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What to Do When You Can’t Pay Your Bills?

You’ve lost your job. You’re furloughed. Perhaps your hours have been severely cut back. For whatever reason, suddenly you don’t have enough money to pay all of your bills.

You’re scared, angry, worried, and seriously overwhelmed. You may have promises of unemployment benefits and stimulus-type money coming, but when? What are you supposed to do right now? Which bills should you pay first and which ones can slide for a while?

A group of people looking at a laptop

This is not easy. But I want to assure you that it is doable. As bleak and horrible as things look right now, you will come through this. We’ll do this together.

Here’s a basic rule of thumb according to the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center in its book, Surviving Debt:

“Always pay essential expenses first. If any money is left, you can decide which nonessential debts, if any, to keep in your expense budget.”

That’s a great directive, but what is an essential expense? How do you know the difference between essential and non-essential when you need groceries, the car payment is past due, and the bank just left a threatening voicemail message?

Grab paper and pen

Create two columns and label them: Essential, Non-Essential. Now, let’s take that stack of bills and the expenses you have right now and separate them into those two columns by asking this question of each one: What’s the consequence if we don’t pay it right now? 

  • An essential expense represents a serious obligation that if not paid could produce immediate severe, even life-threatening consequences. These are the expenses you must pay first, in order of the severity of the consequence if you don’t pay.
  • A non-essential expense represents an obligation that if not paid right now might harm your credit score, or require you to make a phone call, make you feel embarrassed—but will not result in a serious consequence right now.

As you fill the two columns, keep in mind not all of your essential expenses of food, essential medication, and gasoline. You won’t have a statement for those “bills,” but they are critical expenses and you must allow for them in this process.

Rule to follow right now

Here’s the rule to follow as you make your two lists and then prioritize them by the severity of the consequences to either pay or let slide:

Do not make payments on non-essential expenses and debt when you have not paid essential expenses even if your nonessential creditors are breathing down your neck with phone calls and threatening messages.

We’re going to concentrate first on your essential expenses that if you do not pay will create life-threatening or otherwise very serious consequences. And we’re going to do this in a specific order.

Do not misunderstand!

I am not suggesting that you should just walk away from your financial obligations. You must pay your creditors, you must pay your bills. To not pay them is not an option.

Of course, it is not ideal to let some of your bills slide for awhile. But your situation is what it is. Your resources are severely limited. In time, as things improve (they will) you will be able to get caught up completely.

But for now, you need to know how to get through this month.


Once you’ve determined which bills are essential, prioritize them according to the severity of the consequences you will suffer for non-payment.

Here is a guide to follow, listed by priority.

Essential expenses

Basic food

You need food. The consequences of not eating is severe! However, even though essential, keep your food expenses to the absolute, bare-bones minimum. You don’t eat steak three times a week when you can’t pay the water bill. Now is the time to pull in every tactic to feed your family on a shoestring

Unavoidable medications

You may be able to forego non-essential “medications” like food supplements, vitamins, etc., for now. But that blood pressure medication? Think severe consequences if you stop taking those life-preserving meds. You must cover the expense for essential medications.

Health insurance

Keeping your health insurance active is absolutely essential.

Child support

Paying child support is absolutely essential. Not paying can land you in jail. You have no options here that allow for this to slide or to go unpaid.

Rent or mortgage

Always assume that your landlord or mortgage lender will immediately proceed to evict or foreclose if you are late with a payment. You must be wise here.


Next, you should pay the minimum required to keep the heat, lights and water utility services. Your cable and Internet bills are not essential utilities. You should probably cancel them for now. Temporarily use the computers at your local library if you need to be online.

Car payments

If a car is necessary to keep your job, making the loan or lease payment is the next priority.

Other secured loans

Beyond your home and car, debts on furniture, boats, RVs and expensive electronic gear are likely to be secured—that means the lender can repossess for nonpayment. While you are in the process of selling these items to get out from under the heavy debt load, you must keep current on all payments.

Unpaid taxes

If the IRS is about to take your current or future paycheck, bank account, house or other property, you need to set up a repayment plan immediately.


Nonessential expenses and debts are financial obligations that will have a lesser and/or significantly delayed effect if you withhold payment for a limited time. To delay paying on these is called breathing room; it’s not a pass. It’s a short period of time while you figure out what to do.

Here they are in the order of severity of consequences if you fall behind:

Student loans

Failure to pay your student loan payments could eventually include, at the worst, seizure of your tax refunds and special wage garnishment. If you let this slide for a few months, expect to be charged penalty fees.

Pro tip:

Call your student loan administrator right away to discover any special deferments or waivers for which you may qualify. During this time of global economic upheaval, special measures have been announced for federally-guaranteed student loans.

Don’t assume. Find out so you know exactly what’s up with that as it might relate to your specific situation.

Private student loans do not fall under this special intervention. If yours are private, call that lender immediately! Perhaps you will have a similar kind of forbearance or deferment opportunity.

Credit cards, department stores, and gasoline cards

If you fall behind on these debts you will trash your credit score, lose credit privileges, pay horrendous late fees and—if the debt is unusually high—you may be sued. But you won’t lose your home. You can recover. The consequences will be forthcoming, but not immediate.

Personal loans from friends and family

You should feel a moral obligation to pay, but these creditors will likely be the most understanding of your situation. Don’t hide. Do the right thing and contact this person immediately to set up a face-to-face meeting.

Medical, legal and accounting bills

While these debts are real and will be paid eventually, they are rarely essential unless you are still receiving treatment.


Every other debt you owe is probably in this category. These unsecured debts are rarely, if ever, essential enough to pay first.

Guard your heart and mind

During this devastating time, don’t allow your emotions to dictate how you distribute the money you have. Do not let your creditors set the agenda. Do not hide, do not lie. Above all, do not take your situation personally.

Adopt a business-like mindset and treat your creditors as you would want to be treated if the tables were turned. Be courteous and respectful, yet assertive. Do not make promises you cannot keep. And when your situation turns around (it will!) keep the promises you have made to your creditors, your family, and to yourself.

As you get through this season, never forget: Tough times never last, but tough people do. Get tough!

First published here: 5-28-19; Revised & Updated with current information 4-19-20


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6 replies
  1. Andrea says:

    I disagree on the internet at this point in time. The libraries are closed and even though most have 24×7 WiFi, working outside the library with kids doing school work and you doing your work remotely is definitely not feasible. Keep the internet.

  2. BARBARA M REDD says:

    The 1st thing you should of mentioned is that a person should call their creditors & let them know about their finc’l situation. I’ve seen ads from major banks, dept stores, utility providers saying if you are having finc’l issues due to the corona virus call to see what options are available.

  3. Steve Klamm says:

    You don’t list anything for 401K’s, or other assets. Not everybody thinks about these with the penalty’s and fees.

  4. Dawn Gulik says:

    A word about internet…with so many schools e-learning, some internet providers are working with schools and families to provide internet service at a hugely reduced cost or even free. Always research your options.

  5. Suzanne says:

    Why do we have to pay taxes on our SS income? We already paid taxes on our income when we received our paychecks. This money was set aside for us to use later. It looks to me that we are being double taxed.

  6. Rosemary Freitas says:

    I have helped people reduce their hospital bills by as much as 80%-90%. Even if they own a home. People worry that they will be in deep trouble and suffer too much stress over medical bills. I assure you, medical establishments will negotiate with you rather than see you declare bankruptcy. For example, a bill of 7K is paid at rate of $5/month. A 40k bill totally wiped(because the hospital mismanaged the stay) A 40k bill wiped down to 5k. Think about how insurance companies (that you pay well) negotiate down the bills. You can do the same.


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