Being at the bottom of a pile of credit card debt can be overwhelming. Making just the minimum monthly payment can be difficult, putting the long-term goal of paying off the credit card completely almost too far to see.
Chances are your credit card company has a solution that it’s probably not going to offer to you unless you ask for it — a hardship plan.
Also known as a credit card payment plan, this secret that usually isn’t advertised can give you breathing room to dig out of debt and ultimately improve your credit score. A hardship plan can save you money in interest payments and reduce your monthly credit card bill.
Before asking your credit card issuer for a hardship plan, you should know how it works, how it affects your credit, and if it’s right for you.
What a hardship plan is and isn’t
First, you should know that a hardship plan isn’t the same as the debt management plans you see on TV commercials.
Those plans require you to pay a fee to a credit counseling agency to negotiate debt repayment terms with each of your lenders. All of the debts are paid through a single monthly payment that the counseling agency collects from you. The credit counselor is the liaison between you and your debt collectors.
A hardship plan, however, doesn’t have an intermediary or mass payment of lenders. You work directly with your credit card issuer and the repayment program it sets up through a hardship plan.
Creditors can differ on what they offer in hardship plans. They typically offer a combination of a lower interest rate, smaller minimum payment, lower fees and penalties, and a fixed payment schedule.
Being allowed to take part in a hardship plan can be as easy as calling your credit card issuer and explaining why you need one. You may have just lost your job or had a medical emergency that is costly, and need a credit card payment plan to help you through this rough time.
It could hurt your credit score
Signing up for a hardship plan doesn’t affect your credit, but your credit scores could be indirectly affected by the way the program works.
Your credit card issuer will put a note on your credit reports that you’re participating in its hardship plan. This is a sign that you’re taking responsibility to repay your lenders, which is a good thing. But to potential creditors, it could be a sign that your finances aren’t stable. Ask your credit card issuer what note it will send to the credit bureaus and how that might affect your ability to get future credit.
While you’re in a hardship program, your credit card company may close or suspend your account until you’ve paid off the debt. Closing a credit card — no matter who does it, you or the credit card company — can lower your credit score.
Closing a credit card eliminates some of your available credit, which will likely increase your credit utilization ratio. That ratio of the proportion of your available credit that you actually use accounts for 30 percent of your credit score.
If you don’t decrease your credit card spending, your credit scores will drop as your credit utilization score increases.
If you’ve had a credit card for a number of years and it’s being closed when you’re put on a payment plan, your average credit age will decrease and your credit scores will drop. Credit history accounts for 15 percent of a credit score.
A good credit mix is also important to a credit score — making up about 10 percent of a score. Closing a credit card could affect that mix, and thus your score. Be sure to have a good combination of credit: Credit cards, mortgage, car payments and other types of loans.
Take the long view
Eventually, a hardship plan should help you get a hefty increase in your credit score once you complete the plan successfully. An initial drop should be expected, though after months of on-time payments and other responsible behavior you should start to see your credit score improve.
Chances are that before you signed up for a hardship program, you missed some minimum payments on your credit card. Payment history is the top factor in determining a credit score, at 35 percent of a score, and making payment on time through a hardship plan will only improve it.
If you stick to the payment schedule of a hardship plan, your lender will report the on-time payments to the credit bureaus and your scores will improve.
Still, a hardship plan may not be for you. If you have difficulty being organized, have multiple creditors and find it daunting to contact or manage payment to all of them each month, then a hardship plan may be too difficult for you to stick to.
If you’re going to go with a debt settlement company to help you with your debt, it’s best to work with a nonprofit consumer credit counseling service, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A bankruptcy attorney can also help.
But if you’re facing a temporary financial crisis or minor problem with just a few credit cards, then your card issuer might be willing to work with you and extend concessions through a hardship plan. They’d rather work with you than send your case to debt collectors.