Debbie Croteau had to pay $700 for car repairs. Her phone bills run as high as $700 a month. Her home day-care business has fallen off by two-thirds. And every week she tries to send money to her husband on a Navy ship in the Middle East.

"Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong since he's gone," said the 31-year-old mother of one from Forestville. "This has financially as well as physically drained us."

They're not starving or flocking to welfare lines, but many families of U.S. servicemen and women stationed in the Middle East are struggling to keep their heads above water financially as Operation Desert Shield drags on into its fifth month.

Many reservists have taken big pay cuts from their civilian jobs, and some active-duty soldiers and sailors have lost second jobs, as well as housing and food allowances, while overseas. Spouses left to fend for themselves have had to pay for car repairs their partners might have handled, and have forked over big money for day care they didn't need when someone else was at home to help with the children.

And with phone calls to Saudi Arabia costing $18.29 for 10 minutes on American Telephone & Telegraph, families are facing monstrous long-distance bills. One family at Langley Air Force Base, outside Hampton, Va., racked up an $1,800 bill in one month.

"Many of our people are on marginal budgets," said Judy Kinney, a special assistant with the Navy Relief Society, which provides assistance to families. "They do very well, but if they have several out-of-the-ordinary things happen at once, there's just not enough money to go around."

So they've put off some bills. They've negotiated with banks to reduce mortgage payments. They've taken jobs to earn extra money. They've moved home with parents to cut expenses. And they've taken out short-term loans to make ends meet.

Private nonprofit groups such as Navy Relief have noticed sizable increases in the number of families needing help in recent months.

Navy Relief, which awarded $41 million in interest-free loans and grants to 95,700 sailors in 1989, has seen a 25 percent increase this year. Army Emergency Relief distributed $26 million in interest-free loans and grants to 58,000 soldiers in the 10 months ending Oct. 31, an increase of $2.5 million and 2,000 beneficiaries over the same period in 1989.

"A lot of it comes down to money management," said Leonard J. Harmon, a retired colonel who is deputy director of Army Emergency Relief. "Some of these families are young families and don't have a lot of experience and can get themselves into trouble."

Officers at bases in the District, Maryland and Virginia agree.

"For some of the wives, having the total responsibility for the entire household is a new part of their lives," said Ginny Figgins, outreach coordinator with Army Community Services at Fort Lee in southern Virginia. "It's not a matter of whether they can do it or not. It's a matter of showing them the way."

Maj. Dennis Beard, family support coordinator for the First Army, based at Fort Meade in Maryland, said major problems have largely been avoided because the military has a strong network of counselors and financial advisers.

"This is like night and day from the Vietnam era in terms of family support, because there wasn't any" then, he said. "What we younger officers think is that the senior folks were the mid-line ones in Vietnam and they knew the families weren't taken care of."

Still, the money crunch is an added burden at a time when many spouses are under stress because their wives or husbands have gone off to what may become a war.

Michelle L. Kelley, an assistant professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, home of the Atlantic Fleet, said her interviews with Navy spouses reveal a great deal of anxiety about paying the bills.

"Families that are having financial hardship are going to have just that much more stress in addition to everything else that's going on," Kelley said. "That is one of the things that a lot of women have told me, particularly those at the lower end of the {economic} scale. It's really tough. A lot of them have a lot of children and they can't work without someone else at home."

Debbie Croteau doesn't have that problem. With her own day-care center, her home is her work.

But business has fallen off, and with all the other expenses since the departure of her husband, Pierre, she has had to borrow $1,000 from Navy Relief and put all her Christmas presents on layaway.

"Savings are pretty slim right now. It's been rough," she said. "It's been very expensive to live since they've been gone."

Wendy Howard, 20, of Gaithersburg, gave birth to her first child, Derek, on Oct. 1. But with so little money, she plans to go back to work next month as a bank teller.

"It's kind of hard," said Howard, whose husband, Robert, is a Navy cook aboard the USNS Comfort. "He wants me to send him money for when he stops in port. Now that the baby's here, it's even harder. I was going to stay here with the baby, but with him gone, I'm going to have to get a job. I don't want to, but I have to."

Likewise, Georgia LaCroix, of Springfield, took a job as a word processor at a management consulting firm after her husband, Capt. David W. LaCroix, left Sept. 20.

As a member of an Army Reserve judge advocate general unit in Saudi Arabia, David LaCroix makes $1,500 less each month than he did as a civilian lawyer for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Alexandria.

Though a reduction in the mortgage interest rate from 10.5 percent to 6 percent reduced monthly payments by $250, Georgia LaCroix has still had to make compromises, such as going back to work and not sending her 2-year-old daughter, Joanna, to preschool as planned. She leaves Joanna and her two sons, ages 9 months and 4, with a neighbor who charges less than a day-care center.

"I was planning to stay at home until the children were old enough to go to school," LaCroix said. "If I had not gotten the job, it would've been tough and I might be crying the blues. It's amazing what you can do when you have to.

"My children are with a sitter a lot and that bothers me somewhat. But they're not suffering. I don't think that anybody's hurting. You just have to adjust your lifestyle and your priorities."

Sometimes those priorities come down to which bill to pay. Andrea Rhoads, 21, of Bethesda, faced that choice recently with the phone bill and the car payment.

"It's kind of hard to choose: Should I get my phone cut off because they won't wait or should I hold off a {car} payment?" she said. She missed the car payment for a month but managed to make up for it the next. "I scraped everything together and held on."

In their sporadic -- and expensive -- telephone calls, Rhoads and her husband, Glenn, a cook on the Comfort, go back and forth on whether she and their 2-year-old daughter, Meggan, should move back home with her family in Springfield, Ohio, until he returns. For now, they've decided that she should try to hold on.

"I guess for both of us it's a sense of keeping touch," she said. "I'm here where he left me and I'll be here when he gets back."