Late Credit Card Payment? Here’s What to Do

A woman wearing a red shirt uses her laptop while holding her credit card.

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I'm usually pretty good about taking care of my bills on time. But a few months ago, I paid for something with a credit card I don't use that frequently in order to take advantage of a rewards opportunity. Because that credit card isn't in my normal rotation of bills, it slipped my mind and I ended up with a late credit card payment.

All of a sudden, I was slapped with a $27 late payment fee. That hurt, but I was more worried about what the late credit card payment would do to my credit scores. I knew that a late payment stays on your credit report for seven years and can drag your scores down—and the more recent the blemish, the bigger the hit your scores take. I was worried. Because I hope to buy a home soon, I want to keep my credit in as pristine shape as possible.

If you're in a similar situation, don't panic. Read on for how to lessen the blow from a late credit card payment.

Pay the Bill Immediately

As soon as you realize that you missed a payment, go online or get on the phone with your credit card issuer and pay it off ASAP. You'll want to keep interest charges from accruing, but taking care of the payment quickly can also help save your credit scores. That's because your credit card issuer will not report a late payment to the credit bureaus unless you've missed a full billing cycle, which is typically 30 days. So if your bill was due on the 15th and you pay it on the 18th, your credit report will not be dinged.

Negotiate a Fee Waiver

Of course, even if the late payment isn't reported to the credit bureaus, you will still face other negative consequences, like the $27 late fee that was charged to my account. You could also trigger a penalty interest rate, which is when a creditor raises your interest rate as a penalty for late payments. But that doesn't mean you should simply accept your fate.

It's always worth it to call your card issuer and request waiver of the late fee. Many issuers are flexible about this, especially if you haven't been late in the past. Unsure of what to say? Go in with a script ready:

"I missed a payment on my card recently, but I'm up to date now. Would you consider waiving the late fee? As you can see, I'm normally a good customer who always pays my bills on time." This strategy worked for me, and the $27 fee was credited back to me.

If you get resistance from a customer service representative, ask to speak with a supervisor. Generally, though, most credit card issuers are willing to waive fees once as a courtesy. Just don't make it a habit.

If your missed payment did trigger a penalty interest rate, that might be more difficult to get waived, but it's worth asking. If that gets a no, be sure to find out if there's a way you can reset to your original rate by demonstrating a pattern of on-time payments for a period of time, like six months to a year. If they refuse, you can always transfer any existing balance to a new credit card with a lower interest rate. (You can compare balance transfer credit cards in Experian's credit card marketplace.)

Automate Your Payments

After missing that payment, I set up autopay to cover the minimum payment due on all my credit cards. That way, if I do forget a bill, I won't be faced with penalties. I generally set my automatic payment for five days before the bill is due. Because I pay close attention to what's leaving my checking account, I know that seeing a minimum payment withdrawal will remind me to pay off the balance by the due date.

If you don't want to enroll in autopay, take advantage of customizable text and email alerts that remind you of your balance and due date. I've found that text alerts work best for me, as my emails often get lost in the shuffle.

Don't Worry—Your Score Will Rebound!

Finally, don't stress too much about one missed payment. Credit scores are designed to detect patterns of behavior, not to ding you egregiously if you have the occasional slip-up. It's true that one 30-day late payment will cause your credit scores to dip, but the fact is that it likely won't have a long-lasting negative impact. And remember, if you pay your bill before it's 30 days late, your credit report won't be dinged.

If you do miss a full billing cycle, the late payment will remain on your credit reports for seven years, but the impact to your credit scores will diminish over time. The key to recovery is to bring your account up to date as soon as possible, and to continue using credit wisely and making your payments on time. That will help you improve your credit scores.

Finally, be sure to check your FICO® Score from Experian data and review the individual factors that are affecting your credit scores.

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