Mention a hefty medical bill you can’t afford to a group of people and it’s almost guaranteed that someone is going to roll out that old chestnut of advice and say, “Just pay $5 a month on it forever. They can’t do anything to you as long as you keep paying.”

If that were true, almost nobody would ever see a medical bill go to collections — but that isn’t quite how things work. You can’t make your own payment arrangements.

It would be nice if people were free to decide how much they wanted to pay on a bill each month, but that idea isn’t likely to fly with any creditor — including medical ones. That’s essentially what people try to do when they send $5 or $10 a month in on a massive bill without getting any kind of prior agreement from the creditor.

If you want to make payments on a hospital or doctor bill and avoid collections, you have to set up a formal agreement that obligates you to a specific payment each month. That requires the consent of your creditor. However, don’t expect to pay just a few dollars a month.

If you owed thousands on a credit card, would you expect that creditor to take $5 a month? Well, hospitals and other medical providers won’t either. For the most part, they’re going to want a minimum payment that will clear your debt off in a reasonable time frame — whatever they decide that may be.

Another problem you may encounter is this: Each medical provider may want their own minimum payment. If, for example, you had an emergency room visit, you may get a bill from the physician who treated you in addition to the hospital bill — and another one for lab tests. All three may require a separate monthly payment.

If your medical bills and other debts have become overwhelming, don’t stay trapped in a minimum payment rut. Find out more about other options, like bankruptcy, that can help you get your finances back on track