The coronavirus has dealt a financial blow to millions of Americans and now April’s bills are coming due.
The good news is there is help available. Reach out immediately to your mortgage lender, student loan servicer or utility provider to see what’s available. Other assistance, such as stimulus checks or unemployment benefits, will take more time. The bottom line is that you need to take action to seek certain forms of relief.
Here is help navigating the biggest issues:
Numerous mortgage lenders have said they are willing to work with distressed borrowers, including potentially suspending or reducing payments. Contact them immediately to find out about your options.
If you hold a mortgage backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac - about half of all mortgage holders do - there is help. The mortgage buyers have suspended all foreclosures and evictions for homes owned by their companies. They’ve also expanded their forbearance program, which could suspend payments for up to a year. Ask the company you make your payments to if you hold a Fannie or Freddie loan.
The federal government has also halted foreclosures and evictions for mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration.
Renters’ fate depends on where they live and who they rent from. Reach out to your landlord or property management company to ask for leniency. Several cities, such as Seattle, San Francisco and Boston, have halted evictions due to the coronavirus.
Gas, electric, and other utility providers often have assistance programs for customers who cannot pay in full. There are also government and charitable programs to help low-income or struggling households. Ask the utility provider for referrals or call 2-1-1 for help finding local social service programs or charities. Several cities and regions have opted to halt utility shutoffs.
COBRA allows laid off workers at large employers to pay to continue their health insurance coverage, but it can be prohibitively expensive. Being laid off also qualifies as a life event for most insurers, which means someone could get on a partner’s insurance outside of the normal open enrollment period.
Due to the coronavirus, a handful of states have reopened their individual insurance exchanges to people who didn’t find coverage during the regular sign-up windows that started last fall. People who have lost coverage through their employer are allowed to shop on the exchanges outside the regular enrollment period.
Some households may qualify for their state’s Medicaid program too.
If you are struggling to pay your credit card, auto loan or other debt, reach out to your lender. They’ve been instructed by federal regulators to work with borrowers impacted by the virus. Banks have said they are willing to make a variety of arrangements such as waiving fees, temporarily lowering interest rates or making other payment arrangements.
Federal loan borrowers can now seek an emergency administrative forbearance, which would allow them to postpone payments for up to 60 days. Borrowers must contact a servicer to apply.
The federal government also lowered the interest rate on all federally held student loans to 0%. However, that will not lower the monthly payment; instead it will apply the payment entirely to the principle balance.
The government has also temporarily halted collections and wage garnishment for borrowers who’ve fallen behind on their federal student loans. It has instructed private collection agencies to follow suit.
If you have private student loans, contact your servicer for their repayment options.
It’s time to cut any non-essential expenses,. That means ending your gym membership and trimming phone or internet plans. Daycare or monthly commuting passes might be paused or lowered during unemployment.
Consider extra work if you can to bring in income. If you still come up short, stay calm.
“Companies are rolling out programs to help with missed or late payments,” said Kristin Pugh, a certified financial planner. “If you can’t make a payment or can only make a partial payment you need to be proactive and reach out.”
FPA is offering free financial guidance to Americans in need. A nonprofit credit counseling agency can also provide low cost help managing debt and creating a household budget.
If necessary, consider seeking aid for basic needs such as food and shelter. Or consider local food banks, which have more leniency in who they can help. United Way and 2-1-1 can also help you find social service support you may qualify for in your area.
Yes, the government is delivering one-time payments to adults but those are still weeks away.
Evelyn Zohlen, a certified financial planner and chair of the Financial Planning Association, urges people to use that money for needs not wants. If you are not in need, consider dropping that money into an emergency savings fund as anyone’s economic picture can change quickly.
If you are laid off or your income has been reduced, apply for unemployment as soon as possible.
Congress is beefing up what states can offer - including allowing part-time, self-employed and gig economy workers who typically weren’t covered to seek benefits. People who are quarantined, left work due to risk of exposure or to care for a family member can also apply.
Applications can typically take two to three weeks to process, thought the surge in applications could extend that time frame.
AP Business Reporter Tom Murphy contributed to this report from Indianapolis.
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