Your Bills: Pay Them or Defer Them?

Your-Bills-Pay-Them--or-Defer-Them

Many of you are facing difficult financial decisions as your hours are reduced, you have to take an unpaid leave of absence or you are laid off. At the same time, some creditors are offering to help you by waiving or deferring payments. In this post, I’ll provide my thoughts on how you might decide whether to pay or defer your bills.

Key Takeaways: Pay or Defer Your Bills

Here are the key takeaways about whether to pay or defer your bills.

  • If a creditor is willing to waive some or all of your debt, accept the offer.
  • When creditors are willing to defer payments without any extra charges, accepting that offer, rather than paying from your emergency savings, is likely to make sense for most people. The same holds true when the extra interest or late fees are small.
  • The only situations in which dipping into your emergency savings is preferable for most people are those in which the fees or extra interest are expensive.
  • If you are unable to make your payments on time, whether they are from your income or emergency savings, it is very important to contact your creditors. If you do, you are less likely to incur fees and it is less likely that there will be an adverse impact on your credit score.

What are Debtholders Offering?

Before deciding whether to pay or defer your bills, you’ll want to make sure you understand what is being offered. There are generally three types of offers made by creditors:

  • Eliminate some or all of your debt.
  • Defer payments without extra interest or fees.
  • Defer payments with extra interest or fees.

I explain and provide examples of each of these three options.

Waive Some Payments or Forgive Debt

Under this option, the creditor forgives some or all of your debt. Debt can be forgiven by waiving (eliminating) some of your payments or reducing each of your payments. If all of your debt is forgiven, you will not need to make any more payments.

Clearly, you will want to accept offers from any creditors that are willing to forgive some or all of your debt. If only a portion of the debt is forgiven, you’ll want to make sure that you understand how that portion will be reflected in your payments.

  • Will you have to continue making payments as in the past, but with fewer payments?
  • Are you able to stop making payments for a certain period of time?
  • Will you have to continue making payments as in the past, but with a smaller amount?

As an example, I have seen several proposals from US Senate Democrats ranging from wiping out all education debt to cancelling between $10,000 and $50,000 per borrower of Federal student loans (but not private student loans). One description of the latter indicates that the $10,000 of forgiveness would be accomplished by having the Department of Education make monthly payments on behalf of borrowers during the course of the “emergency.” Under this proposal, you would be able to stop making payment for a certain period of time and then would continue making payments in the future as if you had been making your payments instead of the Department of Education.

Defer Payments without Interest or Fees

Under this option, you take a break from making payments. At the same time, the creditor does not charge you any fees and no interest accrues on your outstanding balance. Once the break is over, you will make the same number and amounts of payments as you would have without the break, but they will extend further into the future. That is, your payment scheduled will be shifted by the length of the break.

On March 20, 2020, US President Trump announced that this approach would apply to Federal student loan payments. Federal student loan debtors will not have to make any payments for 60 days and no interest will accrue. If you have a US Federal student loan, you should research the details of this mandate, as debtors whose student loan payments are not currently in arrears will need to apply to get their payments suspended.

Income taxes for 2019 are another example of payments that can be deferred without interest or fees as the result of the coronavirus upheaval. In the US, the Federal government and many states have extended the deadlines for filing and paying 2019 income taxes until July 15, 2020.

Defer Payments with Interest or Fees

Under this approach, the creditor allows you to take a break from making payments, but will charge you one or both of interest during the break and additional fees. Once the break is over, you will not only make the number and amounts of payments you would have without the break, but you will have to pay the additional interest and/or fees.

If you select this option, you’ll need to understand when these additional amounts will be due.

  • Will they be due immediately at the end of the break?
  • Are the extra amounts added to each payment ?
  • Will you have to make more payments?

