How to Catch up on Bills When You're Behind

By Jacqueline DeMarco · June 25, 2024 · 6 minute read

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How to Catch up on Bills When You're Behind

Sometimes life throws a few curveballs your way. When those curveballs include unexpected expenses (like an emergency car repair or medical bills) or a job loss, it can be hard to keep your budget on track. This may lead to paying some bills late, or not at all, which only puts you further in the hole, thanks to interest and late fees. Your credit can also take a hit.

While you may not be able to get back in the black overnight, there are ways to regain control of your finances and work toward financial stability. Read on for simple strategies that can help you get caught up on bills, plus tips on how to avoid getting behind in the future.

6 Tips for Getting Caught up on Bills

Falling behind on bills can feel overwhelming, but it’s a challenge that many people face at some point. The key is to face missed payments head on and come up with a plan to gradually bring all of your accounts up to date. These tips can help.

1. Make a Master List of Bills

A good place to start is by organizing your bills and making a master list of everything you owe. This includes rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance, credit card payments, personal loans, and any other debts. Consider organizing them by due date, amount owed, and interest rates. Having a clear picture of your financial obligations helps you prioritize and plan your payments more effectively. This list will serve as a roadmap to ensure you don’t overlook any bills and can systematically address each one.

2. Reach Out to Your Creditors

Communication with your creditors is crucial when you’re struggling to keep up with payments. Companies and creditors may be willing to work with you if you explain your situation honestly. They may offer solutions such as extended payment deadlines, reduced interest rates, or temporary payment plans. And you don’t have to wait until your accounts are severely delinquent — reach out as soon as you know you’re having trouble. Proactive communication can prevent additional fees and negative marks on your credit report.

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3. Pay Priority Bills

All bills are not equally important, and when funds are limited, it’s essential to prioritize which bills to pay first. You might start with necessities that ensure your basic living conditions, such as housing, utilities, and food. These are critical to maintain your daily life and stability. Next, you may want to focus on any bills that have legal consequences if left unpaid, such as child support and taxes. Secured debts, like car loans, should also be a priority to avoid repossession. Once these essentials are covered, you can move on to other debts.

4. Pay Bills with the Highest Interest Rates

High-interest debt can quickly spiral out of control, making it harder to catch up. After prioritizing essential bills, consider paying down debts in order of interest rate, from highest to lowest. This repayment strategy, known as the avalanche method, can save you money in the long run by reducing the amount of interest you’ll pay over time. Consider making larger payments toward these debts while maintaining minimum payments on lower-interest obligations.

5. Cut Unnecessary Expenses

To free up more money for paying bills, take a close look at all of your monthly expenses and identify areas where you can cut back. Dining out, subscription services, gym memberships, and entertainment are examples of expenses you may be able to cut until your finances are in better shape. Creating a bare-bones budget can help you focus on what’s necessary until you’re caught up. Redirect the money saved from cutting expenses toward paying down your debts. Even small savings can add up and make a significant difference over time.

6. Boost Your Income

Increasing your income can provide a much-needed boost to catch up on bills and put more padding in your checking account. Consider taking on a part-time job, freelancing, or selling items you no longer need. If you have any special skills or hobbies, you might look into starting a side business. Or you might explore opportunities to work extra hours or seek a raise at your current job. While increasing your income may require additional effort and time, the extra money can help you get back on track faster.

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How to Avoid Falling Behind After You’re Caught Up

Once you’ve managed to catch up on your bills, it’s important to implement strategies to avoid falling behind again. Here are some ways to help you stay on track.

Create a Budget

A well-structured budget is the cornerstone of good financial management. Now that things are more stable, you might want to take a closer look at what’s coming and going out each month to ensure that your spending aligns with your priorities. One simple budgeting framework to consider is the 50/30/20 rule. This suggests dividing your after-tax income into three main categories, with 50% going to “needs,” 30% going to “wants,” and 20% going to savings and debt payments beyond minimums.

Enroll in Autopay

Automating your bill payments is one of simplest ways to avoid missing payments and getting hit with late fees. Consider setting up autopay for your recurring bills, such as rent, utilities, and credit card payments. To make sure you don’t accidentally overdraft your account, put reminders on your calendar or set up alerts on your phone before each bill is due. That way you can make sure you have sufficient funds in your account to cover these automated payments.

Build an Emergency Fund

An emergency fund acts as a financial safety net, allowing you to cover unexpected expenses without disrupting your regular budget. Aim to save at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses in a separate, easily accessible account, such as a high-yield savings account. Start small if necessary and gradually build up your fund over time. Having an emergency fund can prevent you from relying on credit cards or loans if you get hit with an unexpected expense or loss of income and can help you maintain your financial stability.

The Takeaway

Catching up on bills when you’re behind can be challenging. Fortunately, by assessing your situation and coming up with a strategic pay-off plan, it’s possible to get back on track. Staying proactive and disciplined can help you avoid falling behind again and allow you to work toward long-term financial stability and growth.

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What to do when you can’t catch up on bills?

Consider making a list of all your outstanding bills, then prioritizing the ones that are for necessities (housing, for instance) and those with the highest interest rates. To free up funds to pay off your bills, you may need to temporarily cut or reduce unnecessary expenses, like dining out, streaming services, and entertainment. It’s also a good idea to reach out to your creditors and explain your situation. They may be willing to work with you by offering a more manageable payment plan and crediting late fees.

What bills should I prioritize?

If you’re behind on bills, you’ll want to prioritize any bills relating to necessities, such as housing and utilities. Next, you might focus on obligations that, if neglected, could have legal consequences (like past-due taxes or child support), followed by secured debts (like an auto loan or mortgage) to avoid repossession. After that, you might prioritize high-interest debts (like credit cards), since the longer it takes to pay them off, the more expensive they get.

Why is it so hard to catch up on bills?

Catching up on bills can be challenging due to high-interest rates that make debts grow quickly. Having a limited income, getting hit with unexpected expenses, and poor financial habits (such as lack of budgeting or overspending) can also make it difficult to catch up once you fall behind.

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