that debt can happen to anyone.

“We know that life happens and there is no judgment from our team,” she said. “We work with people from all income levels to overcome debt and develop a workable plan for each unique situation.”

Learn more about their financial counseling, available in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, by calling 888-577-2227 or visit www.lssfinancialcounseling.org.

  • Gate City Bank

Student debt load can be a real burden, but if you have a mortgage Gate City Bank has a program aimed not only to help you get a lower interest rate, but a better life.

“We believe so much in our student loan program, we named it after our mission,” said Kim Settel, Gate City Bank’s executive vice president of retail banking and lending.

It’s called the BetterLife Student Loan Program, and Settel said those who qualify get a subsided annual percentage rate, currently at 1.5%, and no associated fees.

“The student loan ties into a mortgage loan with Gate City Bank,” she said, “and it is designed to help get out from under that [debt], and really kind of be the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Customer feedback led the bank to develop the program, and it’s been highly successful. Typically, depending on the degree, loan terms are 10 to 15 years, she said, and applicants must have a mortgage loan with Gate City Bank to qualify.

While the program is a way for people to get some traction, when it comes to moving forward and out of their student loan debt, she said, it also allows Gate City to point them to other banking and lending opportunities, as well as financial services.

“I think people think that the only time you talk to a financial adviser is when you have money to invest,” Settel said, “but, really, they’re there to help you with goals. If debt is your obstacle right now, how do you get through that, and then move toward your goal of retirement saving?”

To find out how Gate City Bank can help your debt load, call 1-800-423-3344 or visit www.gatecity.bank/

  • Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency

Sometimes, households find themselves in crisis, often due to a number of factors. There is some help out there.

Sarah Hasbargen, self sufficiency coordinator of the Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency, which serves region five of the state, including Cass County, said the help they offer is targeted and very specific.

“We are the central axis point for Cass County for households experiencing a housing crisis,” Hasbargen said.

SENDCAA requires an application, she said, but assistance is very limited. On average, they receive 50 to 60 applications per week, and they’re only able to help at most 20% of those. That’s between the partnership SENDCAA has through the coordinated entry process with The Salvation Army and Presentation Partners in Housing.

“If someone is eligible for assistance,” Hasbargen said, “it’s usually short term, maybe one to two months, meant to move someone out of an emergency.”

The ultimate goal, she said, is for the client to have stable housing. Generally, it’s eviction prevention, and there is some case management involved, as well as possible financial assistance.

Qualified applicants would likely either currently be homeless, she said, or have court evictions or evictions notices.

“We really try to prioritize,” Hasbargen said. “We screen people based on evidence-based criteria that show they’ve experienced risk factors that make them more likely to become homeless.”

To find out if you qualify for SENDCAA assistance, call 701-232-2452 or visit www.sendcaa.org.

For more information on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Center for Microeconomic Data fourth quarter report, visit www.newyorkfed.org/newsevents/news/research/2020/20200211