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5 Things to Do if You’re Behind on Your Bills

in Joan's Posts, Money Basics

late-bill

Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

Most of our financial advice on Man Vs. Debt comes from the point of view of people who have enough to get by – but who are tired of just getting by. Our stories are not of people overcoming abject poverty, but rather about people who make the money they already have do more for them by kicking debt to the curb and getting rid of crap.

Sometimes, though, we hear from people who are in a hole that goes beyond debt.

Our You Vs. Debt members, our commenters and sometimes even our personal friends share stories about electricity shutoffs, foreclosure notices, car repossessions and collection agencies.

And that’s, many times, a different issue. There are two pieces to the “behind on your bills” issue. First, there are people who (later) find that the money they have is enough – but they’re not using it in a way that allows it to be. Second, there are people who simply, at this time, don’t have enough money to pay even the minimums due on various accounts, including non-debt accounts like their electric bills.

Either way, nothing will change unless you’re willing to take action. 

Here’s how I suggest you start:

1.  Take an inventory of where you are.

In another “5 step” post of mine, I shared 5 Steps to Facing What You Owe. Especially when you’re already sure you don’t have enough coming in to meet your minimum expenses, it’s hard to want to do this, I know.

But it’s not always disheartening! Sometimes, the picture you’ve painted for yourself is WORSE than the truth. And either way, you can’t figure out where to go if you don’t have a map.

Think about GPS, one of the greatest inventions of our time. What’s the best feature? In my book, it’s not that it can tell you how to get where you’re going. I can do that before I leave, or use a map. The greatest part to me is that, when you’re lost, IT KNOWS WHERE YOU ARE and can give you a direction to move. We need to be our own GPS.

You should take this inventory with whatever revolving debt you have. But you should go back and do it again with your bills in mind, and have a single list of all that needs to go out to another company in a particular month. Make a similar list with your regular income sources, too.

If you really want to get advanced, you can deal with other expense categories, like groceries and gas for your vehicle. Then you’re close to having an honest-to-goodness budget. That’s cool. But don’t get hung up on that. This is where we see too many people derail!

2. When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

If you’re not making ends meet now, you need to put a freeze on any new expenses. Period. This is often the hardest part. In our lives right now, that means that even though our car is basically 110% of the way to deceased, we cannot take on a car payment.

When my now-13-year-old daughter was first born, my financial status was more dire, and something like a new pair of shoes for her or for me would have meant the electric bill did not get paid. I have lived in the world of cardboard-in-shoes, and while I don’t prefer to go back, sometimes you just have to put your foot down (no pun intended).

3. Prioritize.

House, electricity, water. No matter what, those are key. I have heard of people being afraid of collection agencies so much so that they tackled their medical debts – and did not pay their water bill.

Your job when you’re behind is to prioritize. Decide, every month, where the money is going. Maybe right now, it doesn’t cover everything. But if it can keep a roof over your head and sanitary conditions under that roof, you can work from there. The piece that many people struggle to wrap their heads around is that it’s even harder to tackle your financial situation when you’re about to become homeless. Too many people that I know have faced that exact situation.

Set your priorities. Take your list of expenses every month and rank them. Mine would look something like this:

  • Mortgage
  • Electricity
  • Water
  • Groceries
  • Prescriptions

… and so on. Debt payments, even the minimums, are much farther down my list. So are TV, cell phone, any subscriptions or memberships, clothing and so on.

Since we have literally no commute to work (Chris can walk, and I work from home), we don’t include gas on that list, but if your income requires you to drive to work, any car payment or gas costs need to be high on the list.

In my case, the opposite is true – the internet ranks high, but not as a luxury – it’s my only source of income. Make sure you think about income preservation here. You want to stay working!

4. Call and discuss your options.

Here’s the sad-but-true fact: Most companies are ONLY willing to negotiate with you when you’re behind. I hate that about our financial system, but if you are behind, don’t be afraid to use what leverage you have.

If there’s any company you know you CANNOT pay, even with all the scrimping, saving and extra earning in the world, in the next two months, call them. Explain that you realize you’re behind and you’d like to take steps to return your account to good standing, but have limited cash available. Ask about payment options, hardship plans, and any other measures that can prevent your account from becoming further delinquent.

This might not – and probably won’t – be a “magic fix” for these behind bills and debts. However, it’s another tool in your arsenal to help you with the final step.

5. Make a plan.

This is where we put everything together. It looks something like this:

  • Take your updated list of expenses, prioritized and including any new agreements you reached with particular companies. Put them in the order they’ll be paid each month, accounting for all possible income.
  • Reduce any expenses possible. You might be eating ramen instead of organic vegetable stir-frys this month. YUCK. I hate that, and I’ve been there. But it’s important to ask yourself what you really need to have (I’m  not saying eat a bunch of pasta if you have Celiac disease) and what’s just a high-level want.
  • Make as much extra money as possible in the short term. This is where I’m such a big fan of side hustles. You CAN make an extra $200 or more this week. It might not be easy, but it’s doable. I highly encourage you to take the challenge and get even $50 or $100 extra to put toward what you owe!
  • Keep doing it. You’re not going to go from “behind” to “caught up” in a month. But if you’re missing payments on 4 bills this month, can you shoot to make that 3 next month, and 2 the month after? Can you get more caught up than you currently are? Absolutely, and you need to keep going from there.

