Credit Card Payment Forbearance vs. Deferment: What’s the Difference?

Young woman sets up a credit-card payment deferment.
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During times of financial hardship, it makes sense to cover essential living expenses such as food, rent, or a mortgage before you worry about other bills. There may even come a time when credit card payments need to be pushed to the back burner. If you could get some breathing room with your bills for a few months, you could pick up payments where you left off.

Unfortunately, skipping your credit card payments can damage your credit score, and you could wind up paying substantial late fees—while your debt continues to grow.

However, your credit card issuer might be willing to let you defer payments on your credit cards for a limited time if you're experiencing financial hardship. Card issuers' programs vary, but you may be surprised at the assistance you can receive if you ask.

Credit Card Deferment vs. Credit Card Forbearance

For the most part, current credit card assistance programs come in the form of deferment or forbearance.

Credit card deferment and forbearance let you suspend the payments on your credit card (or cards) for a limited time. While both of these concepts are typically associated with student loans, lenders can apply them to credit cards under extenuating circumstances.

Credit card deferment describes a situation where you can skip your payments for a limited time without interest building on your balances.

Some credit card programs may allow you to continue using your credit card even when you’re not making payments. That can help you keep up with living expenses and other bills, but keep in mind that using your credit card for purchases while your payments are deferred adds to your debt.

On the other hand, credit card forbearance describes a situation where you can skip payments on your credit card for a limited time while interest builds on your balance.

If you sign up for a credit card relief program, chances are good you’ll be signing up for a forbearance program. That can be helpful for your finances if you need a break from your monthly payments for a few months, but it does mean that the balances you owe will increase during that time.

Credit Card Issuers Can Offer Relief From Payments

Many major credit card issuers have rolled out programs that help consumers recover from the financial impacts of natural disasters, pandemics, or other hardships outside of their control. Some offer deferred payments for borrowers who request them, but lenders may extend different types of help as well.

Chase, American Express, Citi, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo all implemented measures during the coronavirus pandemic that allowed cardholders to defer or forbear making payments on debts while the crisis was ongoing.

By allowing cardholders to pause payments during a rough patch, the companies communicated a willingness to help consumers when circumstances beyond their control keep them from being able to pay their debts.

Many lenders will continue adding credit card interest in most cases, so your debt balance will grow even if you don’t make any additional purchases.

Pros and Cons of Credit Card Deferment and Forbearance Programs

Pausing your credit card payments could be your best option if you're affected by financial hardship, but there are some factors to consider before you move forward.

On the upside, getting a break from credit card payments for even a few months could help you get financially back on track after suffering a setback. Setting up deferred payments could also save you from having late payments reported to the credit bureaus in some cases, which could help prevent damage to your credit score.

The downsides of deferred payments are significant. Your debt isn’t going to go away, and you will still owe money (including any past-due payments) once the deferment or forbearance period ends.

You might not receive a deferment or forbearance on your card if the lender decides you don't have a financial hardship. It is up to you to prove that you do.

Credit card deferment and forbearance can temporarily pause the pain involved in carrying credit card debt, but it’s important to note that the benefits may only last a few months. However, that may be enough time to get back on your feet and catch up on other bills.

How To Ask for Credit Card Deferment or Forbearance

Most credit card forbearance programs are implemented as the result of a financial crisis. If you can’t make the minimum payment on your credit cards, you can start the process by checking your card issuer’s website to see whether it offers any information.

If you cannot apply via online chat or an online form, you can call your credit card issuer and ask for a temporary pause in payment or some other type of assistance. You may be able to have your monthly payments paused, or qualify for another form of help. Either way, you’ll have to ask to find out.