New York -- Having trouble paying bills? Falling behind on your payments to a bank or mortgage company? Every lending institution in America has some kind of policy in place for negotiating with borrowers who are financially strapped.
The problem is, the lenders moan, that you don't use this service early enough. You should come clean with your creditors before black marks stipple your credit record.
When you sit down to talk about your problems, they say, you'll probably be offered a temporary reduction in payments that might get you over the hump.
That consumers are so slow to act, however, is in part the creditors' fault. Many debtors have no idea that their lenders will cut them a deal. The banks fill their lobbies with brochures promoting their lending and savings products. But I've never yet seen one that says, "Having Trouble Paying? Call Our Ms. Wonderful for Advice."
Several lenders wouldn't even discuss their loan-restructuring policies for this column, lest it encourage more customers to seek relief.
"There's a little bit of reluctance to formalize this too much, in that it can be self-selecting," said a spokesman for the Massachusetts Bankers Association, who hastened to add that he didn't want to be quoted.
Why should creditors expect you to know what to do if they leave it to newspaper columns to tell you the facts of life? They should tell you themselves, in statement-stuffers or lobby brochures.
Another thing borrowers may not realize is how early debt restructuring or payment moratoriums can start.
Say you lost your job. You'd probably cut back on expenses but keep on paying your basic bills -- hoping all the while to find work before your cash ran out. But some creditors will lighten your payments from the very first day you're out of work, if you know enough to ask.
"If someone came forward and said they were going to be unemployed two months from now, we'd definitely be able to work something out," says James Cosman, president of BayBanks Credit Corp. in Dedham, Mass.
Exactly what any borrower can get, and for how long, depends on the situation. It's easier to cut a deal if you know that your layoff is temporary or that your lost overtime will come back in two or three months. It's harder if your prospect of finding a new job is poor.
Still, even a brief reduction in payments helps the unemployed.
After six to 12 months, the lender will expect you to start making regular payments again. If you can't, you'll be dunned. Or you might be referred to a local credit counselor.
Credit counselors negotiate with everyone to whom you owe consumer debt, to work out a plausible repayment plan. Free or low-cost counseling is offered by a number of social-service agencies.
The best known nationally is the creditor-funded Consumer Credit Counseling Service (call  388-CCCS for the nearest office.)