If there's one plaintive cry you tend to hear again and again from credit counsellors, it's this: "If only our clients had come to see us sooner."

By the time many people actually ask for help, their debt problems are so huge that their credit ratings are in tatters and some solutions may no longer be an option.

How long to pay it off?

Using the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada's credit card payment calculator tool, you can find out how long it will take to pay off that credit card debt if you make just the minimum monthly payment. Since September 2010, banks have been required to show individual payback estimates like this on each credit card statement.

With that in mind, here are a few of the early warning signs that are pretty good indicators that people may be on their way to financial disaster and should seek help. See if any apply to you. 

1. You are only able to make the minimum monthly payment on your credit card debt. A corollary of this warning sign: using a cash advance from one card to pay off another. Imagine that you've racked up a $5,000 debt on a card that charges 19.9 per cent annually. No problem, you say … you just need to make a minimum monthly payment of 3.0 per cent of the balance owning — or $150, in this case. But add in another couple of credit cards with high interest rates, and you can see how making even the minimum payment can quickly become a problem. And don't think of it as a debt of $150. You still owe $5,000. And in the early years, those minimum payments are mostly interest. By the way, in this example, paying the minimum will see that debt hang around for more than 20 years!

2. You're delaying utility bill payments. Most people know that if they pay their electricity or water bill a few weeks late, the service won't get cut off immediately. But stalling one creditor to pay another is a classic "I'm in trouble" indicator. And if you can't make your utility payment one month, how likely is that you'll be able to make a double payment next month?

3. You cash in some of your RRSPs before retirement. More and more Canadians are doing this. A Statistics Canada study found that almost a quarter of taxpayers over one nine-year period cashed in some of their RRSPs following events like the loss of a job or the death of a spouse. Raiding RRSPs early is generally not a good idea as it usually results in a big tax hit and robs you of future retirement income.

4. You argue with your spouse about money. Divorce experts say financial difficulties are a leading cause of splitting up. If you're hiding purchases or the extent of your debt from loved ones, or losing sleep at night, these are all warning signs that should not go unheeded.

5. You are constantly using your overdraft protection. Some people have several accounts, all deep into overdraft territory. Besides the high interest rates these accounts charge, if you're managing to not bounce cheques only because of overdraft protection, things will only get worse.  

6. You're broke the day after payday. Living paycheque to paycheque is a fact of life for many people. But when the money that's meant to last for the next two weeks has disappeared in 24 hours, that's a crisis that often sends people to payday loan and cash advance companies. They're only too happy to provide you with an advance on your next paycheque in return for huge fees and interest charges. Putting aside part of your paycheque in an emergency account can help you deal with unexpected expenses.

7. You consolidate your debts every other year. Many people pay off their high-interest rate credit card debt by refinancing their home and rolling that debt into their lower-interest rate mortgage. But some can't resist running up their credit card debt again and end up having to arrange another consolidation several years later. That's a strategy that's eventually likely to backfire. "People can't borrow their way out of debt," points out Rob Boulanger, the director of counselling at Credit Counselling Services of Atlantic Canada in Saint John. "They're just repackaging their debt in different form and extending their debt over God knows how many years." 

8. Cutting back on essentials. By this, we don't mean cutting out those $4 lattes to save some money. We're talking about cutting back on food or clothing or cutting out one meal entirely in order to make payments to creditors. Boulanger says he sees seniors doing without needed medications or cutting dosages in half so they can pay their other bills. "It's a generational thing," he says. "The older crowd often has a 'pay your bills at all costs' mindset, even if it endangers their own health."

9. You keep applying for more credit. If you're applying for new credit cards, regularly asking for increases in credit limits or are constantly borrowing from friends and family members to make ends meet, then you're regularly spending more than you take home. If something doesn't change, bankruptcy will likely loom. 

10. You're charging everyday expenses like groceries and gasoline because you don't have the cash on hand. It's one thing to charge everyday purchases so you can collect more reward points. But if you have to charge it because there's nothing in your wallet or chequing account, the reward points are nothing but a dangerous distraction. If you aren't able to pay off your credit card bill in full each month, this strategy of putting everything on that card will blow up in your face. It's astonishing how fast the "little things" add up.

11. You regularly get past-due notices or get calls from creditors asking for payment. Paying the occasional bill late happens to many of us. But if it happens all the time, or if you regularly bounce cheques, these are serious warning signs. One side note: If you have the money and pay bills late just because you're a procrastinator, arrange for automatic bill payments. Paying bills after their due date — even just a month late — lowers your credit score and can make it more difficult to borrow at preferential rates. It also voids the interest-free grace period.

12. You don't actually know how much money you owe. Most of us, at least at some time, have wondered where all the money goes. Some people, though, have taken that to the extreme. "Some people are subsidizing themselves through credit, and they don't really know it," Boulanger says. "Some don't know they're in trouble. Once their credit maxes out and they can't get any more, only then do they realize they're in trouble."