Whether it's a nasty credit card habit, or an unexpected job loss, financial problems can send your debt spiraling out of control.

Most people hope they never need it, but they know that bankruptcy's available if all other options fail. Of course, bankruptcy can have all sorts of unpleasant consequences, particularly for a person's credit report. Congress, having recently rewritten the bankruptcy laws, hoped to steer some people away from that path by requiring that they meet with a credit counselor before filing.

A recent report finds that the required counseling has does little to stem bankruptcy findings. Although they couldn't find official statistics, government investigators said in a recent report that, according to counseling providers and bankruptcy attorneys, fewer than 2% of people opted for a debt-management plan instead of bankruptcy.

Even though Congress wanted some people to avoid bankruptcy, it seems that most had run out of options and struggled with financial problems too serious for debt management by the time they started investigating the option.

The lesson for the rest of us: Get help before it's too late.

If you feel yourself slipping into deep financial problems, take the reins before you're stuck with no choice but to declare bankruptcy. Act before the lender tries to foreclose on your home, or your minimum credit card payments total more than your monthly take-home pay. You can tackle the problem yourself, or you can look for help.

Do it yourself
Even if your debt problems seem insurmountable, chances are fair that you can tackle the problem yourself. With some diligence, you can do many of the things a credit counselor would do on your behalf. That means taking a careful look at your sources of income and your debt and working out a budget that allows you to meet your debt payments while still keeping some food on the table.

If credit cards have been the source of your woes, you can try calling each card issuer and asking for a lower interest rate. You may also be able to transfer or consolidate your debt onto cards with better terms. You can get lots of free help right here at The Motley Fool. Start by delving into some of the nuances of credit in the Credit Center. Take a look at the free "Get Out of Debt Guide" for step-by-step help. For constant support and some tough love, join the discussion at the "Credit Cards and Consumer Debt" discussion board. You'll meet lots of people who have been there and done that.

Get credit counseling
The sooner you see disaster on the horizon, the easier it is to tackle the problem by yourself. If you're unable to make all of the minimum payments on your debt, afraid to answer your phone, or failing at negotiating better terms on your own, you might consider credit counseling.

But tread carefully into these waters. A good credit-counseling agency will help you with budgeting and debt repayment. Some may offer you a debt-management plan, which allows you to make one monthly payment that the agency disburses to your creditors. Sometimes, the agency can be more successful than you at reducing your interest rates or reducing your overall debt.

In too many cases, however, agencies that purport to be your best friend and promise to clean up your credit turn out to be a nightmare. Some have been more interested in making a profit off the debtors, leaving your creditors high and dry, and putting you in even more trouble.

When choosing a credit-counseling service, look for a nonprofit organization, ask about its services, and avoid any service that requires you to enter a debt-management plan without knowing anything about your financial situation. Ask about fees and whether the service offers free educational programs. Find out about the counselors' qualifications and the agency's privacy practices. Make sure the organization has been licensed in your state.

Do lots of research. You want this organization to put you back on the path to fiscal sanity, not drive you toward bankruptcy. Get additional advice from these related articles:

Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple welcomes your feedback. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.