Utility Example

An example of this option is the Enmax Relief Program. Enmax is the power utility company in Alberta. It has indicated that it will allow customers to set up payment arrangements for overdue bills, but only if current monthly charges continue to be paid. It appears (though isn’t 100% clear) that customers who miss any payments, even customers with payment plans, will need to pay late charges.

Mortgages

According to an article in Forbes, many mortgage companies are also offering flexibility. Some Federal and state mortgage programs are halting foreclosures, but aren’t necessarily waiving or deferring payments. More importantly, some private mortgage companies are allowing payments to be deferred. Not all of these companies have been clear about how interest or late fees will be treated during this period. As such, if you need to defer some mortgage payments, it is important that you get the details specific to your lender and loan.

The Forbes article contains a bit more detail from Ally. It will allow mortgage payments to be deferred for 120 days with no late fees, but interest will accrue. As such, the total amount you will pay for your mortgage will increase by an amount slightly more than your annual interest rate divided by 12 times the number of months you defer your payments times your outstanding principal at the time you started deferring your payments. The “slightly more” in the previous sentence refers to the fact that the interest will compound over the deferral period, so you’ll have to pay interest not only on the outstanding principal but also on the interest that has accumulated since you made your most recent payment.

Deciding What to Do

Once you’ve understood the options available from your creditors, you’ll want to make informed decisions about whether to pay or defer your bills. In this section, I will illustrate the analysis you can do to help support your decision.

In this illustration, you have $20,000 of emergency savings. You have a debt with $50,000 of outstanding principal, 10 years remaining on the term and a 5% interest rate.   This combination of characteristics leads to a monthly payment of $530. Although the illustration looks at payment of a debt, it is equivalent to a monthly bill of the same amount. You are able to resume your regular payments at the end of three months.

When looking at the option to take the payment out of your emergency savings, I assume that you plan to replace that money within a year. I also assume that your emergency savings is in a checking, savings or money market account that is currently paying such a low interest rate that it can be ignored.

Waive Some Payments or Forgive Debt

No analysis is needed for the option under which a creditor offers to waive some of your payments or forgive your debt completely (without any additional costs on your part). You will always be better off if you accept the offer.

Deferring Payments without Interest

For this illustration, you defer three months of payments without interest. You re-stock your emergency savings within a year.

Take Out of Emergency Savings

The table below shows the cash flows and balances if you pay the three months of payments from your emergency savings.

Take Out of Emergency Savings/No Interest Today In 3 Months In 12 Months When Debt is Paid in 5 Years
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings $0 $1,590 $0 $0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income 0 0 4,770 57,240
Contributions to Savings from Income 0 0 1,590 0
Emergency Savings 20,000 18,410 20,000 20,000
Principal 50,000 49,030 46,046 0

In the first row, you see the three months of payments, totaling $1,590, that you pay the creditor from your emergency savings. The second row shows the payments you make from your income after the initial three-month period. The amounts you put in your emergency savings to bring it to the pre-crisis level are shown in the third row.

The last two rows show the ending balances for your emergency savings and the outstanding principal on your debt. At 3 months, you can see that your emergency savings has been reduced by $1,590. It returns to its original level after 12 months. Your principal declines to $0 in five years as anticipated under the original schedule, as you have made all payments as planned.

Defer Payments

The table below shows the cash flows and balances if you defer three months of payments.

Defer Payments/No Interest Today In 3 Months In 12 Months When Debt is Paid in 5 Years, 3 Months
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings $0 $0 $0 $0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income 0 0 4,770 58,830
Contributions to Savings from Income 0 0 0 0
Emergency Savings 20,000 20,000 20,000 20,000
Principal 50,000 50,000 47,053 0

In the first and third rows, you see that there are no payments to or from your emergency savings. The second row shows the payments you make from your income after the three-month deferral period. The total of these payments is the same as the total payments from your emergency savings and income (first and second rows) under the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy. The difference is that the $1,590 paid from your savings in the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy in the first three months is added to the amount paid from your income in the last column of the Defer Payments Strategy. In addition, the header on the last column shows that your payments are extended for three months to 5 years, 3 months instead of 5 years.

