It's no surprise that consumer credit counselors say they're getting busier. Here's what they advise for consumers overwhelmed with debt, according to Changing Times, the Kiplinger Magazine:

- Don't avoid creditors. Instead of skipping a payment, contact creditors to explain why you can't pay. "Creditors will fall off their chairs if you contact them first," says Tom Hufford, executive director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Northeastern Indiana. They have a lot of latitude early on, he says, to temporarily waive or reduce payments.- Beware consolidation loans. Many people hope to stretch out payments over a longer period with a consolidation loan. But the finance companies that offer those loans typically charge high interest rates. Using a home-equity loan for this purpose may seem an ideal solution - interest rates are relatively low and interest on up to $100,000 is tax deductible. But your home is collateral and you risk losing it if you fall behind. Warns Hufford: "You start again with zero balances on your credit cards, and old habits die hard."

- Work out your own plan. Although secured creditors may not be as flexible, unsecured creditors may be receptive to a revised payment plan. William Kent Brunette, author of Conquer Your Debt (Prentice Hall; $9.95), suggests figuring out how much you can afford to pay toward all debts monthly and prorating payments based on how much you owe each creditor. Assure creditors that they're all being treated equally and that you won't take on new debt until the accounts are paid, he advises.

Also, try to get creditors to re-age your accounts, meaning that they will report your account to credit bureaus as current as long as you make the new, lower payment on time. Hufford says some creditors agree to do this when a CCCS restructures debts.

- Seek credit counseling. If bill collectors' calls get unpleasant, contact a CCCS. These non-profit agencies can serve as a buffer between you and anxious creditors and can help set up a repayment plan. Call 800-388-2227 for a local referral.