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How to Talk to Creditors if You're Having Trouble Paying Your Bills

Reading time: 5 Minutes

April 23rd, 2020

If you're one of the thousands of people in Hawaii newly out of work or facing a reduced income due to the COVID-19 crisis, you're probably worrying about paying your bills. Whether you can't make your mortgage payment or you're falling behind on your credit card, keeping up with loan payments and bills during a crisis can be a major source of stress.

Fortunately, you're not alone, and there are a few simple, straightforward things you can do to improve your situation. By getting ahead of the problem and reaching out to creditors now, you should be able to find solutions together to help take the pressure off.

Step No. 1: Get a Handle on Your Finances

Start by taking a complete inventory of your financial situation, and figuring out how much you can afford to pay toward each debt. Add up your expected monthly income (if any) from a reduced salary, unemployment benefits and any other money that may be coming in. Calculate your monthly expenses, prioritizing basic needs like food and housing, and cutting out extras where you can. Then make a list of your monthly loan payments and come up with a realistic amount you can pay toward each one.

Step No. 2: Reach Out

You might have the urge to wait to contact creditors until you start missing payments, but it's smarter to reach out sooner. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling recommends you reach out to creditors as soon as you know for sure that your wages will be eliminated or reduced, and you know it will have an impact on your ability to pay.

Prepare for your call by noting important information and key points about your situation, including whether you've been laid off or furloughed, and how much you're able to pay, if anything. If possible, consider using an online chat or email option if it's available. Call center hold times are likely to be longer than normal right now, and skipping the line in favor of online options may help get your needs addressed more quickly. The other benefit of a written communication is that you'll be able to print out a copy of the email or chat transcript as documentation of what you were told. If you do call, keep a log of the date you called, the name of the person you talked to and what they told you.

Your options will depend on what kind of loan you have:

Mortgage

First, find out about any assistance programs that might be available, not just with your mortgage company, but though federal and state government agencies. Mortgages owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac may be eligible to temporarily delay payments with no late fees, and some states are offering mortgage assistance or relief.

Other options can include:

  • Forbearance programs, which offer relief by pushing back the date that your next payment is due. Ask your lender about your options at the end of the forbearance period: Instead of having to pay one lump sum payment, you can likely reach an agreement that allows you to catch up over a longer period of time.
  • With a mortgage extension, the lender takes payments that are due now, and shifts them to the end of the loan term.
  • Loan modification. With loan modification, you and the lender agree to new terms for the loan, which might include a lower interest rate, or spreading the repayment schedule of the remaining balance out over a longer term.

Bank of Hawaii is offering mortgage forbearance for those affected by the coronavirus crisis. Learn more here.

Credit Cards

Types of assistance that may be available include lowering monthly payments, waiving late fees, lowering your interest rate or delaying payment. Check the website for your credit card to see what assistance programs are available. If you're able to transfer your balance from a high-interest card to one with zero percent interest for a period of time, that's also a good option—although these offers may be more limited now, and may not be an option for those with low credit scores or no income. Also check what kind of transfer fees may be involved.

Student Loans

Your relief options for student loans will depend on whether you have a federal student loan or a loan from a private lender, so start by figuring out which kind you have. Check the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS), a database of federal loans. Private loans are not included, so if you don't find your loan listed, it's probably a private loan.

If you do have a federal loan, no action is needed. Under the CARES Act, all federal student loans are automatically in forbearance until September 30, 2020. Check with your lender for more details. If you have a private loan, options will vary, so contact your lender about what kinds of relief might be available.

Why You Need to Reach Out

Having trouble paying your monthly bills is stressful, and it can be tempting to just not think about it, but there are good reasons to act. The situation can actually get worse if you wait, and you can face consequences or negative impacts if you miss payments without contacting your creditors, including possible late fees, interest rate hikes and damage to your credit score. So resist the urge to ignore the problem, and reach out sooner rather than later. You may be surprised at how much lenders are willing to work with you to find a solution that works for everyone.

While having to contact creditors when you can't pay your bills is never fun, remember that there's no shame in reaching out for help when you need it. You're not the only one facing challenges, and lenders are working with many other people in the same situation. By being proactive and reaching out early, you can take charge of the situation and help yourself get back on track.

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