The last two rows show the ending balances for your emergency savings and principal. Your emergency savings stays constant at $20,000. Your principal doesn’t decrease in the first three months when you defer your payments. After that, your principal declines to $0 in five years and three months. It is higher at 12 months than under the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy because you deferred three months of payments.

How I’d Make the Decision to Pay or Defer Bills

When the creditor won’t charge you extra interest or fees, the choice between whether to pay or defer your bills is one of personal preference. It depends not only on your current and anticipated future financial situations, but also any increase in your level of comfort by having more money in your emergency savings. The creditor isn’t increasing the amount you owe. As such, the financial inputs to the decision relate to the timing with which you make the payments to the creditor.

I would probably defer the payments unless I were expecting difficulty in making the extra three months of payments at the end of the loan term (because I was planning to retire in exactly five years and don’t want to change that goal, for example). I’d rather have the extra money in my emergency savings in case something else happens.

Defer Payments with Interest

For this illustration, you defer three months of payments at the loan’s interest rate with no late fees. If you tap your emergency savings, you re-stock them within a year.

Take Out of Emergency Savings

The transactions are the same under the “Take Out of Emergency Savings” Strategy regardless of whether the creditor charges interest on the deferred payments. I’ve shown the table again so it will be easier to compare it to the “Defer Payments” Strategy under this scenario.

Take Out of Emergency Savings/Wit Interest Today In 3 Months In 12 Months When Debt is Paid in 5 Years
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings $0 $1,590 $0 $0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income 0 0 4,770 57,240
Contributions to Savings from Income 0 0 1,590 0
Emergency Savings 20,000 18,410 20,000 20,000
Principal 50,000 49,030 46,046 0

 

Defer Payments

The table below shows the cash flows and balances if you defer the three months of payments during your time of reduced or no income.

Defer Payments/With Interest Today In 3 Months In 12 Months When Debt is Paid in 5 Years, 3 Months
Amount Paid to Creditor from Savings $0 $0 $0 $0
Amount Paid to Creditor from Income 0 0 4,833 59,607
Contributions to Savings from Income 0 0 0 0
Emergency Savings 20,000 20,000 20,000 20,000
Principal 50,000 50,628 47,644 0

In the first and third rows, you see no payments to or from your emergency savings. The second row shows the payments you make from your income after the three-month deferral period. For this illustration, the extra interest is added to each payment, increasing it from $530 to $537 a month and your payments extend for an extra three months (see header in last column). As a result, the total of the amounts paid the to creditor are $840 higher than if no interest had been charged.

The last two rows show the ending balances for your emergency savings and principal. Your emergency savings stays constant at $20,000. Your principal increases in the first three months as the additional interest is added during the deferral period. After that, your principal declines to $0 in five years and three months. It is higher at 12 months than under the Take Out of Emergency Savings Strategy because (a) you deferred three months of payments and (b) additional interest accrued.

How I’d Decide

From a financial perspective, you will be better off in this scenario if you make your payments out of your emergency savings because you will avoid paying interest or late fees. You also will have paid off your debt sooner – in five years instead of five years and three months.

Low Interest Rates

If the interest rate on your loan isn’t very high, say less than 6% a year, the additional payments may be relatively small. For example, at a 6% interest rate, the extra accumulated interest on a $200,000 loan with 10 years of payments left (such as our mortgage) is about $3,000. That may sound like a large number, but it adds only $34 to each payment.

Credit Cards

Some people are suggesting that you should make only the minimum payments on your credit cards as a way to keep as much cash in your emergency savings as possible. To date, I haven’t seen any credit card companies that are deferring interest or fees if you don’t pay your credit card in full. Credit card interest rates are generally quite high, often in excess of 10% per year, and many credit card companies charge fees if you don’t pay your balance in full. While many debts have interest rates that are low enough to justify deferring payments, most credit cards do not fall in that category. As such, I would pay off as much of my high-interest credit card balances as I could afford, even it if meant dipping into my emergency savings.

