CFPB data shows consumers “struggling to pay” during the pandemic

Data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) can shed some light on just which financial issues consumers have been most affected by during the pandemic, offering clues on what kinds of help American need to get through the coming months.

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Gideon Weissman
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Author: Gideon Weissman

Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

(617) 747-4384

Started on staff: 2010
B.A., Cornell University

Gideon’s research and analysis focuses on renewable energy, consumer financial protection and antibiotic overuse in agribusiness. Gideon has authored more than a dozen reports on these and other issues, earning coverage in The New York Times, on CBS News and in other national media outlets. Gideon lives in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass., where he patronizes old haunts and tries to find blues jams to join on harmonica.

It’s no secret that many consumers are facing deep financial distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through September, only about half of the people who lost their jobs early in the pandemic had gone back to work. The $600 a week federal unemployment boost ended months ago. And critical policies like limits on debt collection and repossession have only been offered at the state level, leaving millions unprotected.

Data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) can shed some light on just which financial issues consumers have been most affected by during the pandemic, offering clues on what kinds of help American need to get through the coming months.

The CFPB’s Consumer Complaint Database, which contains nearly 2 million complaints about problems with financial products, gives consumers an option to publish the full story behind their complaint. These stories have personal information removed and are published as “consumer complaint narratives.”

To see which financial products consumers have been most affected by during the pandemic, I searched consumer complaint narratives from recent months for the following key terms: “coronavirus,” “CARES Act,” “COVID-19,” and “pandemic” (as well as common variations of those terms).1

An analysis of these complaints shows that the main financial problems consumers have faced during the pandemic relate to struggling to pay bills and fighting to obtain relief.

The Consumer Complaint Database organizes complaints by product (for example, credit card or auto loan), issue, and sub-issue. The top five issues for which the pandemic appears in consumer narratives all concern consumers’ struggles to pay their bills.

For example, in the “credit card” issue category “struggling to pay your bill,” 63% of consumer complaint narratives submitted from March through October mentioned the pandemic. And for the issues of struggling to pay for a mortgage, and struggling to pay for a vehicle, more than half of narratives mentioned the pandemic.

At the same time, 2020 has seen a sharp increase in the total number of complaints (including complaints without accompanying published narratives) for problems relating to difficulties paying credit card bills and auto loans -- increases of 57% and 17%, respectively, over 2019 levels.2 This may well be related to the fact that consumers have been given no federal pandemic relief, such as guaranteed access to forbearance or payment deferment, for auto loans or credit card debt.

Top 10 issues in CFPB complaint database ranked by percentage of consumer narratives mentioning the pandemic3

Product Issue Narratives mentioning pandemic Total narratives Percentage of narratives mentioning pandemic
Credit card or prepaid card Struggling to pay your bill 163 259 63%
Mortgage Struggling to pay mortgage 740 1,436 52%
Vehicle loan or lease Struggling to pay your loan 202 398 51%
Payday loan, title loan, or personal loan Struggling to pay your loan 93 236 39%
Student loan Struggling to repay your loan 80 247 32%
Mortgage Incorrect information on your report 58 200 29%
Credit card or prepaid card Fees or interest 332 1,208 27%
Credit card or prepaid card Closing your account 192 790 24%
Credit card or prepaid card Trouble using your card 119 507 23%
Payday loan, title loan, or personal loan Problem when making payments 31 136 23%

Grouping complaints by the Consumer Complaint Database’s sub-issue categories shows that consumers aren’t just struggling to pay their bills during the pandemic, they are also having problems getting the relief that they need.

In the sub-issue “denied request to lower payments” within the “vehicle loan or lease” product category, 67% of complaint narratives received since March mentioned the pandemic. Consumers reported similar problems finding relief paying for credit cards and student loans. More than 60% of complaint narratives mention the pandemic for the sub-issue categories of “credit card company won't work with you while you're going through financial hardship” and problems with student loans for “can't temporarily delay making payments.”

Top 10 sub-issues in CFPB complaint database ranked by percentage of consumer narratives mentioning the pandemic4

Product Issue Sub-issue Narratives mentioning pandemic Total narratives Percentage of narratives mentioning pandemic
Vehicle loan or lease Struggling to pay your loan Denied request to lower payments 144 216 67%
Credit card or prepaid card Struggling to pay your bill Credit card company won't work with you while you're going through financial hardship 156 243 64%
Student loan Struggling to repay your loan Can't temporarily delay making payments 40 66 61%
Vehicle loan or lease Struggling to pay your loan Lender trying to repossess or disable the vehicle 48 84 57%
Mortgage Struggling to pay mortgage N/A 740 1,436 52%
Payday loan, title loan, or personal loan Struggling to pay your loan N/A 93 236 39%
Student loan Dealing with your lender or servicer Problem with customer service 29 90 32%
Credit card or prepaid card Fees or interest Unexpected increase in interest rate 27 91 30%
Mortgage Incorrect information on your report N/A 58 200 29%
Credit card or prepaid card Trouble using your card Credit card company won't increase or decrease your credit limit 72 250 29%

CFPB complaints suggest that as consumers continue to struggle under the burden of lost jobs and lost income caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, too often they are not getting the help they need.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Guaranteeing consumers access to forbearance for all types of debts, halting debt collection, and banning repossessions and evictions would go a long way toward helping people stay on their feet as the pandemic drags on. Consumers also need the CFPB to get back to cracking down on rulebreakers, rather than sitting on the sidelines.

Letting Americans sink deeper into debt or lose their homes or vehicles during this time of crisis would be absurd — and would also make America’s recovery far harder than it needs to be.


  1. For March 1 through October 31 2020. You can perform similar searches and view narratives on the CFPB website.↩︎
  2. The total number of complaints for “struggling to pay your bill” for credit cards increased from 366 to 566, and the total number of complaints for “struggling to your loan” for auto loans increased from 700 to 819. As of 3 November 2020, not all October complaints have been published in the CFPB database, so the number of 2020 complaints will likely rise in the coming weeks.↩︎
  3. For issues with at least 50 total narratives.↩︎
  4. For sub-issues with at least 50 total narratives. ‘N/A’ indicates no sub-issue category available for given issue.↩︎
Gideon Weissman
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Author: Gideon Weissman

Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

(617) 747-4384

Started on staff: 2010
B.A., Cornell University

Gideon’s research and analysis focuses on renewable energy, consumer financial protection and antibiotic overuse in agribusiness. Gideon has authored more than a dozen reports on these and other issues, earning coverage in The New York Times, on CBS News and in other national media outlets. Gideon lives in his hometown of Cambridge, Mass., where he patronizes old haunts and tries to find blues jams to join on harmonica.