I Can't Pay My Bills! What Do I Do Now?
Times Are Tough
Let's face it -- this economy is rough. Despite what major media outlets say about the unemployment rates going down and the constant creation of more jobs, the reality can be quite a bit bleaker than that.
Most of those jobs are part-time, there's never enough hours to go around, and the majority of the time you're making minimum wage when you do work. We all know that part-time pay doesn't always pay the bills and if it does? You're probably eating ramen noodles and saltines every night just to keep the lights on and a roof over your head.
Even for the people who have good paying jobs, there's always the possibility that the unthinkable can happen. Your company might up and move out of the country, your position may be gotten rid of, or your hours could be cut way down if the company isn't performing as well as they'd like. There's also the unfortunate possibility of illness or accident.
No matter which way you slice it, it's likely that at some point you're going to hit that brick wall of being unable to pay your bills. I'm not talking about a Netflix subscription, or your daily coffee fix either. I mean the REAL bills, like your rent or your electricity or even your food budget. You can live without watching the latest Marvel series, but you can't live without a bloody roof over your head or heat in the winter.
Credit cards are also not on my agenda for this post, even though they are pretty important if you have them. That's something you'll have to work out with the companies themselves, honestly. Though, I don't recommend just letting them slide, as this can seriously screw up your credit rating and make everything else a nightmare to deal with. Most card companies have some kind of hardship program and should be more than willing to work with you.
I'm also not going to insult you by saying to simply 'cut out all the things you don't really need' -- if you're having trouble paying your rent, I should think at this point you've already done that or are about to, anyway.
Besides, I hate it when someone giving 'get out of debt' advice tells me that cutting out my Starbucks fix will solve all of my money problems. It's like, 'Girl, the only time I can even AFFORD Starbucks is when I have a gift card!'. So annoying.
Now, onto what you can do when you've sat down, gone over your budgets and your bills, and realized that you can't even pay Sandy McLandlord and Randy McLectric, let alone eat.
Keep Calm And Screw Your Head On Straight
The worst thing you can do at a time like this is sit there and work yourself into a frothing, full-on panic mode.
Yeah, I'll admit, it's pretty scary thinking that you might get kicked out or get your lights turned off. It's okay to have a brief moment of 'Oh $@#$#@', but then you need to calm yourself right down. Panicking isn't going to pay your bills, it's only going to make you frazzled and disoriented.
What you need right now is a 'plan of attack', if you will, and for that you need your head to be completely straight and focused. You will get past this, as long as you take the proper care to map out the steps you need to take, and you retain the ability to think outside of the box when you need to.
Get On That Phone
As much as you might hate dealing with customer service reps over the phone, this step is critical.
As soon as you know you're going to have trouble making all of your ends meet, you need to start calling your various bill companies. By letting them know what you're going through, you're showing that you still want to pay them, you just don't have the means. Often, in this case, they will be happy to try and work something out with you. This could mean a lower monthly payment or split bills that you can catch up at a later date when things are looking up.
On the other hand, if you just sit and do nothing, then when they don't get paid they're more than likely just going to shut your service off and label you as a freeloading wanker who doesn't want to pay their bills. Not only will this make it difficult to deal with them in the future, but it's also quite possible that will affect your credit score as well.
Check Your State's Resources
Now, keep in mind that this will vary from state to state, and there may not always be the kind of help available that you really need. Sometimes, if there is, you have to go through so much to get that help that it's just not bloody worth it in the end.
That being said, in some cases, you can find state, city, and local programs that can help you make rent or utility payments when your money situation is less than ideal. You will generally have to provide proof that you truly need help, such as rental agreements, utility bills, and proof of work history showing that you aren't making enough money. This is the government we're talking about here, they're going to want everything, and they'll make you jump through hoops to get it.
The best place to start would be the website of your state, city, or county, or all of the above. Even if they don't list their own resources for this kind of help, they may have lists of other agencies or entities where you might have better luck.
If you can't find anything there, then your next best bet is a good chunk of time spent on google. You'll want to do specific searches for the exact bill you need help with and your zip code. You may also have to reword things a bit, to get the results you want. Also, don't be afraid to click on results that don't perfectly match your search criteria. You may just get lucky and find a result that has better resources than an official site or result.
If you do find places where you can get this kind of help, make sure you learn their requirements and follow them to the letter. If you're unsure of anything at all, don't hesitate to call and make sure you have everything perfectly clarified.
By being fully prepared, not only are you reducing the time you'll have to take in the application process, but you're showing that you've got your stuff together and you're willing to make whatever effort it takes to get this help. After all, this is serious business. If you don't act like you think it is, then why should they help you?
Don't Forget Your Local Churches
What, churches? Yes. Despite the bad rep TV ministries, preachers, and churches have gotten, this can be an unexpected resource when you're struggling financially.
I know that some churches don't offer much help, can have a bit of a cold attitude towards outsiders and can even be downright scary at times. This can be even more daunting if you're not of the church's particular faith. Trust me, I know.
The thing is, there are quite a few churches around that offer at least some help, which at times can be better than nothing at all. Then there are amazingly awesome churches that help in every way they can, from clothes and food to furniture and appliances, and sometimes even running, working vehicles.
You may have to visit several churches in your area to find out which ones will be able to help you, but it can be the difference between sinking and swimming when you're struggling to make ends meet.
Consider Food Shelters or Pantries
Where you come from dictates what you call them, but any way you look at it, they're places that you can pick up free food so that you don't end up starving. I'm used to the term 'pantries', so that's what I'll be using.