Personal Decision

Here is where the decision to pay or defer your bills becomes more personal. There is an emotional benefit to leaving the money in your emergency savings in case something else happens or your reduction in income lasts longer than you expect. You’ll need to weight that increased comfort level with the additional cost of deferring the payments under this scenario. For many people, the $34 a month increase in their mortgage payment in my illustration is a small cost to pay for the additional comfort. For other people, particularly those whose budgets are already very tight or who have a fixed amount of time until they retire, the increased payments and lengthening of the term of the loan are too expensive. As such, you’ll need to decide for yourself whether to pay or defer your bills, but now you’ll be able to make an informed decision.

Impact on Credit Rating

Another consideration in deciding whether to pay or defer your bills is your credit score. If you miss payments, there could be an adverse impact on your credit score, as timely payment is one of the important factors that drive your score. To be clear, if you make your payments from your emergency savings, there will be no adverse impact on your credit score. If you are not able to make your payments, even from your emergency savings, it is important that you communicate with your creditors and agree to a plan.

What Experian Says

I contacted Experian by e-mail and received the following quote from Rob Griffin, senior director of consumer education and awareness.

If you think you may have trouble making any of your monthly payments, contact your lender or creditor as soon as possible – try not to wait until you’ve missed your payment due date. Lenders may have several options for helping you cope with a variety of COVID-19-related financial hardships including placing your accounts in forbearance or deferment for a period of time. This means effectively suspending your payments until the crisis has passed and can help minimize the impact to the credit score if the account is in good standing and hasn’t had previous delinquencies reported.

While reported in forbearance or deferment, your accounts will have no negative affect on the most common credit scores from FICO and VantageScore. Keep in mind, lenders do not want you to fall behind on your payments any more than you do. Contacting your lenders early can help you protect your financial health in the long run.[1]

Other Credit Bureaus

I found similar statements on the web sites of the other two major credit bureaus, Equifax and Transunion.

How it Impacts You

These statements indicate that you may be able to avoid a deterioration in your credit score if you are proactive with your lenders about skipping or deferring payments.

 

[1] E-mail from Amanda Garofalo, PR Specialist, Experian, March 19, 2020.

The Scoop on Credit Scores

Credit scores are one of the most important financial numbers.  Credit scores not only affect the interest rate you pay when you borrow, but also your ability to borrow and other important financial transactions. It has been a long time since I’ve borrowed money, so I talked to Cody Jensen, a consumer loan officer at Missoula Federal Credit Union, to get the most current information.  In his role as a loan officer, Cody spends a lot of time educating young borrowers, so he was a terrific resource.  Here is a summary of the interview (with a few tidbits I found on line to expand on a few of his points).

What are Credit Scores?

Most lenders and vendors use the national score calculated by Fair Isaac Company.  It is a number between 300 and 850 that measures your creditworthiness and is sometimes called FICO score.

How are They Used?

Your credit score affects whether you can get a loan (see this post for more about loans) and, if so, the interest rate you will pay.  The lower your credit score, the higher the interest rate you will be charged.

Your credit score also impacts other financial transactions, such as:

  • Landlords use it to evaluate whether to rent to you.
  • The amount that you will pay if you lease a car (see this here for more on leases).
  • Most companies issuing you a contract, such as cell phone providers and cable companies, use it to decide whether you have to pre-pay for your services. That is, if you don’t have a high enough credit score, you will need to pay in advance for your services or make a significant deposit.
  • In many jurisdictions, car and homeowners/renters insurers use it as a rating variable. The lower your credit score, the higher the insurance premium you will have to pay, all other things being equal.

What is a Good Credit Score?

The thresholds vary between categories depending on the user of the information. The chart below shows the approximate distinctions considered by many vendors.