Have you ever been behind on your bills? Are you now?

What are your best tips for getting back to where you want to be?

I’d love to hear your comments!

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Money Beagle May 30, 2013 at 8:25 AM

A couple of important things: First, don’t panic. Many people will start look at making big decisions, and while you may end up having to take drastic measures such as selling a car or a house or something, to jump right into that is probably not going to end up well and may not be necessary. Second, ask for help. You probably know somebody that can take an objective view and can offer insight as to how you get out of the mess you’re in. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.

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Joan Otto June 5, 2013 at 9:09 PM

Those are great points. Like I said, you cannot do anything in the heat of the moment that will leave you in a WORSE position!

An objective opinion is absolutely great, too. I wish more people would do that. Guess we have to keep sharing the idea of being open about money, because I fear that fear is the biggest stumbling block there!

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Ree Klein May 30, 2013 at 9:00 AM

Great post, Joan, (as usual!). When I finally sucked it up and had enough in my late 20s, I did something similar. I realized that after I had met all my monthly obligations, I really only had $6 per day to “live” on. Each payday I went to the bank and got enough 5s and 1s to make up the $6/day for that period. Each morning I put one 5 and one 1 in an envelope and stuck it in my purse and that’s what I used for gas, food, etc.

It was REALLY hard, but I did it long enough to accomplish three things: First, I learned where my money was going; second, I got my mess under control enough to tweak my system and be less restricted; and finally, I changed my money behaviors for the rest of my life…LIFE IS REALLY GOOD NOW!!!

Ree ~ I blog at EscapingDodge.com

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Joan Otto June 5, 2013 at 9:10 PM

Ree, that’s a great system – and you’re right, there’s nothing like SEEING the reality of the scarcity to make you willing to get it under control and change it!

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Summer P May 30, 2013 at 1:29 PM

If you get truly, truly behind to the point where you need to ask for help, move groceries to the bottom of your list. It’s tough to get help with a car payment or electric bill, but there is always help available for food.

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Joan Otto June 5, 2013 at 9:11 PM

Summer, that’s generally a good point. I think there are places where that’s more true than others, but it is DEFINITELY an option to explore – any kind of temporary assistance, whether a food pantry, food stamps, etc., can be something to consider!

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Jake Erickson May 30, 2013 at 3:49 PM

These are great steps. I feel like prioritizing is the toughest part for some people. Many people get so worried about the collectors calling that they’ll pay for credit card debt before paying for their house. This is the wrong thing to do because everyone needs some sort of food, water and shelter.

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Joan Otto June 5, 2013 at 9:13 PM

EXACTLY, Jake. I hear that so many times, and it really scares me.

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brian May 30, 2013 at 8:21 PM

I was very behind on credit card debt because, like most of us, I was very uneducated about finance when I was in college.
Eventually I had racked up about $5K on one card and $9K on another before they were closed.
One I settled for less (made payments and got it down to 3500, then settled for 1700)… the other I am still paying on. It’s down to about 4400 from that original $9K.

Sometimes settling is worth it if it gets rid of a debt. I had just gotten a decent tax return so I was able to afford the extra money since they allowed me to make that settlement in 2 payments (it would’ve been about $5-600 higher if I wanted it split into 3 payments).

My minimum on that 4400 is 162 per month and I’m paying about 250 per month.
If I still had that other debt open, my 4400 would still be much higher.

It’s a great example of a debt snowball… Take out one debt and move on to the next.

The biggest downside to this is that if something came up and I had to miss a payment, I don’t have as many options to choose from when prioritizing what payment I can skip this month (luckily I haven’t had this issue in a while).

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Joan Otto June 5, 2013 at 9:19 PM

Brian, I’m glad that worked out! We’re not personally choosing to pursue settlements, but I know friends who have and it has worked out well for them.

For anyone else reading this, don’t forget what I’m sure Brian already knows – you will need to pay taxes on the difference between your actual balance and the settlement amount.

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Lucille May 31, 2013 at 3:59 AM

My issue is with charitable donations. I pay a bunch of charities each month by automated payment. When things are tight, I’m tempted to cancel them…..but I feel bad. My reason behind charitable gifts is that I’m well off enough to afford so much that others have to do without. Should I stop automating charity??

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Joan Otto June 5, 2013 at 9:18 PM

Lucille, I’m not a fan of automating ANYTHING. We are very much into charitable giving (and it’s factored into our budget) but automated flat-fee donations or payments take the control out of our hands month to month. In our case, we prefer to look at a percentage of our total income and say that we want to average that total percentage over the course of the year. That said, some months are higher, others lower, and it is great that remains our choice.

In our case, we don’t “forget it” by it not being automated – it’s an important budget item, so we are watching how we’re tracking for the year each month.