Now, I know a lot of people cringe at the thought of visiting a food pantry. In a way, there's somewhat of a good reason for that. The food is not always exactly the best thing you could be eating, for one. Actually, it's often incredibly cheap bargain food or donated items that no one really wants to eat. It can sometimes be hard to get meat and fresh produce, or anything other than canned green beans and junk snacks and pastries. What is it with the always giving of the bloody pastries? I digress.
Yes, I have used food pantries before, many times, so I know exactly how frustrating and tricky it can be to rely on them. In fact, I will be writing a later hub on how to 'food pantry', as it were, and I'll link it once it's finished.
The point is, though, when your budget is strained to the max, food is often the thing that gets cut first. Which sucks, in a way, because we need food to survive, but that's how it goes. While food pantries may not be the ideal choice, they can help bolster your food budget, and they will keep you from starving. With any luck, you won't be forced to visit them for long.
Even if you do, it's important to keep the right attitude about it. You're not some lazy failure who can't even afford to feed themselves, you're a survivor who's doing what they have to do to stay alive. You know what else? If you're taking the initiative to go, you're nailing it. You're handling your business, and that's what matters.
Get Busy with the Freebies
This may sound weird but stick with me on this.
No matter what you need to do, try looking for a free or lowest possible cost option for it. This won't apply to everyone, and that's okay. I understand what it's like not to just be able to 'do whatever thing' some random person unhelpfully suggests as a fix-all for a problem.
But let's use the internet, for example. If you need constant access because you work from home, this may not work for you, but then again, who knows. You also may not have transportation to leave your house, and that's understandable too, I've been there as well. Or, you may only have a desktop to access the internet with -- try lugging that to a coffee shop!
The point is, though, there ARE places where you can use free WiFi to get essential computing tasks done, if you need to and have the resources, time, and ability. A local library, for instance, might be a good place to use the free internet to do some studying or side work, given the quiet environment. In some cases, they may even have computers that you can use, but that would be at your own risk in some cases. That also depends on how many other people are using them. But, if you need to do a little job hunting, online learning, government assistance work, or filling out and printing of forms, it could be a viable option.
The free options may not always be ideal, but they can help you get through tough times when you're in a pinch.
Make Friends and Family Your Last Resort
You may be thinking, 'Well that's what they're there for, right?'. Eh, not so much, really. Some people may be lucky enough to have friends and family who will help them out of anything, while others are not. For example, in my case, I was better off trying to eat my shoes, rather than ask anyone in my family for help.
It's not just crappy dynamics, though. Maybe they're financially no better off then you are, and just hide it better. If they can barely help themselves, do you want to put that kind of strain on them by having them help you out too?
If you must go to your family or friends, try to bring something to the table with you. A barter system, or something that mutually benefits both of you, might help you both in the long run. Maybe there's something they're struggling with that you can provide help for, who knows?
If they're truly someone you care about, you don't want to see them struggling, either. It's entirely possible that you can pool your meager resources together, and find sources of help that neither one of you might have thought of or had access to alone.
Even if you're lucky enough to have someone that will just lend you money or pay your bills without any of that, it's best to use that resource as an absolute last option. Not only can it put a strain on your relationship, but in some cases, it can become too much of a crutch.
Consider Sideline Work
I'm putting this last, because it's more of a long-term kind of solution, rather than 'pay your bills right this instant'. It is worth mentioning, however, and that's why it's here.
I'll be completely honest with you -- finding the right side gigs that work for you is going be tedious, frustrating, and you're going to probably end up with more than a few failures along the way. Also, unless you get really lucky or just hustle so much that you never sleep, you'll never get rich, and you probably won't be able to replace your 'day job'. However, it's not really meant to.
Side gigs are meant to be just that -- gigs that are on the side, after all. The reason why they're on this list though is the flexibility they can offer you if you find some that fit your schedule and capabilities.
If the reason why you're struggling is because you're not getting enough hours, then you probably already want to work more, anyway. You may even be looking for another part-time job to fill the gap. That can take a long time, however, and there's no reason why you can't find some side projects to work on while you wait. It can help keep at least a little money flowing, and sometimes your first job's schedule can make it very hard to find a second job, especially if you work in retail or food service.
Even if you only make enough to cover transportation and a few toiletries, that's still one less concern you have to worry about. You can also build this up over time, and if you balance it right, you can get to the point where your bills are paid and you're eating somewhat decently as well.
If you've got the downtime, why not make it work for you?
Keep Your Chin Up
The most important thing to remember is: Don't let it overwhelm you. Yes, it's frustrating and scary and stressful, but you can't let it weigh you down so much that you come to a complete standstill. You'll never get anything done that way, and things will never get better.
Because that's the biggest thing -- it will get better. As long as you don't give up, and you keep looking until you've hit every brick wall, eventually you'll find an open door and a way through this mess.
Sometimes, the sad fact is that you can't get help from some people until you can prove that you've literally tried every single available avenue, and you've gotten nowhere. It's horrible to say it, but it's true.
The good thing is, you'll know you've done everything in your power to make it right. Just because you've failed, doesn't mean you're a failure. It just means that wasn't the right option for you, or sometimes that someone else failed you, even though you tried your hardest.
Remember: You can do this. Once you're through this crisis, learn from what went wrong, and work to make sure it doesn't happen again. If it does, you'll know exactly what you need to do.