A number of financial relief options are available to Americans who have been affected by the unprecedented health situation created by the spread of the coronavirus. Mortgage companies are offering forbearances; insurance companies have lowered premiums for cars that aren’t being driven. Credit card companies have also acknowledged that cardholders may have trouble keeping up with their bills. While many companies are eager to help with debt and interest, there are some things you should know before picking up the phone.
The good news: If you’re unable to make your minimum monthly payment in a given month, major card issuers like Chase, Capital One, and others are willing to grant a forbearance. That means you can skip the minimum due without being hit with a negative strike on your credit report for a missed payment.
A forbearance is no free ride. Interest will still accrue as normal, and the card issuer may consider the missed payment deferred, not waived. If you pay $50 monthly, for example, and are able to skip a May payment, make sure the card won't expect a $100 minimum in June to cover both months. Ask the company to define forbearance so you know what’s expected. Some may be willing to lower your minimum payment instead, which could be a better option for you.
While the skipped payment won’t impact your FICO credit score directly, be aware that it could still have consequences. Because many minimum payments mainly cover interest, your balance won’t remain the same—it will continue to grow. And because that interest is still adding up, your total amount owed is still going up relative to your available credit, which can affect your score.
If you have a sizable amount due, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) recommends looking into alternatives to forbearance, like using savings to pay down some high-interest cards, taking advantage of zero-interest balance transfer offers, or even taking out a personal loan with a lower interest rate.
If you have multiple credit card balances and the prospect of trying to get through to a human to discuss payment options seems daunting, the NFCC is offering their assistance. The agency can put you in touch with a credit counselor who can act on your behalf, obtaining forbearances or other relief from the card companies. Be advised, though, that card issuers may want to get your permission to deal with the counselors directly. The program is free and you can reach the NFCC via their website.
Be mindful that emergency relief is different from a debt management plan, which consolidates debt and can have a negative impact on your credit card accounts.
In many cases, the best thing to do is to pick up the phone and deal with the card issuer directly. Explain your situation and ask about what options they have. Some might waive payments. Others might offer to lower your interest rate. No two card issuers are alike, and it’s in your best interest to take the time to see what’s available.