By Stephanie Miller


5 Min. To Read

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Sometimes, life throws you a financial curveball. This could come in the form of an illness, job loss, divorce, or any other unplanned event that impacts your bank account as much as your cortisol levels.

So, what can you do when your budget takes a nosedive but the credit card bills are still due? This is where a credit card hardship program could come into play.

Hardship programs are little-known options for debt repayment relief, which credit card companies will offer to customers on a short-term basis. They typically run somewhere between six months and a year and are granted to those who are experiencing some sort of unforeseen financial situation. If you’re struggling to pay your minimum due each month, you can call and ask if you can take advantage of such a program.

These credit card hardship programs aren’t a way to skirt your payments altogether; instead, you will be usually be offered a lower interest rate and a more manageable payment schedule. The credit card company may also offer to waive certain fees, like those for over-limit charges or late payments.

These programs are mutually beneficial. You, as the consumer, are able to reduce your payments and create a plan that is both reasonable and possible, based on your current financial situation. The creditor also benefits, as they are retaining a committed customer and can (hopefully) avoid sending your account to collections because you couldn’t keep up with payments.

As mentioned, these aren’t exactly promoted programs. Credit card companies aren’t exactly known for helping customers avoid their full payments due. However, most companies will have a hardship program available to those in need, as long as you contact them to inquire. If you feel that you are in a situation that warrants a hardship program, give your credit card company a call. Ask about the specifics of the program available, and see if you can enroll. However, there are a few things to note in the process.

You’re not going to want to call customer service and simply talk to whoever answers the phone. Your typical representative won’t know the specifics of the program (if they even know about it at all), and likely won’t be able to help you with enrolling.

Instead, you’ll want to call and speak with your credit card company’s account hardship department or customer assistance department. If your company has an online portal, you may even be able to find a direct number by searching the website.

If you happen to get a rep who is unhelpful or isn’t knowledgeable, ask to speak to a supervisor or just call back later and try again. (This is a tactic I use often, any time I have an issue and need to call customer service. Rarely does the first rep solve my issue.)

This is the uncomfortable part. You’re going to need to tell them what’s going on and why you need to enroll in a hardship program in the first place. If you can’t explain your situation and why you’re in a tough spot financially, the company is unlikely to give you any sort of special treatment.

Before you call, sit down with your finances and crunch some numbers. Look at what you can afford today versus what you are supposed to pay. Also look at how your situation could change in the near future. Does the hardship have a clear resolution in sight, or could thing potentially get even worse before they get better? If the latter, be sure to make your financial calculations with this in mind.

You’ll want to have a reasonable number in mind, representing what you can actually afford to pay each month toward your debt. While the company may or may not accept this number, you’ll at least want to know where you stand and how their decision will impact your budget Almost as important as what you tell the credit card company is what you don’t tell them. Yes, you need to explain your situation and yes, you need to make a good case for enrolling in a hardship program. But you don’t need to show all of your cards right away.

Before divulging your own situation, ask questions. Find out what the typical plan looks like, its length, and the interest rate range. Let the representative do most of the talking in the beginning, so you can get a good, neutral view of what a hardship plan would look like.

Then, you can explain a bit about your situation, when asked. Be careful, though, as what you say can be used against you, in a way. Namely, you don’t want to propose a specific payment amount that you’re not sure you can meet for the duration of the program. You also don’t want to zero in on an “inability” to pay your bills, or you could potentially raise some seriously red flags with the company. In turn, they could lower your line of credit, limit your access to the account, or even lock your card. Be mindful of what you need to say and what you may want to avoid saying.

It’s important to know how a hardship will affect your credit, because it likely will.

As a condition of many hardship program enrollments, the credit card company will force you to close your original account. This will impact your credit score in a few ways, mainly due to your average age of accounts and your credit utilization.

This negative effect can be compounded further if the creditor decides to notate the account as “closed by creditor.” This can not only drop your credit score further, but will be a red flag to future creditors who pull your report. Instead, request that the account be notated as “closed by consumer.” It will still impact your credit score, as mentioned above, but this will recover over time.

Deciding whether to participate in a hardship program depends on your own situation. You need to look at what’s impacting your finances, what you’re capable of paying, and how long you expect your bank account to be impacted.

If you are approved for enrollment in such a program, it’s important to ask as many questions as you can about the specifics. How long does it last, what is your new APR, and what are the impacts to your credit report? Ensuring that you know where you stand and what you can expect from a hardship enrollment can mean the difference between a financial disaster and a short-term rough patch. Hardship programs are little-known options for debt repayment relief, which credit card companies will offer to customers on a short-term basis. Take a look and see if you qualify.

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