Communication's the key to surviving a bout with unbearable credit card payments, especially if you're unable to earn the money you need to clear your debt.

It's crucial to express the difference between being unwilling to pay and unable to pay your monthly bill. Without income from a job, you won't qualify for a balance transfer offer or for any new lines of credit. Trying to hide from that debt will cause you even more misery, so here's a four-part strategy for you to survive what comes next.

1. Prioritize your budget.

Regardless of whether you're talking to one bank or twelve, they're all going to ask you one question: how much can you pay every month? Work that answer out right now, so you're not caught off guard. Credit card payments should show up in your budget after essentials like your housing payment, groceries, and utilities. Too many Americans have been evicted from their homes because they responded to aggressive collectors over small debts, instead of paying more important bills first.

2. Set up a safe phone.

Over the coming months, some banks will be happy to work with you. Others may punt your file to third party collectors who can range from sweet to nasty. Even though you can request that collectors stop calling you, many evade that rule by sharing your phone number with colleagues and competitors. I suggest you use a service like Google Voice (it's free) that can block collectors from hassling you. Just set up a "whitelist" for the phone numbers you don't want to send directly to voicemail.

3. Tell your credit card issuer about your situation.

You might be surprised to hear that many banks offer special deferment and repayment options for disabled workers. Start the conversation with an honest admission of what you can really afford to pay right now, even if that answer is zero. Otherwise, your bank will assume you're just trying to skip out on your balance, and they'll act accordingly.

4. Protect your remaining income.

Collectors can't touch your disability income and your Social Security payments, but they can put a lien on a checking account that's been mixed with other income. That will keep you from accessing the cash you need to get by while you appeal to a judge. Author Robert Pagliarini recommends opening a dedicated checking account just for those crucial deposits. One of the free prepaid debit cards from American Express can work just as well, if you don't qualify for a free checking account.

It never feels good to leave a debt unpaid. But it's not your fault you can't pay. Banks know that risk, and they won't take it personally. Be open and honest through this process and you won't have to deal with the fear and frustration of a collections process.

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