More than a quarter of New Jersey consumers are so behind on their bills, the debt has gone into collections.

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According to an analysis by the Urban Institute, using consumer records and data from the U.S. Census Bureau, collectors are attempting to retrieve way-overdue payments from 28 percent of New Jersey residents.

That's actually better than the national average of 33 percent, but nine New Jersey counties (Atlantic, Camden, Cumberland, Essex, Hudson, Mercer, Passaic, Salem and Union) either match or exceed the national mark.

At 41 percent, Essex County registered the highest share of residents who are delinquent on loans, credit cards, medical bills and other debt. Morris, Somerset and Bergen counties have the lowest share of residents facing collectors' calls and letters (15, 18 and 19 percent).

New Jersey's median amount of debt in collections, according to the analysis, is $1,114. A median of $483 was registered for medical debt alone.

Dig yourself out

Ignoring a collector's phone calls and mail will not work, notes Leslie Beck, principal at Compass Wealth Management in Rutherford.

The quicker you respond, the less likely you are to see an even bigger hit to your credit score.

"Face it, explain your situation, and then work with the debt collectors to come up with a plan," Beck said. "Because they want to get paid. That's how they make money too."

Don't pounce on every too-good-to-be-true credit card offer, Beck added. It's not a good habit to "collect" credit cards, and every one represents a ding to your credit score.

If you've already made that mistake and you're staring at several ever-growing bills, Beck suggests it's best to keep up with the minimum payment on each. If you have some extra money available to throw at your debt, address the bill that features the highest interest rate.

"What I tell my clients is once you get that card paid off, cut it up," Beck said.

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