WASHINGTON, D.C. — When asked if their personal financial problems were self-inflicted or the result of events beyond their control, an overwhelming majority (63 percent) of respondents to a poll conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) took responsibility for their financial woes.

“The poll results are encouraging, as the first step to correcting a problem is recognizing it,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “Taking ownership of financial problems empowers consumers, putting them in the driver’s seat to affect change.”

To help consumers get back on track, the NFCC offered 12 steps consumers can take in 2013 to correct the problem — advice dealers can pass along to their customers.

1. Have a credit report review: As dealers know, consumers are allowed one free report from each of the three major bureaus once every 12 months. The NFCC recommends that cosnumers obtain all three reports at once if they plan on making a major purchase. The NFCC also recommends staggering requests throughout the year to check for identity theft. 

2. Know the score: Dealers, particularly F&I managers, understand what a score means, but do their customers. That’s why it’s a good idea to explain how those three digits that comprise a credit score impact the lender’s willingness to extend credit, and the rate offered. It’s also important to explain the difference between the multiple scores to which consumers have access.

3. Reduce debt: Piling new debt on top of old is an undeniable red flag, the NFCC said, which recommended that customers lock up credit cards until they’re paid in full. It also recommended that consumers reach out to legitimate credit counseling agencies sooner rather than later. This advice, however, could be used by F&I managers to build value in the F&I protections offered.

4. Commit to save: Without a well-funded savings account, life is lived on a very slippery slope, one that becomes treacherous with the next unplanned expense, said the NFCC. It recommends that consumer dedicate themselves to placing extra money, such as added income from raises, bonuses, birthday checks and any other windfall monies, into savings. This advice may also be good for converting cash customers into finance customers.

5. Get financially organized: The NFCC recommends creating a personal financial center. It doesn’t have to be a fancy home office; it could be an accordion folder. The point is to have easy access to all financial documents. And to stay on top of things, the NFCC recommends committing to visiting the financial center at least once per week. Place the originals of important documents, such as a will or mortgage, in a safe deposit box, and keep copies at home. This is simply good advice to pass along to customers.

6. Avoid incurring late fees: Pay bills the day received. Delaying could result in a late fee, a dinged credit report and a lower credit score. That’s why the NFCC advises that consumers set up online bill paying for all recurring bills. This is good advice for every car buyer, but especially those below-prime buyers.

7. Avoid paying overdraft fees: A receipt stuffed into the car visor isn’t simply being unorganized; it can be a costly habit. Many an account has been overdrawn due to neglecting to notate an ATM withdrawal or debit purchase. Record each transaction into the check register on the spot, and double-check by viewing the account online weekly. Again, this is simply good advice for all consumers.

8. Track spending for 30 days: Have everyone in the household who spends money participate in this eye-opening exercise, the NFCC recommends. Write down every cent that is spent, as it’s the small, miscellaneous expenses that often wreck the best of plans. At the end of the month, come together to review where the money went, making adjustments where necessary. This is more good advice to pass along to your customers.

9. Create a realistic spending plan: A budget is not intended to be restrictive. Instead, it should be liberating, putting the earner in charge of how he or she chooses to spend his or her hard-earned money. Make it too strict and no one will stay on board. Make it too lenient and it won’t accomplish anything. Again, this is great advice for all consumers, but even better for credit-challenged customers.

10. Take advantage of free money: Contribute the allowed maximum amount to the retirement plan at work, or, at the very least, meet the employer matched amount. Not doing so is throwing away free money. Also inquire about the availability of Flexible Spending Accounts or Health Savings Accounts. All of the above can lower taxable income. This is simply great advice for anyone.

11. Have an annual insurance check-up: No one wants to be over-insured. Nor should they be underinsured, resulting in an unpleasant surprise when making a claim. The NFCC recommends making an appointment with an independent insurance agent to confirm that coverage is appropriate for each category. Inquire about ways to lower premiums, and ask about any discounts for loyalty, good driving and the bundling of multiple polices.

12. Investigate refinancing the mortgage: Rates are still very low, meaning that refinancing can potentially save significant money over the life of the loan. Use online calculators to help compare the options. The NFCC, however, warns consumers against extending loan terms in order to achieve a lower monthly payment — unless absolutely necessary to stay afloat.