• Work out a budget. Review all your expenses to see what nonessentials can be cut to free up cash for your cards. Make sure your budget is realistic, though; if you try to get too Spartan or fail to include all your expenses, you won't be able to stick to your plan. "Make sure you have a good handle on what you can pay and what you can't pay," Credit.com's Detweiler said. "You want to be able to put food on the table and gas in the car" before you think about paying nonessentials. Agreeing to a payment plan you can't afford is counterproductive, the credit experts said, because you'll lose all credibility if you fail to make the agreed-on payments and the issuer may respond with hardball tactics.
  • Get realistic about your situation. If your financial setback is truly temporary, a short-term forbearance or hardship plan may be all you need to get through a rough patch. Issuers can reduce your interest rate and minimum payments for a few months and may waive fees to make your debt more affordable. Some even offer to erase any earlier late payments from your credit reports as long as you make subsequent payments on time, Detweiler said. But if you won't be able to afford your payments once the forbearance ends, you may need a more drastic solution, such as a workout arrangement or a debt settlement.

A workout typically allows you to pay off your balance over several years at a reduced interest rate. Some issuers offer these plans directly to borrowers, while others require you to use a debt-management plan offered by a legitimate credit counselor, such as one affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Be aware that you won't be able to use your cards during the workout period, and it may have implications for your credit.

Do it yourself?

Some borrowers may prefer to go to a credit counselor rather than try to handle negotiations on their own, said Connie Prater, a senior writer for CreditCards.com. Credit counselors know exactly whom to call at each issuer to put a debt workout plan in place, and they can help with budgeting.

"Some people just don't feel comfortable doing this on their own," Prater said. "It can help to have a credit counselor hold your hand and call on your behalf."

Credit counselors, however, must accept the rates and terms that have been dictated by the issuers, which may not be as beneficial as what a consumer could negotiate on his or her own, Bovee said. For example, most debt-management plans have rates in the 9% to 11% range for a five-year plan, he said, while one issuer-provided workout plan recently offered rates of less than 1%. Also, you'll be expected to pay your entire principal back in full. Credit counselors don't offer debt settlement.

Another issue: You may not qualify for a credit counselor's debt management plan if your bills are too big for your income. In that case, bankruptcy or debt settlement may be your only options.

If you opt for the do-it-yourself route, keep a notebook and pen by the phone, and make good notes of every conversation you have with your creditors, Detweiler advised. Stay calm and ask for a supervisor if the person you're talking to isn't cooperative.

"The first person you get on the phone is likely to be the least knowledgeable and the least helpful," Prater said. "Continue to go up the line until you get someone who can answer your questions."

Once you have an agreement with your issuer, make sure to get everything in writing, including how the deal will be reported to the credit bureaus.

But whether you should make the first call -- or wait until your creditors contact you -- is a matter of debate.