While your first priority after experiencing a life-altering tragedy may be to rebuild, ignoring your debts can hamper your recovery
If you are rebuilding your home or life after a hurricane, wildfire or other natural disaster, the last thing you want to think about is whether you paid your credit card bill on time.
You must, though. “A consumer’s delinquent payments could ruin their credit score at a time when they need access to credit the most,” says Melinda Opperman, executive vice president at Springboard Nonprofit Consumer Management Inc.
While assessing property damage, calling insurance companies and applying for government disaster assistance may be top of mind, here are the steps you should be taking simultaneously to keep your old debts from destroying your financial future.
1. Get a copy of your credit report.
One of the first things you should do after a disaster is get a copy of your credit report, says Tom Quinn, vice president of business development at myFICO.com.
If the disaster causes financial difficulties, your credit score may plunge. By having a copy of the credit report before it reflects any financial impact resulting from the disaster, you can later make the case to a lender or someone else checking your credit – such as a potential landlord – that the disaster, not financial mismanagement, caused your low credit score, Quinn says.
2. Create a post-disaster budget.
While you’re waiting for a check from your insurance company, take a realistic look at your savings and income. Then look at what you need for the basics such as food and shelter.
If your house is destroyed, be sure to cut off costly services, such as electricity, cable or Wi-Fi. Your post-disaster budget should be bare-bones. Cut luxuries until you can get back on your feet, Opperman says.
Once you’ve established a post-disaster budget, you’ll know how much you have left to pay on your credit cards and other debts.
However, even if you have enough in savings to pay off your credit card, you might want to budget minimum payments for a while to conserve cash until your life becomes stable again, Opperman says.
3. Contact your creditors.
Once you know how much money you’re working with, it’s time to reach out to your creditors.
Sometimes when disasters occur, credit card companies will email their customers to let them know they’re aware of the disaster and will waive late fees that month for those who are affected. But don’t let the communication stop there. Credit card issuers will often do far more for you if they know about your specific situation, says Natalie Brown, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo.
“Based on the customer’s individual situation, those options could include various short- and long-term payment assistance programs or even temporary payment moratoriums,” Brown says.
When communicating with your creditors, look on a statement or the back of your credit card to get the number and call the creditors directly rather than responding to an email. That way you protect yourself from scammers who may be fraudulently posing as lenders to collect information and possibly steal the identities of disaster victims.
4. Document all conversations.
When contacting your creditors, be prepared to tell them how the disaster affected you, how long you think your ability to pay will be affected and how much you can afford to put toward your bill.
Keep a detailed record of the conversation, knowing who you talked to, what they promised and when the phone call took place. To be on the safe side, when talking to a customer service representative, “say, ‘I’m going to wait on the phone a moment while you make your notes,'” Opperman says.
If a creditor agrees to a major change to the credit agreement, such as a three-month suspension of payments, ask for something in writing.
5. Explain the disaster’s effects on your credit report.
As you’re recovering financially from a natural disaster, you can add a 100-word statement to your credit report explaining that you experienced a natural disaster and it affected your credit.
While this won’t affect your credit score, it lets any creditors who pull your report know what’s going on and conveys that you’re a responsible consumer working to bring any delinquent accounts current. Some creditors may consider that in any lending decisions.
6. Look for long-term recovery funding.
Your insurance policies and government assistance may help you to rebuild your home or possibly replace your car, but you may have to seek additional resources to cover other debt obligations, particularly if your job was affected by the disaster.
DisasterAssistance.gov provides links to short-term and long-term disaster assistance programs that may be able to help, or you can try raising funds through social lending/fundraising sites, such as GoFundMe or Fundly.