How to Catch Up When You’re Behind on Bills
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The phone rings and you dread answering it.
Is it that nasty collector on the line? You know the payment is due. You’ll pay them when you can.
If you don’t answer, will they start bothering your family that you listed as a reference?
While it takes time and effort to get caught up, it is possible. Let’s get you there so you don’t have to worry about paying your bills anymore with the following steps.
It’s time to face this problem head on.
If you ignore the problem, you’ll stay behind on bills and won’t ever catch up. Soon you’ll be faced with losing your possessions.
Get to a point in your mental state to say, “Yes, I have a mess on my hands, but I’m ready and willing to clean it up.”
Roll up your sleeves, we’re about to get to work.
Get an Accurate Picture of Your Bills
Your first step to getting ahead is to know where you are now.
- Collect all the bills for your monthly expenses and debt payments.
- Organize them by due date.
- Separate out the bills where you are behind and those that are current.
Create Your Plan
This plan will be the blueprint to your financial future. You’ll find that you’ll need to make adjustments along the way, but this plan can be fairly flexible.
If you don’t make a plan to get out of your predicament, you’ll probably stay stuck.
There are just a few steps to take, but each step will time some thought to work out.
1. Prioritize Your Spending
If you haven’t been using a written budget, now is the time to start one. You can use this simple budget worksheet if you don’t have a system already.
Write down all your income and expenses.
Be sure to prioritize living expenses first:
- Shelter (which includes utilities)
- Transportation for work
You must put your family and living expenses first. Nothing else gets paid until these are covered.
List all your bills; anything you are making payments on. Mark which ones you are behind and by how long (i.e. 2 weeks late, 30 days late, etc.)
Be honest about where you stand and how much you are going into the negative each month (if that’s the case).
If you are going into the negative each month and aren't sure why, get out your bank statements and find out where all your money is going. You might be surprised to know how much you’ve spent and where.
Let’s say you’re going over your budget by $500 per month. (This may not be your number, but we’ll use if for an example.) In this case, you need to come up with at least $500 extra per month. I say "at least" because if you can come up with more than that you'll have more wiggle room to get ahead.
There are two ways to balance a budget when you’re going over.
- Cut expenses
- Earn more money
2. Cut Your Expenses
Take each item on your new budget and list of spending and see if you can save any money there. Even cutting a few dollars here and there from expenses can help and can really add up.
Your four major categories for living expenses should still take priority, but they aren’t fully exempt from making cuts. Are you spending too much money by eating out? Could you cut your grocery bill? Could you check with your car insurance provider to see if you can get a better rate? Can you go a little longer without buying new clothes or start shopping at thrift stores?
Here’s a list of ideas where you can look to make cuts. You may not need to cut them out entirely, but at least look into reducing the amount you pay for each:
- Cell phone
- Eating out
- Unused memberships (even if you use it, you may need the money elsewhere and may need to consider cancelling or suspending for a time)
- Smoking (an acquaintance of mine saved almost $2,000 a year by quitting smoking)
- Credit cards (you may qualify for a reduced interest rate if you’re not behind)
- Car (consider trading in your car for a less expensive payment if the payment is too high.)
- Insurance (bundle insurances to save, possibly increase your deductible)
- Utilities (make efforts to conserve some energy and water usage)
- Groceries (I can keep my grocery budget to $400/month for a family of four using coupons)
This list isn’t exhaustive, so be sure to take your budget line by line to see if your spending the least amount you can.
3. Earn More Money
Earning extra money can be hard when your time is likely already spread thin. If you’ve cut everything you can and still don’t have enough money, it’s time to think of ways to earn more.
This might involve looking for a new job where you can earn more or getting another job or side hustle where you can make money.
*On a personal note, I don't recommend things like doing surveys. You may be able to make a little pocket change, but you have to qualify for the survey first, then you must hit a threshold before you can cash out. Sometimes cashouts are in the form of gift cards or prizes, which don't help pay your bills.
