April 29, 2020
No matter where you live in the United States, there’s a good chance that the coronavirus pandemic has affected your finances in some way. According to an April 2020 study by the credit reporting agency TransUnion, 61% of U.S. consumers have been financially impacted by the global health crisis. The average affected consumer anticipates that he or she is just a little over 6 weeks away from not being able to pay bills or loans.
On a positive note, the federal and numerous state governments have taken steps to support those who have lost their jobs or are earning less during the pandemic. Many companies are also offering help to those who are struggling financially.
Read on to discover some strategies and resources that you may be able to use if you can’t afford to pay your bills due to the coronavirus crisis.
Reach Out to Your Utility Companies
If your income has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the first steps you should take is to switch to a temporary crisis budget. An essentials-only budget will likely require some spending cuts, perhaps even where your utility services are concerned. For example, you might consider canceling non-essential services (like cable or satellite) or lowering your current mobile phone plan to a cheaper option.
Certain utilities, however, fall under the essentials category. But if you’re having money problems, paying for even the basics could be a challenge. Thankfully, many utility providers and telecommunications companies are offering temporary relief to customers impacted by the coronavirus crisis.
In some states including Indiana, Texas, and Connecticut, the special accommodations are mandatory. Elsewhere, companies may be willingly offering aid and adjusting policies on their own. In either case, you’ll need to proactively reach out to your utility company to see if any hardship relief is available to you.
A few examples of well-known utility providers offering COVID-19 relief to customers include:
- Comcast , the internet and mobile services provider, is offering help to customers in several ways. First, the company will postpone the disconnection of service and waive late fees for customers who request hardship assistance. Xfinity customers can also take advantage of unlimited data for 60 days at no additional cost. Some customers may be eligible for 60 days of free internet service. Finally, the company is offering free Xfinity WiFi hotspot access to the public, even non-Xfinity subscribers.
- Duke Energy , one of the nation’s largest electric power holding companies, has promised not to disconnect service for non-payment during the pandemic.
- Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) , another large electricity provider, has placed a temporary hold on utility shut-offs for non-payment. The California-based company has also informed customers who have had their incomes affected by COVID-19 that they may be eligible for a reduction in their energy bill.
Keep in mind that even if your utility provider does offer you a period of reprieve, there may be a catch. Your bill likely won’t be forgiven. Therefore, it’s wise to pay as much as you can afford each month. Doing so may help you avoid running up a high balance that you’ll have to deal with in the future.
Contact Your Creditors and Lenders
Aside from utility providers, other companies you owe money to each month may also have special hardship programs available during the COVID-19 crisis. Again, some payment relief is mandated by federal and state governments while other hardship options are being offered on a voluntary basis.
With federal student loans, for example, the federal government has given many borrowers an automatic six-month break from both payments and interest, valid until September 30, 2020. The CARES Act, which President Trump signed into law on March 27, 2020, also provides mortgage relief for borrowers with federally-backed home loans.
Your bank or credit union may offer forbearance, deferment, or other forms of financial assistance on loans you have with the institution. Many credit card issuers have amended their policies or may be offering financial hardship assistance as well.
Even if you’re financially overwhelmed, don’t skip a payment without reaching out to your creditor or lender to see if it’s willing to help. You might be pleasantly surprised. In many cases, there may even be relief options available that could help you protect your credit score until you’re back on your feet financially.
Just remember to get the full details of any relief options upfront, including what happens when the payment accommodation ends. Find out if you’ll need to make up missed payments immediately or over time. Ask how the creditor will report your account to the credit bureaus in the meantime. You should fully understand the terms and conditions, and get them in writing before you agree to a special payment arrangement.
Consider a Low-Rate Consolidation Loan
Taking out a loan due to financial hardship can be a risky undertaking. You don’t want to add to your financial problems by taking on more debt. However, if you have a good credit score, you might be able to qualify for a debt consolidation loan that could lower your monthly payments and give you some immediate financial relief.
Imagine the following scenario. You currently owe $10,000 in credit card debt. The interest rate on your credit cards is 17%, a little above the national average according to the Federal Reserve. Because you have good credit, you qualify for a 48-month debt consolidation loan with an interest rate of 8%.
Here’s a look at your potential savings.
As you can see, the amount of debt remained the same whether it was carried on credit cards or transferred to a new personal loan. But because of the lower interest rate on the new consolidation loan, the monthly payment dropped by $156 per month. You would also save over $3,500 in interest overall.
The example above is hypothetical. Yet the fact remains that if you can qualify for a personal loan with a lower interest rate than you’re paying on your current debt, you should be able to save money—overall and perhaps each month. A balance transfer credit card might offer you the same opportunity on a short-term basis.
If you’re having trouble paying your current bills, lowering your monthly payment obligations could be a big win for your budget. But there is a pitfall that you will need to avoid if you opt to consolidate your debt. Avoid running up new balances on your newly consolidated credit cards. If you turn around and charge new debt on your credit cards, you risk digging a bigger financial hole that you’ll have to climb out of later.
Talk to a Credit Counselor
Depending on your situation, a debt consolidation loan or balance transfer card may not be a good fit. When you have a poor credit rating, for example, you might have trouble qualifying for a personal loan with a low enough interest rate for consolidation to be beneficial.
If consolidation isn’t an option and your creditors and utility providers don’t offer enough hardship relief to help you make ends meet, you may want to consider another approach. A non-profit credit counselor could potentially have options available to help you.
Credit counselors offer assistance in a variety of ways. They may be able to offer you advice on budgeting and credit management. In some cases, a credit counselor may be able to help you with a form of debt consolidation known as a debt management program, or DMP.
Under a DMP, a credit counseling company can often help you lower your interest rates, pay fewer fees, and pay off certain debts faster (typically within three to five years). When you agree to a DMP, you make a single monthly payment to your credit counseling company each month. The company, in turn, breaks up that payment and distributes it to the creditors included in your DMP. This may lower your monthly payment obligation.
Despite the potential benefits of debt management plans, it’s important to also consider their drawbacks. First, DMPs usually aren’t free. Many credit counseling companies (even the non-profit varieties) will charge up to $50 per month to manage a DMP on your behalf. Furthermore, you can only include certain types of unsecured debt in a DMP, such as credit cards. If you owe medical bills, student loan debt, or have tax obligations, a DMP won’t help you in those areas.
If you think talking to a credit counselor may be a good fit for you, it’s best to do some research first. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends contacting one of the following organizations to locate a credit counseling company that may be able to help you:
- Financial Counseling Association of America
- National Foundation for Credit Counseling
Once you’ve found a credit counseling agency you would like to work with, the CFPB recommends reviewing the company’s standing with your state attorney general and state consumer protection agency before you proceed.
The options above may provide you with some solutions to help survive the immediate financial crisis at hand. But if your health allows you to do so, your best bet will be to find ways to replace or boost your income as soon as possible.
Filing for expanded unemployment benefits may help you get by until you can get back to work. You can also make plans to use your stimulus check wisely to get the most mileage possible out of those extra funds.
© 2020 Forbes Media LLC. All Rights Reserved
This Forbes article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.