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How to Catch Up When You're Behind on Bills

August 13, 2020 6 mins

Once you get behind on your bills, it can be difficult to catch up – especially if you’re only bringing in enough to cover your monthly expenses. Add in late fees, interest, and insufficient fund fees and it can feel impossible to catch up. If you’re in that position, take a deep breath and check out our suggestions.

If you’re still stuck after checking out our steps, talk to one of our Certified Financial Specialists – they’re here to listen and help you come up with a workable plan.

Evaluate Your Bills

1. Make a list of all your bills

Make a list of all your bills. This is not the same as all your expenses, which also includes things like food and gas. Your bills are mortgage/rent, utilities, credit card payments, loan payments, insurance payments, subscriptions (Netflix, gym, etc.) and any other recurring expenses.

It can be helpful to organize your list by due date so you can see when each bill is coming due. You should also note the frequency each bill is due (some bills are due every other month instead of once a month) so you can figure out how much is due per month. For example, a $150 bill due every other month costs $75 per month. Finally, note the minimum payment – this is typically for credit cards or other loans.

2. Consider which bills are the most important

If you absolutely cannot pay the minimum due on all your bills, consider which ones are the most important to pay. If you have to drive to work/school or for family reasons, your car insurance is probably non-negotiable, so prioritize that. For other bills, especially those that you’re behind on, look at the interest rate and late fees to see which ones to prioritize.

Not sure which bills to prioritize? Talk to one of our Certified Financial Specialists – they’re here to listen and can help you prioritize the bills you’re behind on.

3. Cancel subscriptions you don’t need

If you’re behind on bills, you want to catch up – and one way to catch up is to lower your expenses. Consider if any of your recurring bills can be eliminated, even temporarily. For instance, giving up a streaming service for 4 months could help you get on track financially.

Making some small sacrifices now, while you catch up, will pay off in the long run.

4. Make (and follow) a budget

Make a budget that accounts for your income and your expenses, including your bills. Having a budget will help you see how much you have available each month to cover your bills – plus how much is available to help you catch up on those bills you’re behind on. Learn more about how to budget.

5. Stop using credit for bills and monthly expenses

In order to get back on track, you have to stop accumulating more debt – which means not using your credit cards to pay for bills and other monthly expenses like food or gas. If you find yourself strapped for cash, don’t get stuck using high-interest credit cards or payday loans. Check out our guide to payday loan alternatives if you find yourself in a bind.

In order to get back on track, you have to stop accumulating more debt – which means not using your credit cards to pay for bills and other monthly expenses.”

Work With Your Creditors

Make minimum payments

Once you stop using credit and accumulating more new debt (see #4 above), making the minimum payments on your credit cards and loans will help decrease your total balance, even if only slowly. Making the minimum payment is also good for your credit (versus making less than the minimum payment).

As you make payments, keep in mind that making the minimum payment and avoiding late fees across all your debts is more valuable than paying a bit extra on any one debt. Late fees are typically over $20 – which is likely more than the interest you’ll save from paying a bit extra over the minimum payment on any single bill.

Here’s an example to illustrate this: if you have enough money to pay the minimum payment due on your credit card and on your personal loan, you’re typically better off doing that. If you were to pay more on your credit card instead and miss making the minimum payment on your personal loan, you’d pay less interest the next month on your credit card, but you’d get hit with a late fee on your personal loan.

Request flexibility on payment dates

Once you’ve listed out your bills and their due dates (see #1 above), you can see how these due dates fit in with your paychecks. Some creditors may be willing to accept payments a few days late (without charging you a late fee) or to change your due date altogether. If so, see about scheduling the due date to be right after a pay day, which will help you have the cash available to make the payment needed.

Note that some companies will require you to be caught up on your payments before making a change in your due date. If a creditor is unwilling or unable to change a due date, consider making full or partial payments earlier than the due date. For example, if your credit card bill comes due on the 5th of every month but you only get paid on the 20th, consider making your credit card payment after you get your paycheck, instead of waiting 2 weeks until the payment is due.

Ask your creditor for a payment plan

If you have a particular bill that you’re behind on, don’t be afraid to ask your creditor to work out a plan with you. Not sure what to say or what to suggest? Talk to one of our Certified Financial Specialists – they’re here to listen and help you come up with financial plans to get back on track. It’s free and confidential – and only available to Patelco members.

Before offering any payment plan to a creditor, make sure you’ve checked your monthly budget and can provide them with accurate information about how much you can afford to pay.

Think About the Future

Plan for upcoming expenses

As you begin to get back on track, plan for the expenses that are coming up in the future. This could be an insurance payment that is only due once a year, or something seasonal like summer camp for your kids. Oftentimes, people get behind on bills because they end up using credit cards to pay for those periodic expenses they forgot to budget for.

Create an emergency fund

Finally, begin to build an emergency fund. An emergency fund is the single most useful financial tool for guarding your financial wellness and ensuring a smoother financial journey through life. Once you have this fund – whether it has $100 in it or $10,000 – don’t dip into it unless it’s a true emergency. A true emergency is something like losing a job, an urgent but unexpected home repair, a critical car repair, or unplanned travel to see a critically sick family member.

Learn how to build an emergency fund.


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