For consumers struggling to make ends meet and racking up credit card debt and barely making minimum payments, hardship programs might provide a welcome relief.

Many credit card companies offer these programs that target borrowers who have fallen behind on payments. They typically offer debtors lower interest rates as well as reduced payments, fees and penalties. In general, most hardship programs fall into two categories: short-term, which could be for a few months or up to a year, or permanent which is until the credit card balance is paid.

Credit card companies don’t publicize these programs because they hurt revenues due to the lowered interest rates. But for most banks, these programs are a better option than not getting any money back as a result of an individual’s default or bankruptcy.

Delinquency: Not a Good Strategy

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when approaching a credit card company about enrolling in a hardship program. Most creditors will want to look at your income and expenses so be prepared to explain your budget. The company will evaluate your ability to pay your debt to determine your eligibility.

They will also look at your account history, so it is a good idea to inquire about the program before falling behind on payments. Using delinquency as a strategy to get your creditor to work out a deal with you is a bad idea. You’ll get a more sympathetic ear if you approach them prior to missing a payment.

Hardship programs are not designed for reckless spenders who have maxed out their credit cards and are looking for an easy way out. They are aimed at debtors who have been hit by catastrophic, life-altering crises like a job loss, major illness, inability to work or loss of spouse or breadwinner. That is not to say that banks will not work with you if you don’t fit into one of these categories.

Stop the Plastic Habit

Be warned that these programs usually mean you will lose use of the credit card. In most cases, your charging privileges will be suspended or revoked. Some companies, however, have programs that restore your privileges upon completion of the program.

Entering a hardship program could also impact your credit score. Before entering the program it is a good idea to ask what repercussions this could have on your credit. Some companies negatively report this information to credit bureaus. Sometimes the negative references on your credit are removed after the program is completed. When negotiating with your creditor about being placed on the hardship track, it is important to understand the card issuer’s policies and the consequences.

The policy on credit reporting depends on the company. Most short-term plans are no more than a year. Long-term plans can go as long as five years. American Express, for example, doesn’t negatively report borrowers on short-term programs. But those who are on long-term programs should expect large dings on their credit regardless of what bank or issuer you owe.

Roman Shteyn is co-founder of Credit-Land.com. He writes frequently on credit-related topics.