What You Can Do When You Can't Make a Loan Payment

Tips to Get Back on Track When You Can't Make a Loan Payment

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Sometimes life brings surprises. If you’re finding that you can’t make payments on one or more of your loans, it’s best to take action sooner rather than later. Moving quickly helps you minimize the damage to your finances and the stress of cleaning up something that could continue to get worse.

The solution can be simple in some cases. For example, if you can’t afford your car payments, it might be possible to sell the car and switch to a less expensive but safe vehicle — or even do without a car for a while.

Unfortunately, solutions are rarely that easy.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to keep things from getting worse.

If You Don’t Pay

It might help to talk about the worst-case-scenario first. If you simply stop paying on a loan, you’ll eventually default on that loan. The result is that you’ll owe more money because penalties, fees and interest charges will build up. Your credit scores will fall. It may take several years to recover, but you can rebuild your credit and borrow again — sometimes within just a few years.

Debtor’s prisons were outlawed in the U.S. long ago, so you don’t need to worry about debt collectors’ threats of sending the police out tomorrow. However, you do need to pay attention to legal documents and requirements to at least appear in court.

That’s the worst that can happen. It’s not fun — it’s frustrating and stressful — but it’s something you can get through and you can avoid that situation altogether.

When You Realize You Can’t Pay

Hopefully, you’ve got a bit of time before your next payment is due. If that’s the case, you can take action before you’re late on any payments. At this point, you still have several options.

  • Pay late: It’s best to make your loan payments on time, but if you can’t do that, slightly late is better than really late. Try to get your payment in within 30 days of its due date. In many cases, those late payments are not reported to credit bureaus, so your credit will not be damaged. This leaves you the option of consolidating or refinancing debt.
  • Consolidate or refinance: You might be better off with a different loan. Especially with toxic loans like credit cards and payday loans, consolidating with a personal loan results in lower interest costs and a lower required payment. Plus you’ve got more time to repay. For example, you might get a personal loan that you repay over three to five years. Taking longer to repay might end up costing you more in interest — but it might not. Again, if you’re getting out of payday loans you could easily come out ahead. You’ll need to apply before you start missing payments to get approved for a consolidation loan. Lenders don’t want to grant a loan to somebody who’s already behind. Where should you borrow? Start by applying for unsecured loans with banks and credit unions that work in your community, and online lenders. Apply for these loans at the same time so you minimize damage to your credit and go with the best offer.
  • Secured loans: Consolidating with a secured loan is also an option if you want to pledge assets as collateral. However, you risk losing those assets if you can’t make payments on the new loan. If you put your house on the line, you could lose it in foreclosure, which makes things difficult for you and your family. Having your vehicle repossessed is never convenient, and it would be harder to get to work and continue earning an income.
  • Communicate with lenders: If you foresee trouble making payments, talk with your lender. They might have options to help you, whether it’s changing your due date or letting you skip payments for several months. You might even be able to negotiate a settlement with your lender. Explain that you can’t make the payments, offer less than you owe, and see if they accept. This isn’t likely to succeed unless you can convince your lender that you’re unable to pay, but it’s an option. Note that your credit will suffer if you settle, but you can put the payments behind you.
  • Prioritize your payments: You might need to make difficult decisions about which loans to stop paying and which ones to keep current on. Conventional wisdom says to keep making payments on your home and auto loans, and to stop paying unsecured loans if you must, like personal loans and credit cards. The rationale is that you really don’t want to get evicted or have your vehicle repossessed. Damage to your credit is also undesirable, but it does not instantly disrupt your life in the same way. Make a list of your payments and make a conscious choice about each one, keeping safety and health in mind as you choose.

    Federal Student Loans

    If you’ve borrowed for higher education using government loan programs, you’ve got a few extra options available. Loans that are backed by the federal government have certain benefits that aren’t found elsewhere.

    • Deferment: If you qualify for a deferment, you can stop making payments temporarily. This gives you time to get back on your feet. For some borrowers, this is an option during periods of unemployment or other financial hardship.
    • Income-based repayment: If you don’t qualify for a deferment, you might be able to at least lower your monthly payments. Income-driven repayment programs may result in a payment that should be more affordable. If your income is extremely low, you’ll end up with an extremely low payment to match.

    Payday Loans

    Payday loans are also unique, mainly because of their extremely high costs. These loans can easily send you into a debt spiral, and eventually, the time will come when you can’t make your payments.

    Consolidating payday loans is one of your best options unless you can pay them off. Can you sell anything to drum up cash? Shift the debt to a less expensive lender — even credit card balance transfers can save you money and buy you time. Just be mindful of balance transfer fees and don’t use the card for anything except paying down the existing debt.

    If you’ve already written a check to a payday lender, it might be possible to stop payment on the check. However, this can lead to legal troubles, and you’ll still owe the money. Speak with a local attorney or legal advisor familiar with the laws in your state before you stop payment. Even if it’s an option, you’ll have to pay a modest fee to your bank.

    Credit Cards

    Skipping payments on a credit card also requires special attention. If possible, at least make the minimum payment, although more is always better. When you stop making payments, your credit card issuer can raise your interest rate to a much higher penalty rate. This may make you re-evaluate the priority of which payments to skip and which ones to pay.

    Get Help

    You might think that you can’t afford to get help if you’re having trouble with loan payments. But you’re not necessarily on your own.

    • Credit counseling can help you understand your situation and come up with solutions. An outside perspective is often helpful, especially from somebody who works with consumers like you every day. The key is to work with a reputable counselor who’s not just trying to sell you something. In many cases, counseling is provided at no cost to you. Depending on your situation, your counselor may suggest a debt management plan or ​another course of action. Start your counselor search with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and ask about fees and philosophy before you agree to anything.
    • Bankruptcy attorneys can also help, but don’t be surprised when they suggest filing for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy could solve your problems, but there might be better alternatives.
    • Public assistance is also available in many areas. Local utilities, the federal government, and others provide relief to people who need help paying bills. These programs could provide enough relief to help you stay on top of your loan payments and avoid more drastic measures. Start your search at USA.gov and ask your local energy and telephone providers about available programs.

    Moving Forward

    So far we’ve covered short-term fixes. Ultimately, you need a long-term plan to stay on top of the bills. Life is less stressful when you don’t have to put out those fires, and you’ll want to fund bigger and better goals.

    • Emergency fund: It’s essential to have emergency savings. Whether it’s $1,000 to get you out of a jam, ​or three months’ worth of living expenses, that extra cash will help you avoid problems. You won’t need to take on debt if something breaks, and you’ll be able to pay your bills without interruption. The challenge is building up that fund, which is a matter of spending less than you earn.
    • Understand your finances: You’ll need to get a grasp on your income and spending to be successful. Write those numbers down and track every penny you spend for at least a month — longer is better. Don’t forget to include expenses you only pay annually, such as property tax or an insurance premium. You can’t make smart decisions until you know how the money is spent. You might have to earn more, spend less, or both. For quick results, the most common options are taking on extra work, cutting spending, and selling items you no longer need. For a longer-term boost, work on your career and spending habits after you’ve taken the quick wins.