What Determines My Credit Score?

According to Investopedia, there are five factors that determine your credit score:

  • Payment history – Do you pay your bills on time. Timely payment for a long period of time will improve your credit score.
  • Credit utilization – The ratio of the amount you owe to your credit limit on credit cards.While you want a score that is more than 0% (i.e., using your credit cards is good), as the ratio increases above 30% your credit rating will decrease.
  • Length of credit history – The length of time you have used credit, either through student loans, other loans or credit cards. The longer you have used credit, the higher your score will be.
  • New credit – The amount of recent increases to your credit (e.g., new credit cards or loans). Once you have established credit, taking on additional loans or credit cards will lower your score.
  • Credit mix – The types of credit you use. Using different types of credit, such as loans and credit cards, improves your score.

The chart below shows the weights given to each of these factors.

What Can I Do to Improve my Credit Score?

Whether you are just getting started with credit or have an established credit history, here are some things you can do to improve or maintain your credit score:

  • Pay your bills on time. As indicated above, paying at least the minimum payment on your credit cards and making your full installments on any loans by their due date combine to be the biggest contributor to your credit score.
  • Wait until you have a couple of years of experience on your record. By taking the time to establish your credit experience before taking out a loan, you can reduce your interest rate or increase your ability to get a loan.
  • Get a secured credit card. If you are just getting started or need to re-build your credit, you can use this type of credit card.
    • When you open the account, you need to put down a security deposit that is higher than the limit on the credit card, often 110% of the credit limit. For example, if you get a card with a $1,000 credit limit, you’ll need to give the issuer a security deposit of $1,100.  This deposit will be returned when you close the account.
    • Ask someone else to co-sign on the credit card. In this case, the card becomes a shared secured credit card.
    • To improve your credit score, you’ll want to pay off all your charges every month.
    • You will establish a strong payment history, which improves your credit score, by using the secured credit card regularly for a period of time.
    • A secured credit card doesn’t count as a loan so it doesn’t hurt the credit utilization part of your credit score.
  • Make sure there is a balance on your credit card on the last day of the calendar month.
    • That’s when FICO checks your balance, so it is the date on which credit utilization is calculated.
    • You can then pay it off when your bill is due to improve your payment history and avoid interest payments.
    • You score will improve if your balance is between 3% and 30% of your limit on the last day of the month.
  • Check your credit information as maintained by the credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). This information includes all of your loans and credit cards, your outstanding balance at the end of each month and your payment history.  You are allowed to request your credit report (but not your credit score) for free from each bureau once a year.  If you want it more often than that, you need to pay a fee. You can either enter the information on Annual Credit Report.com’s web site or print a form and submit it by snail mail.  I know a few people who have found mistakes (usually due to identity theft or confusion with a person with a similar name) that have hurt their credit scores. There is a process by which your credit report can be corrected, though it isn’t always easy.

What Are the Causes of Low Credit Scores?

Obviously, not paying your credit card bills or re-paying loans will lower your credit score.  Other factors that can lead to a lower credit score are:

  • Late payments. Again, whether you make your payments on time is the biggest factor in determining your credit score.
  • Too much debt (including credit cards and student loans). If you take on too much debt, you are less likely to be able to re-pay it.  When you have so much debt you can’t keep up with your payments, credit utilization will be too high and payment history could become poor.  These two factors alone drive 65% of your credit score.
  • While a divorce itself does not lower your credit score, some aspects of unwinding the finances can put downward pressure on credit scores.  In many marriages, the couple acquires debt based on their combined income.  For example, many couples rely on both incomes to secure a mortgage for a home.  If the couple gets divorced, they now need two households and neither one has sufficient income to pay off their joint mortgage or other debts.

How Do I Find Out My Credit Score?

Many banks and credit card companies will provide you with your credit score for free.  When I log into my bank’s web site, I can see my FICO score.  You can also pay one of the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) for your credit score.