"Don't ignore the problem: get in touch with your creditors straight away and explain your difficulties. Draw up an accurate and realistic personal budget to work out what you can afford to pay each creditor, and show it to them.

Prioritise your debts - don't just pay a creditor because they shout the loudest, look at what they can do to get their money back. Debts that could mean losing your home or having your gas cut off, etc, must be tackled first. But always deal with the whole situation. Don't worry if you can afford only a very small amount, creditors prefer you to pay this regularly than make an offer you can't afford. If you've got no money left, ask if they will accept token payments, eg pounds 1 per week. Ask for the interest to be frozen, otherwise the debt will continue to increase.

If they don't agree to your offer, they can take action in the county court. This is not a criminal court so you won't get a criminal record or go to prison. The court will send you a form: fill it in, giving all the facts, and always keep a copy of this and any other letters or forms you send or receive. The court will only order you to pay a monthly amount that you can afford, and they will freeze interest on the debt. Lastly, don't borrow money to pay off your debts without thinking carefully - it often makes things worse, so get advice first." Interview by Fiona McClymont

Sophie Brookes is a debt counsellor with National Debtline, which provides free, confidential phone advice, 0645 500511