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Ben Martin May 31, 2013 at 6:19 PM

Dear Joan & Man vs. Debt;

Great story! I’ve been there before and I’m there now. My wife got a job transfer in the summer of 2010, and since the real estate market was in bad shape, we decided to rent it
out instead of pursuing a short sale. Fast forward three years and our situation has gotten
progressively worse. We’ve used our savings and still can’t keep up with both a rent and a mortgage payment since we’re still underwater on the house.

I have only been able to secure part-time and seasonal work since 2010, so our income took a 50% hit in the last three years. Just this month, our renters vacated and did about $8,000 to 10,000 of damage to the property. We only had a $900 security deposit per state law. We are trying to decide what to do. The mortgage company, after negotiating since 2010, seems close to letting us modify our loan. Meanwhile, the usual living expenses and debt payments keep coming due.

You really hit the target when you said you can’t make decisions that will leave you homeless or without access to the way you earn money. As hard as it has been, we have communicated with our creditors, but they are not very helpful right now. I’m assuming they’ll be more helpful when we haven’t paid them in 6 months, but maybe not.

Action is important – although it’s not a guarantee of immediate improvement, the alternative, doing nothing and being certain you’ll be worse off tomorrow than you are today, that’s no way to live.

Thank you for writing engaging and timely posts !

Sincerely,

Ben Martin

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Joan Otto June 5, 2013 at 9:22 PM

Ben, sadly, I think you are EXACTLY right – your creditors are much more helpful when you haven’t paid in six months. (Isn’t that a sad commentary on our system??)

You are telling the story from the trenches, and I appreciate so much that you were willing to share with us. You have an amazing perspective, and you are so right. Our actions might not be perfect, but INACTION does no good either, so why not try, right?

Best of luck in the coming months. I hope you’ll keep us posted. We’re here cheering you guys on!

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thepotatohead June 6, 2013 at 8:56 PM

I’ve never been so far in debt that I couldn’t catch back up within a month or two to with at least the minimums, but I have gotten creative with payment schedules. I would usually push around the cable bill to and garbage bill to make sure the electricity and other bills were always paid. Cancelled cable though so a lot more money to make sure those other bills are always paid!

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Ashley January 16, 2014 at 12:23 PM

Any advice on my situation is very much appreciated! Over the years my husband and I have taken out several personal loans. I believe we have about 9 of them between the both of us. We have all of these on top of a mortgage, car payment, insurance and all of our living expenses. We are struggling to make ends meet each month and some of these don’t get paid. The problem is, when you make a couple of payments on these, they tell you that you can “renew” it and get some cash. Of course we do this because we need groceries!! We are stuck with these and I want to get rid of them once and for all!! They also call several times a day and they call my work when I am one day late on the payment. Any advice??

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Jane January 20, 2014 at 12:37 PM

Ashley,

Sadly, I know where you’re coming from. While in the midst of a MASSIVE financial upheaval, one of my husband’s sons took out a lease in his name (w/o his or my knowledge) & per his son’s usual, skipped out on it, so we had collectors on our doorstep for THAT debt which wasn’t even our own. Despite popular belief, not all identity thieves are unknown to the victims…dealing w/that situation is a WHOLE different story! The 1st thing I ended up doing (after sitting down to get the *full & real* picture o/my fiscal situation), was educating myself about what my creditors could & COULD NOT do to me. As I had canceled my internet/cable service (wasn’t a need for us, just a HUGE want & convenience), I spent a LOT o/time at my local library using their wi-fi.

For ANY creditor to call you at work (or at all hours of the night) is horse s***. Look up the “Fair Debt Collection Practices Act” & if it’s an option, either print it out to have w/you when you contact your creditors (b/c that’s WAY easier & faster), or write it out so you can reference it as needed. In Section 805, “Communication in connection w/debt collection”, the creditor/debt collector (unless provided consent before hand) may NOT communicate w/the debtor/consumer “…at the consumer’s place of employment if the debt collector knows or has reason to know that the consumer’s employer prohibits the consumer from receiving such communication.” How many people are employed someplace that doesn’t mind lots of personal calls?? Not many, & I was NEVER at one o/them! Give any & all o/your creditors a call (then follow-up by ALSO sending them a letter – w/proof of receipt – to the same extent) notifying them that such behavior as making calls to your employer (or spouse’s, etc) is to “cease & desist as outlined under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act”. It is IMPERATIVE that you back-up ANY verbal communication by reiterating it via letter/in writing (it’s prudent to C.Y.A. anyway). Consumers DO have rights to fight back against unscrupulous collectors, but you must be able to provide proof that you’ve done your due diligence before such rights can be (reliably) upheld (see section 813 “Civil liability” in the FDCP Act). Our mortgage company at the time turned out to be one such company who had a class action suit brought against them, & because we could provide written evidence substantiating our “side of the story” we were able to be a part of that settlement.

Granted, some of the jargon used in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act can be hard to swallow (again, I used the library’s resources to help me understand this stuff too), it is essential to be well aware of what CAN and CANNOT legally be done to you by the companies/people to whom you owe money. Digging out from under this mess “one shovel at a time” is the only way it’ll happen, but if you can identify a “better shovel” to use, it’ll help tremendously.

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