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What to do if you can’t pay credit card bills

Key takeaways

  • Making at least minimum credit card payments can help you avoid compounding late fees and damage to your credit score.
  • If you can’t, communicate with your credit card issuer to explain your financial situation and see how they can work with you.
  • Consider a nonprofit debt counselor and watch out for debt collection scams or for-profit debt settlement companies.

Missing credit card payments can create a major strain on your finances at a time when money may already be tight. Skipped payments could result in late fees, a growing balance due to compounding interest, and, in some cases, a blemish on your credit report.

But if you find yourself struggling financially, you do have options. Here’s how to handle your credit card debt if you’re in danger of missing payments.

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What happens if you don’t pay your credit card bill?

To start, you can expect to get hit with a late-payment penalty or fee after missing a single payment—up to $41 for each missed payment according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.1 Many credit cards add the late fee to your outstanding balance, which means interest will compound on the fee, as well as your outstanding balance until you’ve paid it off.

Next, your credit card issuer will generally report the missed payment to the credit reporting agencies ​​once it’s 30 days past the due date.2 This can have an immediate negative impact on your credit score. Cardholders may see their score drop by as much as ​​80 points after just one payment that’s 30 days past due, according to analysis by FICO.3 T​​he delinquency will remain on your credit report for 7 years,4 but your score could start to improve once you start paying on time again.

​​If the bill remains unpaid for 180 days, that usually leads to what’s called a charge-off, which can also hurt your credit score. This is when your creditor writes off your account as a loss and closes it. At that point, your account will generally be transferred to a collection agency or sold to a debt buyer, and you’ll have to pay off the debt to the new owner. If your debt is transferred to a third-party collection agency, beware of scammers who may call at odd hours, pressure you to pay by money transfer or prepaid card, or threaten to tell your friends and family.5

What to do if you can’t pay your credit card debt

If you’re worried about paying your credit debt—in the immediate future or longer term—consider these steps first.

  1. Try to make at least the minimum payment.

    Each month, your bill spells out the minimum payment you must make to stay current with your credit card debt based on your outstanding balance. Though paying only the minimum won’t save you from compounding interest, it will protect you from pricey late fees and dings on your credit score. If you were paying more than the minimum before you started feeling squeezed financially, reducing your payment to the minimum is a good first step and can keep your account in good order.

  2. Stop using your credit card.

    If possible, leave your credit card at home and unlink it from your digital wallets until you’re back on track. The more you use your credit card, the higher your minimum payment is likely to be. If you’re at risk of missing payments, the best thing you can do is stop the balance from getting higher.

  3. Call your credit card issuer.

    It’s important to keep the lines of communication open with your credit card company when you’re having trouble paying your bill. Especially if your situation is temporary, informing your issuer of a late or missing payment could lead them to hold or waive fees if you’re otherwise in good standing.

  4. Explore credit counseling.

    There are a number of debt-assistance programs that can help you create and stick to a debt-payoff plan. In general, the best option for most struggling borrowers is a credit counseling program. These are often nonprofit programs that can help you take a holistic look at your finances, create a budget, and set up an achievable plan to pay off debt. You can find a reputable credit counseling program through the Department of Justice’s US Trustee program, which features a searchable database of credit counselors.

    Be wary of “debt settlement” companies who claim to negotiate with your creditors to reduce the amount you owe. These programs are usually for-profit and charge high fees. Debt settlement programs also commonly recommend that you stop paying your creditors, which can make the problem worse.6

  5. Transfer your balance to a 0% credit card.

    Consider applying for a credit card with a 0% promotional interest rate. This could buy you time to get your finances in order without incurring a ton of interest. But these rates usually don’t last forever, so ideally you’d only take advantage of this option if you think you can pay off the balance eventually before interest kicks in again.

How to negotiate credit card debt

If you can’t pay your credit debt, your card issuer may be willing to negotiate with you.
  1. Ask for relief options.

    If you suspect you’ll need more than just one waived fee, ask your creditor for more relief options, such as a lower minimum payment or even a lower interest rate for a few months until your financial situation stabilizes.

  2. Explore a hardship forbearance program.

    Your credit card issuer may also provide a hardship forbearance program to briefly pause payments in the event of a financial setback.

  3. Negotiate a repayment or debt settlement plan.

    Creditors and debt collectors may also accept a reasonable repayment or debt settlement plan, such as a lump sum or set number of payments, even if the new total is less than the original balance. You can negotiate this yourself or with the help of a debt counselor or an attorney. (Remember to beware of those debt settlement companies who offer this service for a fee.) You may qualify for free legal assistance through government-funded or nonprofit programs. Just be sure you can hold up your side of the bargain and get any agreement in writing if you do make an offer.7

How to manage your credit card debt

Once you’re back on your feet, consider these tips to help you avoid being unable to pay your credit card bill again.

  1. Don’t charge more than you can afford.

    Treat your credit card the same as your debit card—like cash. Try not to swipe without a plan to eventually pay off that transaction. If you have a pop-up expense that you can’t afford to pay in cash, you could consider applying for a credit card with 0% interest mentioned above.

  2. Set up automatic payments.

    Automatic payments to your credit card company each month for at least the minimum payment will ensure you never accidentally miss a due date or incur late fees.

  3. Pay off high-interest credit card debt first.

    Credit cards often have the highest interest rates of any consumer debt, making them the most expensive debt you can carry. Focusing on paying your credit card debt off quickly will save you money in the long run, even if you’re juggling other debt. Start by paying more than the minimum, if you can, while you also work to reduce or eliminate expenses that you typically charge on your card.

  4. Build emergency savings.

    Having a cash buffer for emergencies is one of the best ways to avoid accumulating credit card debt. If you’re forced to charge the cost of fixing your flat tire or getting stitches, those expenses could cost upwards of 20%8 more because of the interest you might pay. Start by aiming to save $1,000 and then continue working toward a goal of saving 3 to 6 months’ worth of essential expenses.

Can’t make other payments? Get steps to help cover those bills and more in the Fidelity Smart MoneySM Playbook: How to help crisis-proof your life. 

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1. “CFPB Proposes Rule to Rein in Excessive Credit Card Late Fees,” Consumer Financial Protect Bureau, February 1, 2023. 2. “When Does a Late Credit Card Payment Show Up on Credit Reports?” Equifax, 2023. 3. “How Credit Actions Impact FICO® Scores,” FICO, 2023. 4. “How Long Do Late Payments Stay on a Credit Report?” Jennifer White, Experian, May 17, 2022. 5. “How to tell the difference between a legitimate debt collector and scammers,” Courtney-Rose Dantus, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, November 20, 2019. 6. “What are debt settlement/debt relief services and should I use them?” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 24, 2022. 7. “What is the best way to negotiate a settlement with a debt collector?” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, March 29, 2019. 8. “Consumer Credit,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, July 10, 2023.

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