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8 steps to take before bankruptcy
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Howard convinced them to try a tactic that he's used himself. After the allowance system went into effect, the couple turned saving into a game for the children. They encouraged the kids to go through the paper looking for coupons and specials on the things they liked. In the store, the game was to keep the total as low as possible. And children got to keep one-fourth of the money they saved.

4. Sell assets. "People tend to forget about this," says Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and co-author of "All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan." What to target: things that have cash value, but not sentimental value. Think antiques, old clothes or collectibles. Check the closets, garage and storage locker, she says, "and find out what you can live without."

"EBay, garage sales and consignment shops can all be a source of cash," Warren says.

5. Go for consumer credit counseling. Find a local affiliate of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and get an appointment. Once you're there, trained credit counselors will help you look at your situation and draft a budget.

If you want, they can also take the process a step further and negotiate a pay-back plan with your creditors. And while a debt management plan can have a negative impact on your credit, it's better than bankruptcy. (And if you've already gotten significantly behind on the bills, it probably won't make things any worse.)

6. Negotiate with your credit lenders. Not yet ready to sign up for a debt management plan? You can try to do the same thing on your own.

First, you need to gauge the status of your account. Is it open and near the limit? Or has it been closed and turned over to collections? Generally, accounts go to collections somewhere between 120 and 150 days past due, says John Ulzheimer, vice president of the After Bankruptcy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that teaches people how to recover from bankruptcy.

"If you have an excellent credit score, they will be a little more flexible," says Ulzheimer. "If you have a poor credit score, they're not going to let you go 90 days past due."

If you're behind on payments, but the account hasn't gone to collections: If your account is open and you can afford to pay something, that's good. "If you can start working with the creditor -- lowering the interest rate, lowering the payment or doing away with interest temporarily -- that can give you enough time to get back on your feet," says Ulzheimer. Some companies have intervention programs allowing them to make "radical changes to your account temporarily," he says. Again, your track record, financial resources and future financial situation will make a difference.

You may not get any offers of help on the first call. Stay with it, be polite and work your way up the food chain. "It can save your credit rating," says Ulzheimer.

Next: If your account has gone to collections ...
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How debt management plans affect credit
15 signs of serious debt trouble
The basics of bankruptcy

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