Credit cards are a way of life for many consumers, and in these tough economic times, debt burdens carry a heavy weight.

If you’re close to getting into trouble – or you’re already there – you can negotiate with your creditors in the same way a credit counselor would on your behalf. It starts with a simple phone call. Of course, if you have a positive payment history and a healthy credit score, you’ll have an easier time getting what you ask for. But even those with a tarnished credit history can get a better deal.

Take the initiative and contact your creditors before you start missing payments. Here’s how you can make a deal:

Lower your payment
Before you start calling creditors, you need to do a little planning.

Say you want to ask the credit card company to lower your monthly payment. Before you call, you must examine your budget and determine what you can afford to pay each month. If you agree to a payment that you can’t afford, you’ll have to call and negotiate all over again.

When you have a budget prepared, call the credit card company.

Start by stating your case and explaining why you’re having financial trouble. For example, if you’ve been laid off but you’re actively looking for work, share that information with the creditor. Don’t go into a long soliloquy about your woes. A brief summary will do just fine.

Make clear that you’re not trying to weasel out of paying your debt, but instead, you’re taking responsibility. You just need a little help. Creditors would much rather get paid – however slowly – than write off the debt or send it to a collection agency.

Next, offer a plan of action. Tell the representative what you can afford to pay each month.

"Most creditors have short-term (3-6 months) in-house help programs where they can assist their customer by lowering the required monthly payment in addition to adjusting or stopping fees and interest for a period of time,’’ says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a non-profit network of credit counseling agencies.

If the creditor says no, be persistent and ask to speak to a manager. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking.

If you’re not in immediate trouble
You can also negotiate for a lower interest rate if you’re not at risk of non-payment. Lower rates mean a smaller balance on your cards.

"With rates as low as they are today, there is some flexibility for the credit card companies to move lower,’’ says Michael Gibney, a certified financial planner with Highland Financial in Riverdale, N.J.

Gibney says asking for a lower rate is a no-brainer if you have good credit. Plus, banks want to keep their good customers, so the representative will probably make you an offer rather than risk losing your business to another card company.

Get it in writing
Whatever you’ve negotiated – be it a lower payment or a better interest rate – ask the company to send it to you in writing. This is something the company would probably do anyway because there’s a change in your terms, but you want to stay on top of the changes.

"When your next statement arrives, be sure to confirm that the new rate has been applied,’’ Cunningham says.

If you need a credit counselor
Depending on the amount of your debt, your credit history and the outcome of your negotiations, you may need additional help from a legitimate credit counseling service. Credit counselors can negotiate on your behalf, and give you a financial education that can help you move toward a more stable financial future.

For help in finding a reputable credit counselor, try the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, or call the toll free number (800) 388-2227, which will connect you with a credit counselor in your area.