As the coronavirus pandemic widens in the U.S., leading to layoffs and a sharp reduction in consumer spending, Americans are increasingly worried about the financial impact. Almost 3 in 10 consumers say they believe they’ll have trouble paying their credit card bills because of the crisis, according to WalletHub. 

But there are options other than missing a payment, which risks a ding to your credit report or could put your house at risk. Instead, consumers who are facing a cash crunch should pick up the phone and call their bank, according to consumer advocates and banking experts. 

Already, credit card companies are preparing for some customers to struggle with their bills. Earlier this month, Citi said it would offer credit line increases and collection forbearance programs for credit card customers impacted by the pandemic. And Apple recently emailed customers to say they could skip their March payment without interest charges if needed. 

When contacting your lender, there’s a general format to follow, experts say.

“It’s important that your plan is truthful and realistic. You don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver,” notes Patrick Boyaggi, co-founder and CEO of Own Up, a technology company that helps homebuyers find mortgages. 

Here’s how that script could sound: "I’m a customer who is on unpaid furlough because the restaurant where I work was shut last week due to the coronavirus. Because I have no income at the moment, I’m calling to ask if you can delay my March payment by a month, without penalties or interest. In the past, I’ve been an excellent customer and paid my bills on time. I believe I can resume payment next month because I’m looking for additional work."

Don’t hold off

Don’t hesitate to make the call, urges Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst at CompareCards. Generally, lenders aren’t going to waive fees or give you extra time to pay without a direct request from a customer. 

“Issuers have hardship programs that kick into gear when disaster strikes, whether a hurricane or wildfire or a virus outbreak,” Schulz says. “Issuers are usually willing to at least listen to folks who find themselves in real financial trouble.”

Capital One said it’s encouraging customers facing a financial crunch to “reach out so we can discuss and help find a solution.” Likewise, JPMorgan Chase told USA TODAY that its customer service specialists have been helping customers when they call by “waiving fees, extending payment due dates for cards, auto loans and mortgages, or increasing credit lines for consumer and small business customers.”

There’s no downside to reaching out to a lender, notes Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at LendingTree. “The lender would rather work with you than have a non-performing loan,” he notes. 

On the mortgage side, it’s important to know the difference between your loan originator and servicer, Boyaggi points out. “The majority of lenders sell the loans they originate in the secondary market along with the right to service that loan,” he says. “In this scenario, you will want to contact the company that sends your monthly mortgage payment.”

Aimee Picchi is a business journalist whose work appears in publications including USA TODAY, CBS News and Consumer Reports. She previously spent almost a decade covering tech and media for Bloomberg News. You can follow her on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.