In a credit crunch? Get professional help

You know you need help from a credit counselor when …

It may sound like a comedy routine opener, but lots of people know it’s definitely not a laughing matter.

Many who are weighed down with debt opt first for self-help, trimming back on spending and keeping a close eye on accounts. But much like losing weight, some people have the willpower to shed pounds on their own while others require the help of a personal trainer.

When do you need to call in a financial fitness expert? Here are 15 instances that could indicate that your balances are getting the better of you and that credit counseling might help.

15 signs that you need credit counseling:
Your credit card balances are rising while your income is decreasing.
You are only paying the minimum amounts required on your accounts, or maybe less than the minimums.
You’re juggling bills. For example, you apply for another credit card and use cash advances from it to pay an existing card.
You have more credit cards than a smart gambler has poker chips.
You are at or perilously near the limit on each of your credit cards.
You consistently charge more each month than you make in payments.
You are working overtime to keep up with your credit card payments.
You don’t know how much you owe and really don’t want to find out.
You have received calls or letters about delinquent bill payments.
You are using your credit card to buy necessities like food or gasoline.
Your credit cards are no longer used for the sake of convenience, but because you don’t have money.
You are dipping into savings or your IRA to pay your monthly bills.
You are hiding the true cost of your purchases from your spouse.
You’re playing the card game by signing up for every credit card that sends you an unsolicited offer.
You have just lost your job or are fearful that you are about to and are concerned about how you will pay all your bills.

Look for a pattern
There’s no magic number of statements with which you must agree to determine if you have a credit problem. Even if you see yourself in several of these instances, you still might be able to deal with your credit crunch on your own.

But if you spot a trend, beware.

For example, don’t panic if you occasionally shop surreptitiously, not letting the spouse in on your splurge. Similarly, paying of minimum balances once in a while could be acceptable. But if it’s more than an isolated money management misstep, you could be headed for trouble.

Don’t wait too long
Getting help sooner rather than later can take months or years off the process of getting out of debt.

Once you’ve hit rock bottom financially, it’s much harder to work your way out of it. Seeking credit counseling before tipping over into the abyss eases the stress and financial burden on families.

Any trip to a credit counselor should be preceded by a thorough analysis of your family’s personal finances: how much money you have saved, how much you owe, how much you have coming in each month and so on. Such an analysis will help you assess how much trouble you’re in and how much assistance is required.

In the end, getting organized may be all the help you need.