Dear Mrs. Riches:
My husband and I have had more than our share of financial hardships. There was the auto wreck that caused my husband to be out of work for six months, and the downsizing effort that eliminated my job. Then there was my mom's illness that required her to live with us and help with the medical bills and nursing care. It's been like swimming in the ocean when, just as you recover from one wave, another one lays you flat. We had enough saved (we thought) for an emergency but when that emergency gave way to another and another, we fell way behind. Now we're staring foreclosure in the face and don't know what to do. I always thought foreclosure only happened to irresponsible schmucks but now that's me. Do you have any advice, please?
--Red-Faced Reader

Dear Reader:
More and more folks are ending up in your boat -- with bags out on the sidewalk outside a home that's been foreclosed. The popularity of variable-rate loans in the last decade -- which allowed people to exercise purchasing power they couldn't truly sustain -- is largely to blame. Homeowners have ended up with ever-increasing monthly payments that they simply can't afford. Toss in a family crisis and you have a real mess on your hands.

My best advice to you and others like you is not to let it get that far. No, you certainly can't help the rotten hand that fate has dealt, but you can work with the system to see if you can avoid foreclosure during your time of hardship. It's important to remember that your mortgage lender has very little interest in foreclosing on your home; in fact, it will cost the lender money. Foreclosing only looks like an attractive option if the alternative is for the mortgage lender to lose even more money if you abandon the property in bad shape or never pony up.

So, the first step is to contact your lender to discuss your problems up front. Lenders are not therapists, so go for calm explanations rather than lengthy emotional diatribes or who-done-somebody-wrong stories. Some options may include creating a modified repayment plan or even obtaining a temporary forbearance. Check the Housing and Urban Development website for a more detailed explanation of how you should follow up to avoid foreclosure. (Note that the information is geared toward folks with FHA-insured loans, but much of it will be applicable to you no matter your loan type.)

As for your ongoing crises, no need to be embarrassed. Foreclosure isn't just for schmucks anymore; anyone can hit a string of bad luck. Your job is to face the problems head-on, rather than ducking your head.

Want more suggestions for preparing for financial emergencies? Try:

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter. To get your money and relationship questions answered, send her an email. The Fool has a disclosure policy.