What if I Can’t Pay My Rent?

Can't pay rent
Key Takeaways:
  • Paying ‌rent is a common financial problem, with more than 6 million Americans behind on their rent recently.
  • If you are having trouble paying your rent, check your lease and local tenant protection laws so you know your rights. Then, explore your options with your landlord.
  • You can seek various forms of financial help, from federal assistance to debt relief.

Are you having trouble paying your rent? 

You’re not alone. A Census Bureau survey found that over 6 million Americans were behind on rent.

There are a variety of reasons paying ‌rent is so hard. The one good thing about it being such a common problem is that multiple types of help are available. The important thing is to reach out and get help.

Why rent is a common problem

Why are more than 6 million Americans having trouble paying ‌rent?

Rent payments pose a unique financial challenge. For many households, rent is the most significant monthly payment they have to make. It’s also one of the most important. Putting a roof over your head is one of the most basic needs.

Unfortunately, too many people face the prospect of losing that shelter. The Census Bureau found that just over 1 in 3 Americans say they are very or somewhat likely to be evicted within the next two months. 

It’s hard enough to come up with the rent payment every month. What makes it worse is that it’s often a moving target. Rents are rising all the time. The Census Bureau survey found that 61% of renters had experienced a rent increase within the past twelve months. 

It can be tough to keep up with rent increases even under normal circumstances. It gets even more challenging when a financial setback occurs—as it often does.

Reasons for not being able to pay rent

Here are some common financial setbacks that can make it difficult to pay ‌rent:

Job loss

Even in a strong job market, unemployment is pretty common. Typically, close to 6 million people a month leave their jobs for one reason or another.

Most will find other work. However, this can take weeks or even months. Plus, once you start a new job, there’s often a wait before your first paycheck comes through. 

So, job losses are fairly routine, even at the best of times. They could become even more common if the economy weakens.

Unforeseen expenses

Who hasn’t had an unexpected expense come out of nowhere to take a bite out of their budget? 

Medical expenses are a common source of financial stress. Or your car breaks down and needs a pricey repair. The old vacuum might've finally given out and needs replacing. The list goes on and on.

People often don’t have enough cushion in their monthly budgets to take these expenses seriously. The money has to come from somewhere. Taking care of an immediate problem can leave you short of the cash you need for your next rent payment.

Too much debt

Growing debt payments can make it harder to pay ‌rent. American households are struggling with a record amount of debt. Credit card rates recently reached the highest level on record, making that debt more expensive.

Unexpected move

Moving can magnify your housing costs. A move might suddenly become necessary, whether it’s because of a divorce, other family reasons, or a job change. It can also be expensive.

Your new place is likely to require upfront payments. You may also have to pay to move. Plus, you may face double rent payments if your prior lease hasn’t expired.

So, moving can put you in a temporary squeeze that makes it harder to pay the rent. 

What to do when you cannot pay your rent

There are many good reasons for not being able to pay your rent. Even so, you can’t just ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Instead, start taking steps toward a workable solution.

To begin, you need to figure out how much leeway you have.

Review your lease

Read your lease terms carefully. Review what it says about when rent payments are due, whether there is any grace period, and when you will be subject to eviction.

Know your rights

Regardless of what your lease says, renters have certain legal rights. These rights vary from state to state, and there may even be laws specific to your town or city about when, why, and how a landlord may evict a tenant. 

Knowing what rights apply to you lets you figure out how much time you have to solve the problem. It also tells you what recourse you might have before the landlord can evict you.

Talk to your landlord

Finally, check if you can work something out with your landlord. Do this only after reviewing your lease and reviewing local eviction laws. That way, you’ll go into the discussion knowing your rights.

If you’ve been a good tenant and have previously kept up with the rent, you might get your landlord to give you extra time to pay or waive late fees. It also helps if you can demonstrate that the problem is temporary. Try to commit to when the landlord can expect payment. 

If you and your landlord reach an understanding, it’s a good idea to confirm that in writing. 

Find a financial solution

Whether it’s because of your legal rights or as part of an understanding with your landlord, you might be able to buy some extra time. At some point, you’ll need to come up with a financial solution that will allow you to resume rent payments.

It may be as simple as looking at your income and discovering when you expect to have money coming in. If the problem is temporary, it should be easy to figure out when you’ll be able to come up with the rent.

However, a lot of times, these problems aren’t that easy. Fortunately, there are other types of help you can seek. 

Look for financial assistance

Some federal programs implemented during the COVID pandemic have expired. However, parts of the Treasury Department’s Emergency Rental Assistance program will remain in place until September 30, 2025.

The ERA program helps low-income renters with current and back rent, energy costs, and other essential housing expenses. 

Though this is a federal program, the money is distributed through state and local agencies. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a tool that helps you find a program in your area simply by entering the name of your state. 

Consider your options-including debt relief

Generally speaking, difficulties paying rent are part of broader financial hardships. You may need some extra help in figuring out how to make ends meet from month to month or deal with debts that have piled up. 

Financial counseling can help you with key financial concepts like budgeting and payment management. 

Debt relief is a stronger form of financial help that can reduce your debts so your finances are easier to handle going forward. There aren't any quick fixes, but if you're struggling with debt, it might be worth looking into debt relief as an option.