When they check up on the state of their finances in these recessionary times, many people are paying close attention to their disaster-preparedness plans.

It is no cheerful business to contemplate what could happen to your pocketbook should calamity strike.But financial advisers say you can wind up saving a lot of money and misery if you keep watch for early warning signs and have some advance idea of how to react.

"Financial trouble gets out of control sooner than most people expect," says John Reed in Real Estate Investor's Monthly.

"That's because there is a slippery slope to debt. The debtor is in big trouble when he thinks trouble is still far off."

Many precautionary measures are part of the routine job of money management - maintaining insurance coverage, for example, and saving to store up a reserve of ready cash.

Still, authorities on the subject say, there may be many additional benefits to running through the budgetary equivalent of a fire drill before the temperature gets too hot.

"Debt problems can happen to anyone, at any time," cautions the lenders' trade group, American Financial Services Association. "Unforeseen medical expenses, a temporary job layoff, a marital breakup - all can play havoc on the most stable of budgets.

"For others, mismanagement of their personal finances can lead to serious trouble in a short period of time. The problems can be compounded by how people face a budget-buster crisis."

One common pitfall, advisers say, is to ignore or deny the existence of a problem in its early stages.

"As soon as it looks like a payment might be missed, creditors should be contacted," says the American Bankers Association.

"They may be able to assist by refinancing, extending payment periods or consolidating loans. Delaying may only make matters worse."

A second source of danger can be overly optimistic calculations about the cushion of assets on which your finances rest.

If you have to liquidate stocks, mutual funds or other fluctuating assets during a spell of economic trouble, you may have to sell them at distress prices.

That same hazard can apply to the biggest asset in many people's hands - a house or other real-estate property, especially now when real-estate markets in many areas of the country are depressed.

If you have to move, or need to sell a house just to raise cash, the proceeds may be greatly diminished by capital-gains taxes.

The law allows home sellers to put off paying these taxes if they buy another home of equal or greater value within two years. "But if you are in financial difficulty, you probably cannot buy the requisite home," Reed points out.

The deeper into trouble real-estate investors get, he adds, the more extra costs they may incur, including lawyer's fees, late penalties on debt payments and even mortgage-prepayment penalties.

Reed's advice for real-estate owners, which might apply to many other people as well: "Do an if-we-lose-control balance sheet."

"List assets at their net-liquidation-sale values and add the additional liabilities which would be triggered by defaults, prepayments and taxes," he says. "If the lose-control balance sheet shows a zero or negative number, you'd better steer well clear of losing control.

"Furthermore, take immediate action to improve your lose-control balance sheet."