April 19, 2021

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Should I Make Partial Payments on My Debt?

5 min read

Millions of people nationwide are struggling to keep up with their bills. If you’re one of them, you may be considering making partial payments, thinking that some money is better than none, even if it’s less than the minimum due. While partial payments can help reduce the interest that accrues on your debt, lenders typically don’t count them as on-time payments and may consider your account to be in default. If you make partial payments, here’s what you can expect to happen—and what you can do instead. 

Key Takeaways

  • Partial payments may not satisfy your creditors’ minimum payment requirements.
  • Your accounts can be reported as past due to the credit bureaus, causing a drop in your credit score.
  • Rather than make partial payments, you may be able to negotiate an alternative plan with your creditor.

What Happens When You Make Only Partial Payments

In most cases, paying less than the minimum amount due on a credit card or loan won’t satisfy your creditors, and they will still consider it a missed payment. Until you pay the remaining amount—plus late fees—you could face serious consequences. Because your payment history makes up 35% of your FICO credit score, your score may drop.

Creditors can also seek other means to get the money you owe them. Here’s what happens with different forms of debt when you make only partial payments. 

Credit Cards

Unless you’ve come to a prior agreement with the credit card company, partial payments won’t satisfy your account’s minimum payment requirements. Even if you pay a little money, your account will become delinquent, and the credit card company will report the late payments to the credit bureaus. They may also charge you late fees, send your debt to a collection agency, and even sue you if you don’t catch up.

Auto Loans

What happens to your auto loan depends on your relationship with the lender. If you’ve never missed a payment before, it may be willing to accept a partial payment for now. However, your loan is typically in default once you are 30 days past due. When that happens, the lender can repossess your vehicle. 

If you don’t settle the account, the lender can sell your vehicle at auction. In many cases, you’ll still owe money on the loan even after your car is repossessed and sold. 

Mortgages

If you can’t afford your full mortgage payments and only pay a reduced amount, your lender may start the foreclosure process. That typically doesn’t begin until 120 days after you get behind on your mortgage, so you can fix the situation if you’re able to pay the amount that’s past due before the lender forecloses.  

Student Loans

If you have student loans, making partial payments won’t stop your account from becoming delinquent or going into default. 

With federal loans, your loans enter default once you miss your full payments for 270 days. The default is reported to the credit bureaus, the government can garnish your wages, and you may even lose your tax refund. (Note that these rules have been suspended temporarily as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most federal student loans were automatically placed in an administrative forbearance, allowing borrowers to stop making their monthly loan payments through at least Sept. 30, 2021.)

Private student loans work differently from federal loans, with the rules largely at the discretion of the lender. Loans typically go into default as soon as you miss a single payment or only pay a portion of the amount that’s owed. Once you’re in default, private lenders can send your debt to collections and sue you for what you owe. 

What to Do if You Can’t Afford Your Payments

If you can’t afford to make full payments, these steps can help keep your accounts from becoming delinquent or entering default: 

1. Contact the Lender

As soon as you realize you’ll miss a payment, reach out to your creditors. Some mortgage, car loan, and student loan lenders, as well as credit card companies, offer financial hardship programs. You may be able to enter into forbearance and postpone your payments for a few months or qualify for temporary interest-only payments. 

For example, Discover has a payment assistance program for its credit card holders and personal loan borrowers. If you lose your job, experience an illness, or have another financial emergency, the company can help you identify different payment options or postpone your payments.

2. Ask About Alternative Payment Plans

Even if you don’t qualify for a hardship program, it’s worth asking your creditors if they offer any alternative payment plans that would make it easier to keep up with your bills. 

For example, federal student loan borrowers can apply for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. When you enroll in an IDR plan, your loan term is extended and your monthly payment is set at a percentage of your discretionary income. Some borrowers even qualify for $0 payments, so they pay nothing and stay current on their loans.

In effect, IDR plans allow you to make partial payments, but you must be approved for the plan before you start making them. 

3. Consolidate Your Debt

When your monthly payments are unaffordably high, debt consolidation can give you some relief. What you do is take out a personal loan at a bank or other reputable lender and use it to pay off your credit cards and other debts. Now you have just one loan to pay back, typically at a lower interest rate. You may also be able to extend the term of your loan, further reducing your monthly costs (but possibly increasing the amount you’ll pay in the long run because of the added interest).

If your credit score has dropped because of recent financial issues, adding a cosigner to your application can boost your chances of qualifying for a loan at a reasonable rate. Investopedia publishes regularly updated lists of the best debt consolidation loans.

Important

As a last resort, consider prioritizing secured debt (like a car loan) over unsecured debt (like most credit cards).

4. Be Strategic

If you run out of other options, you’ll need to prioritize which payments to make, both for debts and other expenses. Generally, you should pay for the essentials first, such as your rent or mortgage, utility bills, and food. Next, pay any secured debts, such as an auto loan, since you can lose the assets that serve as collateral for them if you fall behind. Student loans and most credit cards are unsecured debts and also tend to have the longest periods before entering default, so it makes sense to pay them last if you are forced to choose.