A final way to find extra money is to try and sell some belongings. Do you have valuables that you can sell, or could you hold a garage sale?
If you have old electronics lying around, you can try using a service like SellShark to sell them.
Make sure you have a plan in place for the extra money you earn. It’s nice to have extra money and splurge a little, but right now we’re working on getting you out of a mess. Stay focused and put your money where it will serve you best. This might be bringing a bill current or paying off a credit card to reduce your monthly expenses further.
4. Rework Your Spending Plan
Once you’ve weeded out all unnecessary spending and perhaps created a plan to earn more money, go through your budget again.
Subtract bills, other spending and saving until you have a zero-based budget. A zero-based budget assigns all your money on paper before you spend it. Write down everywhere you’ll spend or save your money until it balances to zero. This way you know exactly where all your money should be going. Nothing gets lost.
I also recommend using the debt snowball. Start paying off debt with the smallest balance first. This will do two things for you:
- If gives you momentum. When you feel like you’re making progress, you’ll be encouraged to keep knocking out debts one by one.
- It frees up money to make a bigger payment on the next debt. For example, if you pay off a low balance credit card that you were paying $50/month on, now you can use that $50 to go toward the next lowest debt. This will expedite paying off the second debt because you can make a bigger payment. Once the second debt is payed off, roll it’s the full payment to the third debt and so on.
Open Communication with Those You Owe Money
Now that you have your budget in order and a plan to get caught up, it’s time to communicate your plans with your creditors. You will only need to talk to the bills you are behind on.
Don’t ignore companies or collection agencies who are trying to get a payment. It doesn’t solve the problem.
That said, you don’t have to take harassment or abuse from collectors. It’s important to know your rights and stand up for yourself. You can do this without getting emotional. It works more to your advantage to remain level-headed and keep your cool.
If you can’t make a full payment
There are two different types of debt: secured and unsecured.
Secured debt has collateral attached to it, such as a house or a car.
Unsecured debt are things like credit cards, medical expenses, personal loans or personal lines of credit.
If you are having trouble making payments on secured debt (like your house or car payment) you will be in danger of losing your house or your car. You can't take shortcuts around this, you need to find a way to pay for these debts, or sell them.
Ask what your lenders what your options are. They may be willing to work with you for a short period of time to help you get caught up and back on track, but you’ll need to put some effort into it.
If you’ve lost a job or recently experienced some major medical problems, ask if you qualify for any type of hardship assistance, but don’t expect too much sympathy.
If you’re having trouble making payments on unsecured debt you can attack it a little differently.
Follow the debt snowball. Make sure you’re paying something and as much as you can on each debt.
Also, make sure you communicate with your creditor that you are paying as much as you can and in X amount of time you should be able to catch up and pay back the debt in full. They won’t be happy but do the best you can to keep moving forward.
Tips for dealing with collectors:
- Never give them access to make automatic withdraws from your account, always send them each payment or make one-time payments over the phone.
- If you make any agreements on payment terms or settlement, be sure to get it in writing before you submit the payment for the agreed amount. Send a copy (keep the original) of the letter back with your payment and write “paid in full” in the memo of your check. Keep a record of this in case the creditor doesn’t.
- Continue to follow up and keep the creditors/collectors up to date with your efforts on repayment.
- Stay calm. Collectors know they can get you to make irrational decisions if you're upset, so they may intentionally try to provoke you.
What to Remember
First, remember this situation is likely only temporary.
I sucks to go through, but one by one you’ll be able to catch up on bills and have a positive outlook for the future.
Second, remember who you’re doing this for. You’re doing it for yourself and your family. Working hard to overcome financial difficulty feels great. Being out of a mess and able to provide well for your family feels even better.
Third, don’t go back! Change the way you manage your money so you don’t ever have to go back to that awful place again. Keep your budget going and stay out of debt. Don’t put someone else’s name on your paycheck!