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Hurting without the $600 jobless benefit? Money moves to make now if you've been laid off or furloughed

Key Points
  • Without the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, the average American will see a 65% drop in unemployment benefits, according to a CNBC analysis of U.S. Labor Department data.
  • In addition to taking advantage of all state-level unemployment and relief programs, the jobless should reach out to lenders and creditors to find out what kind of Covid-19 relief they are offering.
  • Health insurance is a must, but many other non-essential spending items can be cut from a monthly budget.
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How to make ends meet without this CARES Act benefit

Many Americans are hurting now that the $600 weekly boost to jobless benefits has ended. There were about 30 million Americans collecting on that extra money to supplement their state unemployment benefits, until that federal program expired at the end of last month. While negotiations between the White House and Democrats could lead to a partial or full reinstatement of the benefit, the situation on Capitol Hill remains in flux and the additional benefits have expired, at least for now. Unemployed workers who have been furloughed or laid off during the Covid-19 crisis and their families are wondering what to do in the interim.

Rethinking how to pay household bills and replenish what may be your greatest financial asset — your income — are likely top priorities. Yet experts say there are a few other moves you should consider making right away.

Apply for unemployment benefits and other relief programs 

The state you live in and the amount of money you made over the past year will determine how much you get in unemployment benefits. The amount of severance you may have received and other sources of income could be factors as well.

Without the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, the average American will see a 65% drop in unemployment benefits to about $321 a week on average, according to a CNBC analysis of U.S. Labor Department data.

State minimum and maximum amounts without the additional $600 a week, under the CARES Act, range from a low of $5 a week in Hawaii to $1,234 in Massachusetts.

Even if it's not as much as it would have been before July 31, every bit helps. Also, keep in mind, "there will likely be a lag time until you receive your first check, so it's best to file immediately," said author and certified financial planner Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation. CareerOneStop.org is a good resource for unemployment updates and has links to state unemployment insurance websites.

Contact lenders and creditors about payment assistance

Reach out to your lenders and creditors to find out what kind of Covid-19 relief programs they are offering. Under the CARES Act, a mortgage forbearance program may allow you to delay your mortgage payments for at three months and potentially up to a year. 

You can delay your monthly payments on federally-insured mortgages for up to one year and stop federal student loan payments, and pay no interest, until September 30, 2020. Many auto lenders and credit card companies will let you extend or defer payments for one month or more without incurring late fees. But you have to ask.

If you're in a position to pay, you should. If not, then focus on paying your most vital expenses, like food and health care.
Bruce McClary
National Foundation for Credit Counseling

"Be clear with lenders and creditors about whether you will continue to accrue interest during deferment," said Bruce McClary of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "If you're in a position to pay, you should. If not, then focus on paying your most vital expenses, like food and health care."

Make sure you have health insurance

If you are furloughed, your employer generally keeps up with your health benefits while you're not working, although the extent can vary depending on the rules in your state. You are also eligible to file for unemployment without it affecting your health benefits. "If you will still be covered, confirm how you will pay your share since this usually comes out of your paycheck but you won't be receiving one," said certified financial planner Roger Ma, founder of lifelaidout.com.

In most cases, benefits consultants say, you'll have to pay as you go. Some employers may allow the employee to catch up with their contributions once the furlough ends. Either way, you will still be responsible for your out-of-pocket costs if you need medical care.

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If you were laid off and lost your job, you've likely lost your health insurance too. You can still keep your employer-sponsored coverage through a federal program called COBRA. COBRA lets you keep that coverage for up to 18 months. Also, your spouse and dependents in some cases can stay covered for up to three years. The catch is that you have to pay for COBRA yourself, which can cost considerably more than you were paying as an employee.

"Contact the benefits department at your previous employer and get the facts regarding the cost of COBRA and the process for making the switch," said Schwab-Pomerantz. "Then do some comparison-shopping."

You may be able to find a lower-cost high-deductible health insurance policy through your state or the federal Affordable Care Act exchange at healthcare.gov.

If your spouse or partner has a workplace health plan, you may consider switching to that insurance. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the IRS will permit employers to let employees drop their health insurance if they have another option, without waiting until the usual fall enrollment period. Workers can also add family members to their current plan or switch to a different health insurance plan. However, employees can only take advantage of these options if their employer allows it.

Bottom line: "Don't be tempted to go without insurance," Schwab-Pomerantz said. "You don't want an illness or injury to completely ruin your financial planning."

Compile your financial report card

Ma, who is also author of the new book "Work Your Money, Not Your Life," says compiling your "financial report card" entails figuring out your net worth, monthly living expenses and credit score. He offers free money templates on his book website to help you get started.

"With a reduction in income, it's more important than ever to get a handle on your expenses," Schwab-Pomerantz said. "You can't determine how much you need to survive until you know how much you have, what you owe and how much you spend."

Group your living expenses into two buckets — "need to have" and "nice to have," Ma said, and "temporarily stop as many of the 'nice to have' expenses as possible."

You may be able to lower some of those "need to have" expenses, too.

"Focus particularly on essentials — your mortgage, utilities, phone, internet, groceries, health insurance premiums, car payments — anything you need to cover to stay afloat and move forward," Schwab-Pomerantz said.

You may be able to negotiate your rent, internet and phone plans, downgrade cable plans and cancel some subscriptions.

EmirMemedovski

Your financial report card also should include a snapshot of your savings. Continue to save a little, if you can, said certified financial planner Lee Baker of Apex Financial Services. "If you find yourself in a situation to take some of these forbearances (delaying mortgage payments, etc.) but never got around to creating that 'rainy day' fund, skip a payment and use those dollars for savings or to eliminate other (higher-interest) debt," said Baker, who is also a member of the CNBC Advisor Council.

Avoid raiding your 401(k) retirement account

Furloughed workers can retain their employer-sponsored 401(k) accounts, although they won't be able to contribute to them while they are not being paid. Laid-off workers have several choices about what to do with their workplace retirement account. When you leave a company you can keep the 401(k) with your employer plan; roll the old 401(k) over to a new employer; roll over the 401(k) to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA); or, withdraw or cash out the 401(k).

Ideally, this is long-term savings, not for emergencies, so you really don't want to tap it or cash out completely. You may want to dip into taxable accounts first. To figure out your "financial runway," Ma says, you should "look at the value of your cash and taxable investments and divide that by your monthly living expenses. That's your runway — how many months you'd be able to fund your life without a salary.

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Yet many unemployed workers have no runway. They're stuck on the tarmac. Dipping into their 401(k) is their last or only resort. "If you find yourself in a situation where you need to tap your retirement savings, this is a fortunate time to do it with a waiver of a 10% penalty and three years to pay taxes on it," Baker said.

Under the CARES Act, you can take a withdrawal of up to $100,000 from your retirement savings, including 401(k)s or individual retirement accounts, without the typical penalty. These "coronavirus-related distributions" are only available this year. You can pay taxes on the money you take out over a period of three years or pay no tax if you pay it all back. This federal law also allows you to borrow up to $100,000 from your 401(k) and delay payment for up to one year.

Here's the catch: Your employer has to implement these provisions. Not all employers are doing so. And, if you borrow from your 401(k) and permanently lose your job, your entire loan balance is generally due within 60 days.

So again, consider this a last resort. "While present circumstances may be difficult, I'd counsel anyone to avoid jeopardizing their future retirement unless absolutely necessary," Schwab-Pomerantz said. "You may not appreciate the full consequences until much later."

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.