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Does making partial payments help?

If you can't meet your payment, it is usually more beneficial to contact your creditor than to pay a partial payment.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
A woman in Washington displays her credit cards.

If you can’t pay a bill, it might seem better to send in what you can than to send nothing at all.

That’s probably a waste of money. Your creditor may cash the check, but that doesn’t mean you’re not considered late.

“Don’t assume that any payment you make will buy you more time or prevent damage to your credit scores,” NerdWallet columnist Liz Weston says. “You need to talk to the creditor. See if you can work out a payment arrangement that will keep you from being reported as late to the credit bureaus and having the account turned over to collections.”

If you are considering making a partial payment:

  • Contact the creditor beforehand. Ask it to accept a partial payment without late fees, to let you skip a payment, or to change the due date. Ask if the payment you’re considering will be reported as late. Find out if the creditor offers hardship programs.
  • Make arrangements to pay the shortfall. If you don’t catch up, it’s very likely that you’ll be reported late every month that the deficiency lingers.
  • Don’t delay the inevitable. If your hardship is not temporary, partial payments are not going to help. Explore debt relief options, Weston advises. “You don’t want to put this off and continue to throw good money after bad.”
  • Lastly, be strategic about your bills if you can’t pay them all in full. Necessities such as rent and food and perhaps transportation are higher priority than, say, student loans or credit cards or debt collectors.

    Here’s a look at how much breathing room you have on different types of debt:

    Debt Real trouble starts in Potential consequences
    Mortgage 90 to 120 days Foreclosure, loss of home
    Auto loan 1 day past due (though many lenders wait 60 days) Repossession, collection of unpaid debt
    Federal student loans 270 days Wage garnishment, tax refund seizure, partial seizure of Social Security benefits
    Private student loans 30 days Lawsuit, wage garnishment
    Credit cards 180 days Account charged off, sold to collections
    Collections accounts Depends on amount, aggressiveness of collector Lawsuit, wage garnishment
    Tax debt 10 days after IRS sends first notice demanding payment Wage garnishment, property or bank account seizure
    Child support Varies by state Driver's license suspension, tax refund seizure, passport revocation, wage or benefit garnishment, property liens, jail
    Medical bills Depends on provider Account turned over to collectors

    Bev O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:boshea@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.

    This article first appeared at NerdWallet.

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