Any bill that is reported to a credit bureau as past due is a delinquent debt. In the early stages of delinquency, it’s easier to repair your credit and move on. But the longer debts go unpaid, the more aggressive creditors get about collecting what’s owed, and you may find it more challenging to qualify for the best interest rates on other debt products you apply for.

There’s also a chance you’ll get passed over for a job, rejected for an apartment or assessed higher auto insurance premiums. Fortunately, you can take action to resolve delinquent debts and start restoring your credit health sooner than later.

Stage 1: 30 days past due

At 30 days past due, the lender will send you a written reminder that you have not made your payment. If you have an excellent payment history, the lender may cut you some slack and choose not to report it to the credit bureaus. You’ll probably incur a late fee, though.

“Late payments can start harming your credit score as soon as they are reported, but you get a 29-day grace period,” said John Ulzheimer, a credit expert, author and educator who worked for Equifax and credit-scoring service FICO. “Most lenders report as soon as you’re 30 days late, but that’s not a requirement.”

Your options

  • Get in touch with your lender beforehand if you know you’re going to miss a payment. “Communication is key,” says Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). “You should be bringing the account up to date or reaching out to the creditor to identify alternatives for resolving the issue.”
  • Ask the lender for a payment arrangement. Lenders are more likely to work with you if you reach out first and communicate that you’re experiencing financial hardship.

Stage 2: 60 days past due

The lender will communicate with a greater sense of urgency and be clear about the negative consequences of failing to bring the account up to date. You’ll be charged more penalties and late fees and your credit score will drop further.

If you’re missing mortgage payments, you’re still at a point where the lender is likely to work with you to help get your account current.

Your options

  • Attempt to bring the account current. The stakes are higher now. But it’s not too late to get caught up without trashing your credit. If you pay what you owe, your credit card lender may continue to let you use the card, says McClary.
  • Call your lender promptly if you haven’t already reached out. Explain your situation and try to work out a payment arrangement. “The longer you wait, the costlier it becomes to work around these challenges,” says McClary. “At this stage, you’re faced with tougher choices. Your window of opportunity is closing.”

Stage 3: 90 days past due

At this stage, the lender is close to declaring your account uncollectible, which is known as a “charge-off.” Credit card lenders may send your account to a third-party debt collector.

“A 90-day delinquency is considered to be a major derogatory in both the FICO and VantageScore credit-scoring systems,” says Ulzheimer. “Once you pass 60 days past due the impact is more significant and long-lasting.”

Your options

  • Negotiate a payment plan. There is a chance you can reactivate your account by setting up a payment plan with the creditor, McClary says. If you have a hardship, your creditor may agree to reduced payments or a lower interest rate.
  • Work with a nonprofit counseling agency. The NFCC, or one of its member agencies, can help you manage and pay off your debt. A credit counselor helps you devise a payoff plan, which requires you to close out your accounts and make a monthly payment to the counseling agency, which pays the creditors.
  • Consider enrolling in a debt management plan. “The debt management plan gives you access to lower interest rates, reduced payments,” McClary says. “It halts the fees and you pay off your debts in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise.” The typical debt management plan takes three to five years to complete, McClary says. Another plus: counseling agencies may work for little to no cost, depending on your circumstances.

Stage 4: 120-180 days past due

A creditor will declare your account as a charge-off once you are four months or more past due. “Your credit score will tank when it’s listed as a charge-off,” says McClary. “A creditor may have a path toward filing a judgment against you. Some states have the option to garnish your paycheck.”

The creditor may sell the account or let a third-party debt collector take over recovery efforts. “Now you are dealing with a person who wants the full balance,” says McClary.

Debt collectors will call you and send you letters and emails. They are bound by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits them from using unfair, deceptive and abusive collection tactics.

Third-party debt collectors sometimes sell off debt to another debt collector if they haven’t been successful in getting you to pay. Make sure the debt shows up as the same account on your credit report. Sometimes it may look like another delinquent account, and you’ll want to dispute any duplicates. Know that any payment you make to a third-party debt collector can restart the statute of limitations on your debt.

If you’re still missing mortgage payments, the foreclosure process could get underway. Foreclosure laws vary by state, but generally, after the fourth missed payment, you receive a default notice and are given a window of time to pay up before the lender starts taking steps to claim your house.

Your options

  • Get verification of the debt from the third-party collector. Confirm the collector’s identity with the original creditor.
  • Establish a payment plan or offer a settlement. The creditor or debt collector probably won’t settle for less than half the balance. “But shoot for the moon on your first offer because you never know,” advises McClary. Be sure to get the settlement offer in writing with a clause that states the collector or creditor won’t sue you if you make the payments. When a settlement is paid in full, make sure your credit report reflects that.
  • Set your communication preferences with the debt collector.“You have the right to tell them to stop calling you at work, for example, but don’t shut down the lines of communication,” McClary says. “You want to know where they are in the process. Leave them the option to contact you by mail or email.”
  • Research the laws that are applicable to you. States have their own laws pertaining to the statute of limitations on debt collection, wage garnishment and seizure of assets.

Court proceedings

If a third-party debt collector has been unable to contact you, it can take you to court. If the debt collector or creditor receives a judgment against you, it may be able to garnish your wages or seize assets to satisfy the debt.

Your options

  • Show up for your court hearing if you receive a summons. There, you can dispute the debt. Otherwise, it’s an automatic win for the collector. If you live in a state with a judicial foreclosure system, your mortgage default will end up in court. If the court forecloses, your home will be sold at auction to the highest qualifying bidder and that money will go to the lender.
  • Understand credit reporting timelines. All information on your delinquent account will remain on your credit report for seven years. That can sound like forever, but Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian, one of the three major credit-reporting bureaus, tells consumers with delinquent debt and bad credit to stay positive.
  • Begin restoring your credit health. “Start small and work your way up. Get your credit report and know what’s in it. It’s a credit history, but it is a history you can change. You can absolutely restore your credit history,” says Griffin, noting that tools like Experian Boost can help consumers improve their credit score by giving them a bump for on-time mobile phone and utility payments.

“In the end, lenders don’t want to take your house or repossess your car,” Griffin says. “They want you to fulfill those terms and have a good relationship with you. (Delinquency) is costly and time-consuming for them too.”

Learn more: