I'm sorry to hear about your situation. It's frustrating enough to work through health challenges without also having to worry about your finances. You're not alone. According to the Social Security Administration, roughly one out of four healthy American workers in their 20s will become disabled before they reach retirement age. As many as 5 percent of American workers receive disability benefits every year, and more than a third of disability cases last five years or longer.

However, a disability or a medical condition doesn't eliminate your debt. If you were spending money and using your credit cards with the expectation that you'd keep a stable income over the next few years, you're probably staring at some daunting financial statements.

Don't panic.

No bank wants to harm you, seize your property, or garnish your wages unless they have no alternative. Even though your disability benefits are protected from garnishment, your home, your car, and even a spouse's income could be at risk if you fail to communicate with your creditors. Follow these steps to protect yourself and your family:

1. Make a clear list of every debt you owe. With everything you're going through, it's easy to lose track of a bill or a creditor. A spreadsheet will help you monitor every relationship with your banks, but even a comprehensive list on paper can keep you organized. Use a credit card payoff calculator to help put your payments into perspective.

2. Call each credit card issuer on your list and ask for a specialist who handles hardship repayment programs. "Hardship" is an industry code word for your situation. Instead of having to tell your story to multiple customer service agents, you can skip right to a person who's empowered to help. Participating in a credit card hardship plan will mean giving up the use of your account, but it will almost always result in a significantly lower interest rate while slashing your monthly minimum payments. Some credit card issuers may even offer you a period of deferred payments, or a credit against finance charges you paid in the past.

3. Roll your payments into a "debt snowball." Make a list of all your debts, with the lowest balance at the top. Figure out the maximum you can afford to apply to your debt from your monthly budget. After clearing all of your minimum payments, throw the remainder at the card with the lowest balance until that card is paid off. Then you move on to the next-lowest balance. As you knock out each account, you'll make faster progress against the rest of your debt.

Communicating regularly with your creditors can prevent them from sending you to collections or considering you for a lawsuit. If you're in truly dire straits, consider a free advisory meeting with a bankruptcy attorney. Dealing with your debt may not feel good, but it beats the fear of a looming judgement that could cause even more damage to your credit and to your mental health.

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