Image: Woman using calculator on desk full of bills and statements © Sheer Photo, Inc, Photodisc, Getty Images

One of the worst aspects of unmanageable credit card debt is the feeling of helplessness. It can seem as if there's no hope of ever getting on top of things, and that can lead to people ducking reality so hard that they end up with their heads in the sand. However, for most, things don't have to be like that, and just facing up to what's happening can improve the mood, and build motivation.

There is a group of people for whom there's little choice but to continue to live with rising debt. They're the ones who -- often through no fault of their own -- find themselves with so little income that they have no choice but to continue to run up credit card balances to feed their families, maintain a roof over their heads and keep the lights on.

Unfortunately, the following six steps won't be of much use to them just yet. However, once their lives are back on track, the steps may be helpful.

1. Face reality

You know it's going to be painful, but you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it. Facing up to your position is an essential first step. It involves:

  • Adding up the balances on your credit cards and other loans so you know how much you owe. Note the rate you're paying on each card while you're at it.
  • Listing all your essential monthly spending: rent/mortgage; heat and power; loan payments (including minimum payments on credit cards); commuting costs; home, car, health and other insurance; property taxes; Internet fees; food purchases -- everything that you can't live without.
  • Calculating the difference between your total income and your total essential outgo. That's your discretionary spending. If your discretionary spending is zero or a minus figure, you should find a qualified and reputable credit counselor.
  • Getting a handle on how you're currently getting through your cash. It may sound incredibly boring, but try writing down, at least for a month or two, every cent you spend. You might be surprised by how life's little luxuries (eating out, your daily newspaper, those regular trips to the coffee shop and so on) add up.

2. Minimize your spending on luxuries

Resolve not to fritter away the discretionary spending you have on those luxuries, but instead to devote it to paying down debt. Use a credit card calculator to explore how long it will take you to pay down each card, and set optimistic but achievable goals (but first see step 5).

3. Contact your credit card companies

If things have gotten so bad that you can't keep up with minimum monthly payments, you have little choice but to call one or more of your credit card companies. Don't launch into a long sob story, but tell them calmly and clearly that you're temporarily struggling and need them to cut you some slack. Don't expect it to be an easy conversation, but keep your cool and try to convey the fact that you're a responsible person who is determined to pay back what you owe. There's a good chance you can get your minimum payments reduced.