'Payment relief options are available': What to do if you can't cover your bills right now


Tens of millions of Americans are understandably worried about their ability to pay their bills in the coming months. Half of Americans say that they or someone in their household has lost their job or otherwise lost income due to the pandemic, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Big monthly bills, like car or mortgage payments, are the most daunting. The average monthly mortgage payment in the U.S. is $1,159, according to data from LendingTree. Owning a car can set you back nearly $775 per month when you include fuel, maintenance, and insurance costs.

So, for the average household, a car and mortgage can account for more than $1,900 in expenses per month.

That's creating a lot of anxiety for borrowers. A new survey from Bankrate shows that a majority of Americans are worried that they won't be able to cover their mortgage or car payments at some point in the next three months. For 54% of Americans, "there's some level of concern," says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.

There's good news, though: If you are struggling or worried about your ability to make payments in coming months, you have options.

What to do if you can't afford to pay your bills

Experts say the first thing you should do is to call your lender and see what they can do.

"If you're scared you can't pay your mortgage, call right now. Banks are more flexible now than I've ever seen in my life," says Jason Lambert, the president and CEO of Northwest Financial & Tax Solutions, near Portland, Oregon. "Be honest. Tell them what's going on and see if there's anything they can do about it," he says.

McBride agrees, and says that "forbearance has been a top-of-mind topic among lenders" since the crisis started.

Surprisingly, the Bankrate data shows that many people aren't calling the lenders who hold their mortgage or auto loan — and some aren't even aware that they should. Only 40% of concerned borrowers have contacted their lenders to ask about their options, the survey shows.

The most common reason given by those who haven't reached out is that they didn't know their bank might help, while others say they thought that their lenders would contact them.

Be honest. Tell them what's going on and see if there's anything they can do about it.
Jason Lambert
President and CEO, Northwest Financial & Tax Solutions

There are other things you can do to ease your mind, too:

  • Prioritize your spending. Lambert and other experts suggest you sit down, revise your budget if your income has changed, and prioritize your bills. Make sure you have food in the fridge and in the cupboards first, he says, and if you need to, look for expenses to cut, like subscription services or memberships.
  • Look for additional ways to make money. Some well-paid side hustles and jobs can be done remotely and are still in demand.
  • Draw on your savings and investments. As a last resort, tap into any money you may have saved or invested if you need to make ends meet. That can mean withdrawing your cash savings, liquidating CDs (ideally without a penalty), or even selling some stocks. Just don't touch your retirement accounts, if you can help it.

But before you start raiding your investments, be sure to reach out and see what lenders are willing to do for you. "Payment relief options are available," says McBride, but it's up to you to make the first move. "The onus is on the borrower to reach out to the lender."

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