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What to do if you can't pay your credit card bill on time

Forty million Americans will miss at least one payment this year. Here’s what to do if you’re one of them.
Image: Credit card
If you're historically a good customer who has rarely been late on payments, lenders may be willing to negotiate the penalty fee.Poike / iStockphoto via Getty Images

It’s that time of the month again — when your credit card bill, with that minimum payment due bolded and circled, shows up in your mailbox.

According to a new survey by WalletHub, 16 percent of Americans (roughly 40 million people) anticipate they’ll be missing at least one credit card payment this year. It’s a seemingly miniscule problem that, as NBC News BETTER has previously explored, can reap dire consequences.

“If you cannot make the minimum payments on time, it creates a tough situation,” says Ted Rossman, industry analyst at

Late payments can result not only in penalty fees, but also a spike in your APR (annual percentage rate or how much the bank collects in interest) and cause potential damage to your hard-earned credit score.

If you can’t make your payment this month, we’ve compiled a list of helpful tips of things you can do to lessen the blow or avoid repercussions altogether.

Call the company — they’ll likely negotiate with you

If you’re a loyal customer with a history of timely payments, your credit card company is likely to work with you on a single late payment.

“Believe it or not, asking for a fee waiver with a bank or credit card company is very straightforward,” says Logan Allec, a CPA and owner of the personal finance blog, “Money Done Right”. “It's really not that scary, and credit card companies deal with these kinds of inquiries all the time, so don't be ashamed.”

But do be prepared. Lenders are more willing to negotiate with you if you provide a specific timeline of when you will be able to pay.

“Don't just say, ‘Um, can you waive my late fee?” says Allec. “Instead, gather your facts, and on the call say something like, ‘I'm sorry, but I won't be able to make my minimum payment by the due date on my bill; however, I fully intend to get my account current as soon as possible — in fact, I have a check coming in next Wednesday. I will immediately deposit it and once it clears, hopefully by next Friday, I will get my account current. If I am able to do this, could I please have the late fee waived?’"

Though there’s no guarantee that the lender will give you a pass, the odds are in your favor (again, provided you’re historically a good customer who has never or very rarely been late on payments). In fact, WalletHub’s survey found that 9 of 10 people who tried to get a late fee waived were successful.

“Chances are they'll work with you — within reason — if you slip up once,” says Rossman.

Allec adds to be sure to call ahead of your payment due date for the best chance at success.

Know that there’s no grace period after the due date

One common misconception around credit cards, says Rossman, is that you have a 21-day grace period to make a payment on a statement balance, interpreted as having three weeks post due-date to pay without penalty.

This is not the case.

“A credit card's grace period is the time between the date when your billing cycle ends and the date that you must make a minimum payment on your card,” says Allec.

So, the 21-day grace period is more like a head’s up. You have 21 days after your statement is received to pay the bill. There’s no leeway regarding the actual due date.

“With credit cards, there is no grace period [for late payments],” says Leslie Tayne, Esq., founder and head attorney at Tayne Law Group P.C., a debt resolutions law firm. “You’d need to check with other bills to see the due date and the date in which a late fee will be charged and then when it’s reported late on your credit report.”

It could be smarter to pay the credit card bill than your utility bill (in extreme cases)

Though skipping a household utility bill is never recommended, in very tough times there is a sound argument to choose to pay the credit card bill over the electric.

“In some cases, it can be smarter to pay your credit card rather than your electric bill,” says Allec. “One reason for this is because credit card late fees and interest rates are typically far more draconian than those charged by utility companies. [Additionally], utility companies are typically governed by state laws that [generally] prevent them from simply turning off your lights for missing a single payment. In some states, utility companies are obligated to reach out to you several times after you've missed your payment to set up a payment plan and must give you a certain amount of time to get your account current, so be sure to research the laws in your state and know your rights.”

You should also look into programs that can help offset utility costs.

“There are services that may be able to help you with utility payments and you should explore those options,” says Arielle O'Shea, personal finance expert at NerdWallet. “The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is a good place to start.”

Consolidate all debt on one balance transfer card

If you know you have debt on several cards, consider consolidating it onto one — especially if you’re in “between $1k and $5k of debt”, says Rossman.

“Consolidating your credit card debt on a 0% balance transfer card can help by putting a pause on interest during the introductory period, which is often 12 to 18 months,” says O’Shea. “Balance-transfer offers typically require good or excellent credit, and if you don’t pay off the balance during the introductory period, interest will start accruing again at the card’s standard interest rate.”

You’ll want to do some research in choosing a balance transfer card, as many will charge you a percentage fee based on the balance you’re moving, which can be avoided.

“Users can be hit with a percentage fee on the amount being transferred,” says Rossman. I like Chase Slate, Amex EveryDay and the BankAmericard because they don’t charge a transfer fee [within the first 60 days of transferring]. Be sure to open the card with the intent of transferring a balance right away.”

Also, when doing your homework on these cards, don’t concern yourself with perks like cash rewards or travel points.

“These cards are about eliminating debt and lowering your interest rate,” says Rossman. “That can save you thousands of dollars.”

Consolidate into a personal loan

“Another option is to consolidate into a personal loan, which might offer a lower long-term interest rate and fixed monthly payments,” says O’Shea. “Credit unions are often the best source of low-interest rate personal loans, especially if you don’t have an excellent credit score.”

Such loans are optimal if you owe at least $5k, says Rossman.

To get started with this, you should talk with a nonprofit credit counselor to work out a debt management plan.

“These agencies will help you in a few ways: consolidating one monthly payment, negotiating with your creditors, and they can get rates similar to a personal loan,” says Rossman. “The National Foundation for Credit Counseling is a good umbrella organization that a lot of these non-profit counselors are members of. Money Management International is also a good organization with offices all over the country.”

Working with a nonprofit credit counselor is not free, but it’s also a fairly nominal expense when you consider how much they can save you in the long run (in both money and time).

“Money Management International typically charges a one-time $50 set-up fee for its debt management plans, and its average monthly fee is $25,” says Rossman.

Choose debt management over debt settlement services

Though the terminology is similar, debt management and debt settlement are not synonymous. If you want to lower your credit card burdens without hurting your credit score (and are not in risk of bankruptcy), you should go with a debt management plan.

“Many debt settlement services advertise with things like ‘pay pennies to the dollar,’” notes Rossman. “It sounds too good to be true, and it is, because it can trash your credit. A debt management plan from a reputable nonprofit credit counselor can be a great thing, though. It will help your credit as you steadily pay debt down.”

Remember though, whichever path you take to avoid or deal with late payments (or overwhelming debt in general), none of these options will really work for the long haul if you don’t put in the effort.

“Keep in mind that you need to create a budget for paying off [any] consolidated debt, and a plan for not falling back into debt once you’ve paid it off,” says O’Shea.


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