Amid a deep recession and record-high unemployment, many of us could use a break on our debts and monthly bills. But you need to be aware of the potential pitfalls when trying to get concessions from your creditors and service providers. Here’s what you need to know…

Credit Card Bills

Credit card issuers have expanded programs that help cardholders facing ­financial difficulties this year—but these programs have limitations that could trip you up.

“Skip a payment” really means “postpone a minimum payment while interest accrues.” The debt relief your card issuer is most likely to offer is the right to skip a monthly payment—or even multiple payments—without penalty. But this may just temporarily save you from making the card’s minimum payment. In most cases, interest charges continue to accrue, so you’ll end up paying more, not less. 

What to do: Try to negotiate for more meaningful concessions. Card ­issuers sometimes will lower a struggling cardholder’s interest rate for up to 12 months…and/or waive the annual fee. Present the issuer with a clear picture of your financial challenges to improve your odds. 

Balance-transfer offers—which had provided an effective way to cut the cost of credit card debt—have largely disappeared. In normal times, people can transfer balances to cards that offer low or even 0% interest rates, possibly for a year or longer. But issuers seeking to reduce their risks have virtually eliminated attractive ­balance-transfer offers. 

What to do: Call each of your credit card issuers, and ask whether you can get a low rate if you transfer a balance from another card. Most will say no, but the odds are better than with issuers that don’t know you. Also ask whether there is a “personal loan program.” Some issuers allow cardholders to convert a portion of their credit line to a personal loan with fixed monthly payments and rates significantly lower than on most credit card debt—often 7% to 10%. Examples: Citi Flex Loan…My Chase Loan/My Chase Plan…American ­Express Pay It Plan It.

Ted Rossman is a credit card industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

Internet, Cable/Satellite-TV and Cellular Bills

There often are ways to slash these bills, but consumers must jump through some hoops—and at press time, some consumer-protection programs established this year to help consumers were scheduled to expire in June.

The Internet, cable or satellite company customer service rep you reach first probably lacks the power to help you. He/she might offer a modest discount or free Showtime or HBO for a few months but not much more. 

What to do: Tell the phone representative that you want to disconnect your service…or choose the “cancel service” option from the automated phone system. This should get your call routed to a customer-retention specialist or higher-level employee who is authorized to offer much better deals.

Explain that you’re going to take advantage of a competing company’s new-customer offer because you need to cut costs—new customers typically pay much lower rates than existing customers. Be polite and friendly.

Exception: If your provider is the only one serving your area, look up its new-customer deals and ask the retention specialist to give you one of those deals. That can at least serve as a starting point for negotiating. If your provider won’t budge, consider switching to a cheaper plan with that provider—that might mean fewer cable channels or slower Internet speeds.

The unlimited cellular data plan that you have may not be the best deal for you. Cellular companies market their unlimited plans heavily, but those often cost $50 a month or more. 

What to do: Check how much cellular data you actually are using these days. Then call your service provider to find out whether it offers a lower-cost prepaid data plan that is appropriate for your needs. Examples: AT&T and T-Mobile recently offered prepaid plans with unlimited talk and text and 2GB of data for just $15 a month, much cheaper than their unlimited plans. Or shop around for the best deal including from lesser-known cellular providers, which often charge much less than the big names. 

Ben Kurland is cofounder of BillFixers, a Nashville-based company that helps its clients negotiate lower bills with service providers. BillFixers.com

Mortgage and Rent Payments

The help that mortgage servicers and landlords offer homeowners who are in financial need often isn’t enough—but savvy consumers might be able to get more. 

The hardship assistance your mortgage servicer offers might include terrible repayment terms. If you tell your mortgage servicer that you’re experiencing financial problems—and your mortgage is backed by a federal agency, such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac—the servicer likely will offer to postpone one or more mortgage payments for up to 180 days, which later can be extended to a full year. These “forbearance” programs aren’t new, but new rules this year make it easier to take advantage—homeowners no longer have to provide proof of hardship, for example, they just have to say that the pandemic is causing them financial problems. If your mortgage is not backed by a federal agency, your lender might have a similar program. The catch: At the end of a mortgage forbearance period, you might be asked to make up for all the delayed payments in a single balloon payment, with interest. 

What to do: Ask your servicer whether there are repayment options other than balloon payments. It usually is possible to tack the missed payments onto the end of the mortgage or spread them out over an extended period. Or if your financial problems seem likely to last longer than a year, ask your loan servicer whether you qualify for “loan modification,” which could permanently lower your monthly payments by extending the length of your loan and/or lowering your interest rate.

Keith Gumbinger is vice president of New Jersey–based HSH Associates, which publishes consumer loan information. HSH.com

As a renter with a signed lease, it might seem that your landlord holds all the cards. However, with the economy struggling, many landlords are worried about whether they’ll be able to find tenants to fill vacancies. That might encourage your landlord to make some concessions to keep existing tenants. 

What to do: Call your landlord, and explain the financial challenges you’re facing. If your lease is supposed to end in the next few months, mention this and add that listings for similar properties suggest that rents are falling in the area, if this is true. Say that you would prefer not to move when your lease is up, but that your current financial situation means that you must try to contain your housing expenses. Then ask your landlord, “What options do you have available to help me out?” Most landlords will at least let tenants defer paying rent for a few months…and some will offer rent reductions or other ­concessions. 

Ramit Sethi is author of the best-selling book, I Will Teach You to Be Rich, and the personal-­finance blog IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com/blog. 

Car Loans and Leases

Nearly all automakers and major banks have a payment-deferment program that lets customers with financial problems delay car loan/lease payments. Many of these programs have been expanded this year—but their help often is too short-term. 

Deferment programs generally just push back a few payments. If you contact your lender and say that you’re struggling, the lender likely will let you delay loan payments—but probably not for more than two to four monthly payments, which then would be tacked onto the end of your loan. Typically, interest will accrue on the deferred payments.

What to do: If your financial problems are unlikely to be resolved within a few months, ask your lender to provide longer-term assistance. Mention that your only option might be to surrender the car to the lender if it can’t find a way to make the loan more affordable. Lenders have good reason to be flexible with struggling borrowers now—used-car values have declined, so lenders know they’re unlikely to get great prices when they sell cars that they have repossessed. 

Lease-extension programs could have a hidden cost. Many automakers are offering to defer a few payments and extend leases by a few months. But in most states, vehicle registration fees and excise taxes are paid annually, so you probably would have to pay a full year’s registration to extend the lease for just a few months. 

What to do: Check how much state registrations, fees and taxes would add to the cost of a lease extension before agreeing to one. In some states, these charges could be well into the hundreds of dollars. Some automakers also might offer the option of extending the lease for a full year. 

Jessica Caldwell is executive director of insights at Edmunds.com, an automotive information website.