With more than 44 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits since March, you may be wondering how to deal with the bills that are piling up.
Credit card debt was a significant concern for many Americans well before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the situation has only been amplified over the past few months. Reduced income often leads to increased debt as credit cards serve as a way to pay living expenses that can’t be covered otherwise.
If you’re in a difficult situation and find yourself unable to pay your bills, there are some options that may be available to you. Many lenders, including credit card issuers, are attempting to work with borrowers to provide some flexibility and assistance due to the circumstances.
Help from Government Agencies
The government has already taken several steps to help Americans that have been financially impacted by the coronavirus. These programs are not directly related to credit card debt, but the benefits may be able to help you with your bills, including monthly credit card payments.
- COVID-19 stimulus checks. As part of the CARES Act, $1,200 stimulus checks were sent to most adults (based on income qualifications), with additional money for children.
- Expanded unemployment benefits. The federal government has tacked on $600 per week in addition to the regular unemployment benefits paid by states. The extra $600 will expire at the end of July.
- Paycheck Protection Program. Small businesses impacted by the coronavirus were able to apply for forgivable loans in order to continue paying salaries and wages to workers that otherwise may have lost their jobs.
- 401(k) early withdrawal penalties waived. The 10% penalty for early withdrawal of 401(k) money was temporarily waived, allowing up to $100,000 to be withdrawn without penalty.
Coronavirus Credit Card Relief Programs
In addition to the government programs offering help, many credit card issuers (as well as other lenders) have developed programs of their own for consumers in need of assistance.
The exact details of the relief available to you will depend on the lender, as well as your own personal situation, but some of the common programs involve the types of relief listed below. It’s always worth giving your lender a call to discuss your options. A lot of times credit card companies are willing to work with people who call and explain their situation. You might be surprised at the accommodations they are willing to make.
Waiving Late Fees
On top of increasing balances and interest charges, late fees can make it even harder for you to get out from under your debt. While the intent of a late fee is to encourage people to pay on time, many issuers are waiving late fees right now because so many borrowers are already stretched thin and paying on time may not be possible.
Lowering Your Interest Rate
Your interest rate will directly impact how quickly your balance increases. Due to the circumstances, some issuers are willing to reduce interest rates in order to help borrowers who are facing difficulty.
Skipping or Deferring Payments
In some situations, credit card issuers may be willing to allow you to skip or defer a monthly payment. However, there are other factors that need to be considered as well. If this is an option that the issuer is offering, check to see if they’re also waiving the interest charges accruing during this time.
Setting Up a Payment Plan
Credit card issuers may be willing to work with you on developing a repayment plan that will allow you to pay off your debt in a way that is more favorable than your existing plan.
Increasing Credit Limit
Increasing your credit limit may be the last resort that could help you to get through a difficult time. Due to the unusual circumstances and the difficulty that you may be facing with covering your living expenses, increasing your credit limit may be an option that you want to consider, although any other options should be prioritized.
If you’re in need of assistance, here are some simple steps to follow.
Step 1: Assess Your Situation
Take a step back and look at your overall financial situation. How has your income been impacted by the events of 2020? Are you able to pay all of your bills on time, and what bills and payments will be coming due in the near future?
Credit card issuers may ask you to provide evidence of hardship or documentation before working with you on some sort of relief. It’s best to prepare ahead of time and be ready to provide documentation to show a drop in income or expenses that you may have faced as a result of the pandemic.
Step 2: Prioritize Your Payments
Not all bills are equal. If you find that you’re unlikely to be able to pay all of your bills, take some time to prioritize so the most important bills are paid first. Things like mortgage/rent, car payment, food, and utilities should be at or near the top of the list. Necessities should be prioritized, while other discretionary expenses or bills would be lower on the list of priorities.
Bills that aren’t collecting interest are ones you should consider the lowest priority. Look into what the minimum monthly payment would be on those to maintain zero interest and avoid any penalties.
Step 3: Work with Your Creditors
If you’re having trouble paying your bills or if you anticipate that you might not be able to pay upcoming bills, make the effort to reach out to your credit card issuer as soon as possible. Many creditors will be willing to work with you, but the situation can be harder if you wait until you’ve fallen way behind.
Due to current events, most creditors, lenders, and banks are experiencing very high call volume and you may be on hold for a long time. You may have an option to send a message or a request through the company’s website or app, which may help you to avoid long holds. However, talking to a human is often the best way to get some help, so you may want to make a call at a time when you’ll be able to wait if you get placed on a long hold.
Check the website of your credit card issuer as they may have specific resources related to the pandemic, or specific ways for you to request relief. Here are links to relevant information from some of the leading issuers:
Step 4: Make Your Minimum Payments
If possible, continue to make your minimum payments, or more if you’re able, each month. Making the minimum payment will help you to keep your credit report clean and at least you’ll be paying down some of that debt, even if it leads to slow progress.
Step 5: Keep an Eye on Your Credit Report
Monitoring your credit report is always a good practice, but it’s even more important right now. Typically, you’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each major bureau (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) once every twelve months. However, you can now get a free copy of your credit report every week, which makes it much easier to identify any inaccuracies and get them fixed as soon as possible.
If you’re facing challenges paying your credit card bills, know that you’re not alone. With millions of people being impacted, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Take advantage of any relief options that are available to you and put yourself in the position to recover as quickly as possible.