Coping with credit card debt when you’re laid off

5 min read

If you get laid off, your first priority might be to update your resume or cut back on your spending. But what about your credit card payments? When it comes down to paying the electric bill or making a payment on your credit card, the electric bill might seem more important—but missing credit card payments can cost you a lot of money and hurt your credit score.

Luckily, you have options. Credit card companies can help laid off cardholders and may offer hardship programs designed to help you make your monthly payments even during a period of financial struggle. If you are carrying a lot of credit card debt and you get laid off, here’s what you need to know.

Which credit card issuers offer hardship programs?

If you are experiencing financial hardship, your credit card issuer might be able to help you by lowering your interest rate or reducing your minimum monthly payment. Some credit card issuers include their hardship programs on their websites; if yours doesn’t, it’s still worth contacting customer service to learn whether you are eligible for any assistance.

Here are the major credit card issuers that offer clearly-stated hardship programs:

American Express: Amex offers a hardship program designed to help cardholders going through financial difficulties. You may be able to temporarily lower your interest rate or your monthly payment, as well as get relief from late payment fees.

Bank of America: The Bank of America website directs cardholders to a credit card assistance program that includes tips on making payments, managing debt and accessing credit counseling. However, the fine print notes that cardholders can also log into online banking or contact Customer Service to pursue solutions to financial difficulties, so there may be other hardship options available.

Citi: Citi offers multiple financial solutions to help people who have trouble paying off their debt. You can fill out their questionnaire to learn which solutions might be right for you, whether it’s general information about how to manage debt or more specific credit help.

Discover: Discover suggests you contact them immediately if you experience a job loss, illness or disability that might affect your ability to fulfill your cardholder responsibilities. You may be eligible for a payment assistance program.

Wells Fargo: The Wells Fargo Assist program provides cardholders with a number of payment plans and options, including lower interest rates, lower minimum payments and credit counseling services.

What happens if you stop paying your credit card bills?

If you find yourself in a position where you are unable to pay your credit card bills, try your best to make at least the minimum payment on time every month. If you can’t make those minimum payments on time, you’ll get charged with late fees and may be subject to a penalty APR—that is, the credit card company will raise the interest rate on your unpaid balance. Once a penalty APR is issued, it’s likely to last a minimum of six months even if you make your subsequent payments on time.

The longer-term impact of missing credit card payments is that they can hurt your credit score. Thirty-five percent of your score is determined by whether you make regular, on-time payments, so do whatever you can to make sure you fulfill those obligations.

If you miss one payment, however, don’t assume the worst. Contact your credit card issuer, explain that you missed a payment, and ask if they can waive the late fee. (Some credit card issuers automatically waive the late fee on the first missed payment, understanding that everyone makes mistakes now and then.) Try to make up the missed payment within 30 days of the due date. Otherwise, your credit score will take a hit and you may start getting calls from debt collectors.

Should you use credit cards when you’re unemployed?

Standard personal finance advice suggests that you should never make a purchase on credit that you can’t afford to pay off. This means that if you are unemployed, you shouldn’t use your credit cards to cover the expenses you can no longer pay for in cash; instead, you should focus on budgeting and generating new sources of income.

However, many people do use their credit cards as a financial lifeline when they are unemployed, especially if they don’t have an emergency fund that can cover three to six months of expenses. If you decide to use credit to cover the income gap during unemployment, remember that whatever you purchase now will have to be paid off later, with interest. Try to keep your credit card charges to a minimum.

Should you withdraw money from your 401(k) to pay off your credit cards?

If you are tempted to pay off your credit card debt by dipping into your retirement fund, remember that taking early withdrawals from your 401(k) comes with serious consequences. You’ll need to pay taxes on the money you withdraw, as well as an early withdrawal penalty. (These penalties might apply even if you take a qualified hardship withdrawal.)

Plus, pulling money out of your 401(k) early means losing out on all the compound growth that money could have earned over time. You could seriously shortchange your retirement fund.

Some 401(k) programs allow you to borrow money from your 401(k) and pay it back over time, which is a better solution than taking an early withdrawal.

You might also consider withdrawing money from a Roth IRA, if you have one. You can withdraw your Roth IRA contributions at any time without penalty, and although you’ll still miss out on the compound growth you could have earned if you left your money in the Roth, at least you won’t have to pay an early withdrawal penalty.

Should you take out a home equity loan to cover your credit card bills?

Some consumers use home equity loans or home equity lines of credit to pay off outstanding credit card debt. This isn’t free money, of course; any loan you take on the value of your house will need to be paid back, with interest—and if your home isn’t already paid off, you’ll be making mortgage payments at the same time.

The big difference between a home equity loan and a home equity line of credit is that the loan arrives as a lump sum and the line of credit acts like yet another credit card (that is, you can take on as much or as little debt as you choose, up to your credit limit).

Since home equity loans and home equity lines of credit generally come with lower interest rates than credit cards, borrowing against your home to pay off your credit card debt could save you money in the long run. However, paying off credit card debt by tapping your home’s equity doesn’t completely solve your debt problem. If you don’t make timely payments on your home equity loan or line of credit, you could risk foreclosure—and if property values dip, you could end up owing more money on your home than it’s worth.

When should you consider a debt settlement program?

Debt settlement programs can help you manage your debt by negotiating a payment plan with your credit card companies. However, there are a lot of shady debt settlement companies out there, so do your research before you sign up with a debt settlement service—and remember that you can always call your credit card issuers on your own and request a lower monthly payment, a reduced interest rate or a payment plan that allows you to pay down your debt over a longer period of time.

Use our credit card repayment calculator to learn how long it’ll take you to pay off your debt, and how reducing your monthly payment or interest rate might make the process easier.

Bottom Line

If you find yourself experiencing a period of financial hardship, do your best to make the minimum payment on your credit cards each month to avoid late fees, penalty APRs and credit score issues. Contact your credit card company to see if they offer hardship programs that can help reduce your monthly payments or your interest rates.

While you might consider pulling money from your retirement fund or taking out a loan against your home to help pay off outstanding credit card debt, it’s better if you can solve your credit card problem by carefully budgeting and looking for new income sources.

If you are considering using your credit cards to cover the income gap during a period of unemployment, remember that any purchases you make now have to be paid off later—so don’t get yourself into more debt than you can handle.