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Debt piling up during the coronavirus outbreak? Here's how to manage it

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It's never ideal to build up debt, but it may be necessary these days.

The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted the economy. Businesses have shuttered and workers have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs. On April 2, the Labor Department reported 6.6 million people filed for unemployment the week prior — bringing the total to 10 million in just two weeks.

If you are in a tough spot and find yourself accumulating debt, don't beat yourself up right now, said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com

"It may be OK to carry debt for a while if you have limited other options," he said.

You can also take comfort in the fact that you aren't alone.

A recent CreditCards.com survey found that 59% of credit card holders entered the coronavirus pandemic with credit card debt. Most of them had been carrying the debt for a least a year.

That said, you should try to manage your bills the best you can so that you can recover once the pandemic has passed.

Make a list

First, make a list of your current debt in order of the most important to least. Your mortgage may be at the top of the list, while credit cards may be a bit farther down.

"It's really important to get an accounting of what debt you have, what each of the lenders are going to be willing to do for you or work with you, and then devise a game plan on how you are going to attack those different debts," said certified financial planner Lawrence Sprung, president of New York-based Mitlin Financial.

Contact creditors

Reach out to creditors see what options exist for delaying or cutting back on payments.

The CARES Act mandated that all borrowers with government-backed mortgages be allowed to delay payments for up to 12 months. 

Already, requests to delay mortgage payments grew by 1,270% between the week of March 2 and March 16. They grew another 1,896% between the week of March 16 and March 30, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

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Banks are also offering breaks on credit card payments, Rossman noted.

For instance, Apple Card users can skip April payments as they were able to in March, by signing up for the card's customer assistance program.

"On a case-by-case basis, just about every bank is offering some type of relief," Rossman said. "Everything is negotiable and it doesn't hurt to ask."

Many have their COVID-19 policies up on their websites. There are long wait times if you call by phone, so consider sending a text or email or doing an online chat with a representative, Rossman said.  

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However, if you have a relationship with someone at the bank, that's always the best route, Sprung said.

"Those who have communication with people — and not just emailing and sending text messages — are having more success because relationships do matter," he said.

Also, make sure there aren't any "unintended consequences" that may hurt you financially down the road. Be sure to find out how the missed payments will be handled, when you'll need to make it up and how, Sprung said. 

Balance transfers

Rossman usually advises people to transfer debt from high-interest-rate cards to one with 0% interest for a set amount of time.

Things may be different this time around.

"That is still great advice if you can get one," he said. "Lenders have gotten a lot tighter with their underwriting standards, especially on credit cards because it is unsecured debt — and it is also the first bill to go unpaid."

You probably need a credit score of over 700 in order to get a desirable balance transfer card, and you'll also need a steady income, Rossman said.

Don't use stimulus check to pay off cards

You are going to need cash on hand, so when you get your stimulus check from the government, don't be in a rush to pay off your credit cards, Rossman said.

"Then it is gone and you can't get it back," he said.

"I would rather ask my card issuer for a break or potentially carry some debt for a time than part with limited savings."

Through the CARES Act, eligible taxpayers will receive up to $1,200 for individuals or $2,400 for married couples. Parents will also get $500 for each qualifying child.

Consider credit counseling

Another option is to try finding a reputable, nonprofit credit counselor who can help you come up with a plan to consolidate payments and lower your rates.

This route may be better for those who are adding onto existing debt, Sprung said. Those who are dealing with new debt because of the coronavirus situation may be better off advocating on their own behalf, he said.

You also usually have to close the accounts you are paying off, so either hold off on entering a program or keep one card open to continue to use, Rossman suggested. 

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If you move forward, do your due diligence. Make sure the credit counselor is accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

However, beware of debt settlement companies, especially those who tell you to stop paying your bills for several months, Rossman said. The companies then try to use it as leverage to settle for less.

"Those late payments cripple your credit score and there is no guarantee it will work at the end of the day," he warned.

When it is all over

Once the pandemic passes and the economy starts to improve, take inventory of your outstanding debt.

"Devise a solid budget and game plan to start chipping away at those various debts," Sprung said.

You can also look to consolidate your credit.

Banks may start easing restrictions and you can apply for a 0% interest rate on a balance transfer card, Rossman said. Or, shop around at credit unions and banks for personal loans that may have a reasonable rate.

"These avenues will open up again once the recovery progresses," he said.

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