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On-time payments are the biggest factor affecting your credit score, so missing a payment can sting. If you have otherwise spotless credit, a payment that's more than 30 days past due can knock as many as 100 points off your credit score. If your score is already low, it won’t hurt it as much but will still do damage.
But sometimes it's impossible to pay on time, because of job loss or another financial crisis. If you're in a tight spot, look into help and strategies for when you can't pay all your bills. If you've lost your job or missed work because of the coronavirus pandemic, your credit card issuers and lenders likely have programs to help. You may get extra time to pay, a higher credit limit or forbearance.
Here's what you need to know about how late payments work and how to address them.
When is a payment marked late on credit reports?
By federal law, a late payment cannot be reported to the credit reporting bureaus until it is at least 30 days past due. An overlooked bill won't hurt your credit as long as you pay before the 30-day mark, although you may have to pay a late fee.
What's on your credit reports is important because that's the data used in calculating your credit scores. Since payment history is the biggest element in what makes up your credit scores, going 30 days or more past due can really hurt.
Note: If you got payment modifications from creditors because of the pandemic, you have some protection thanks to the CARES Act enacted in late March. Accounts that were being paid on time will continue to be reported as "current" while the payment modification is in place, as long as you pay according to the new agreement. Accounts that were delinquent can continue to be reported that way, however, unless you manage to pay them up to current status.
How do I know there's a late payment on my credit report?
Keep an eye on your account activity with a personal finance website. If you have an account with payment modifications, check to make sure they're being reported correctly. With NerdWallet, you can check your TransUnion credit report and your credit score whenever you like.
If you see a late payment pop up, check all three of your credit reports by using AnnualCreditReport.com. You're entitled to at least one free copy from each credit bureau every 12 months.
What can I do if I slip up?
If you're less than 30 days late: You probably were charged a late payment fee and perhaps a higher APR, but your credit won't suffer as long as you pay before the 30-day mark. If you’ve never or rarely been late, call the creditor and ask if it will forgive the fee.
If you're more than 30 days late: Bring your account current as soon as possible. Thirty days late is bad, but it’s not as bad as 60, which is not as bad as 90. The sooner you can catch up, the less damage to your credit. When your account is current, you can write a goodwill letter asking the creditor to remove the negative mark.
If it's an error: Credit reports sometimes include mistakes, and errors could increase as many consumers arrange payment accommodations. If you spot incorrect information, dispute the error and ask the credit bureau or the creditor involved to take it off your credit reports.
How long does a late payment stay on my credit report?
It can stay on your credit report for seven years after the account was initially reported late. However, the impact on your credit fades with time.
Will a partial payment keep me from being reported late?
Unfortunately, no. It can feel like a good-faith effort to send at least something when you can’t afford the minimum payment or a regular bill. But partial payments won't let you avoid being reported late and perhaps sent to collections.
How can I avoid late payments?
Focus on preventing problems with these strategies:
If you expect trouble meeting your financial obligations because of the pandemic, pursue the relief being offered by financial institutions such as card issuers, mortgage lenders, student loan servicers and banks.
Many credit card issuers allow you to select payment due dates. You may want to stagger due dates to work with your paydays or bunch them up to help you remember.
Set up text alerts or calendar reminders about bills due in a few days. If you need more than one, set up multiple electronic nudges.
If you can do so without risking overdrafts, consider using automatic payments to pay at least the minimum as soon as a statement issues. You can go online later to pay more, but this way your account is never late.
Consider making payments on your credit cards throughout the month. Paying down the balance every week or so protects your credit two ways: You've already paid by the time the due date hits. And keeping your balance low relative to your credit limit improves your credit utilization, which is the second-biggest influence on your score.