Become Debt-Free

A guide to resources that can help you pay bills now, from rent to health care

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About 52% of Americans still say that they're being financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, according to survey data from TransUnion. While some of those affected have been able to find new jobs or rely on unemployment benefits to see them through, 75% are worried about paying their bills.  

That may be especially true with Congress failing to pass any of the proposed additional relief packages over the summer. In the interim, the $600 enhanced weekly unemployment benefits expired and the $300 boost spurred by President Donald Trump's executive order only lasts six weeks

Although unemployment benefits have been trimmed, there are other programs still operating that can help Americans stay current on their bills and loans. Below, CNBC Make It rounded up a list of resources and information that may be helpful for those struggling financially right now. 

Housing 

A federal eviction moratorium put in place at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. expired at the end of July, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an eviction moratorium that runs through the end of the year. It applies to individuals expecting to earn less than $99,000 and couples expecting to earn less than $198,000 in 2020 who can demonstrate they cannot pay rent due to the coronavirus and that they already "used best efforts" to apply for aid. However, many of the details are still being ironed out.

Here are some resources to consider for renters: 

Here are some resources to consider for homeowners: 

  • First, figure out if your mortgage is federally backed, as that may entitle you to more protections. You can use tools developed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to find out.
  • If your mortgage is held by a private lender, here's a list of mortgage relief programs offered by 12 major banks, as of July 2020.
  • If you're struggling with your mortgage payments, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a Find a Counselor tool, which provides a list of counseling agencies that can help advise on loan terms, credit issues and foreclosure. 
  • The U.S. Department of Housing has a database of approved organizations that offer foreclosure avoidance counseling. 

Food 

About 10% of Americans, 22.3 million, reported they sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat within the past week, according to the Household Pulse Survey for the week ending August 31. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that up to 17 million children are living in households where they can't get enough food.

Utilities 

If you're worried about paying your utility bills, contact your provider. While some providers' Covid-19 specific programs ended in June, other companies extended their assistance. You may be able to defer utility bills through the assistance programs most companies offer year round, including major providers such as ConEd, Duke Energy, FirstEnergy and PSE&G

  • Call your provider directly to determine what options are available to you right now. Assistance varies by company. 
  • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is a federal program for low-income families that helps with energy bills. While income eligibility requirements vary by state, generally a four-person household earning less than $36,400 qualifies. You can call the National Energy Assistance Referral (NEAR) hotline toll-free at 1-866-674-6327 to get information on where to apply for LIHEAP.
  • UtilityBillAssistance.com provides a state-by-state breakdown of available grants, programs and even charities where you may be able to apply for payment assistance. 
  • If you're struggling to pay your phone bill, the Federal Communications Commission has a program called Lifeline that provides discounted landline or cell phone service to low-income families. 
  • The federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program can provide assistance with basic needs such as housing, food and utilities, as well as offer services focused on child care, job training and transportation. Each state runs its TANF program differently, but you can look up each program by state to determine what types of assistance are offered and if you qualify. 

Credit cards and loans 

Major banks, including Capital One, Chase, Citi and Wells Fargo, are encouraging any customers facing economic hardship to enroll in payment assistance programs. These are not automatic, so you will need to enroll each auto loan, personal loan or credit card that you want help with. 

  • In addition to suspending payments temporarily, you may be able to sign up for a hardship plan, which could mean lower interest rates or smaller fees and penalties for a time.
  • If your bank doesn't have a formal program, the National Consumer Law Center recommends sending hardship letters to lenders to see what your options are. The NCLC provides this sample hardship letter.

Student loans

The coronavirus relief package passed in March, known as the CARES Act, allowed federal student loan borrowers to temporarily suspend payments and dropped interest rates on federal loans to 0%. These protections were set to expire Sept. 30, but President Trump signed an executive order in August that extends the payment pause through January 2021. The CARES Act only provides payment suspension for federal loans owned by the Education Department. These protections do not apply to private loans. 

  • Through the end of the year, if you want to suspend your payments, make sure you turn off the autopay feature on your federal student loans. If you have lost your job or experienced a change in income, you may want to consider enrolling in or recertify your income-driven repayment plan.
  • To help enforce the protections granted under the CARES Act, the National Student Legal Defense Network created template letters you can send to your loan servicer if you want to continue paying your loans and have those payments applied to the principal and if you're seeking a refund of any payments you have made since March.  
  • If you're not sure if you have a federal student loan owned by the Education Department, you can look it up on the National Student Loan Data System website or by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID.
  • If you're a resident of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Virginia or Washington, you may be able to suspend private student loan payments. These states reached agreements with several of the largest private student loan servicers and are allowing borrowers to request a 90-day forbearance. You can apply for this forbearance by contacting your loan servicer. 
  • If you're not covered by any of these protections, you can reach out independently to your loan servicer to see if there's any assistance they can offer. Navient, for example, is offering short-term forbearance for at least a month for qualified borrowers who request it after July 1, 2020. 

Health care 

As many as 12 million Americans may have lost health insurance since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report published in August by the Economic Policy Institute. That's because many Americans get their health insurance through their employer, so high levels of unemployment are affecting access to health insurance. 

If you've lost your job and your health insurance, don't simply sign up for coverage offered under Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, better known as COBRA, without doing your homework. This can be an expensive option because it keeps you on the same plan you had when you were employed, but instead of your employer covering a portion of the cost, you're on the hook for the entire amount yourself.

  • Check out your state's health insurance marketplace for less expensive options. You have two months, 60 days, after you lose coverage to enroll in a marketplace plan. 
  • Depending on your situation and where you live, you may qualify for Medicaid. This is a federal program that provides health coverage for low-income families and children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with disabilities. 
  • There are also health centers around the country that offer low cost and no cost health care services. The Health Resources and Services Administration has a locator tool to help find a clinic in your area
  • If you don't need to see a doctor in person, several telemedicine services have been offering free health care during the pandemic. 
  • For those struggling to afford their prescription medications, PhRMA has a Medicine Assistance Tool that provides information about assistance programs. RxAssist.org also maintains a comprehensive directory of drug assistance programs.
  • Also check out Free Drug Card, which is a prescription assistance program that's accepted at most major pharmacies and can save you up to 75% on medication costs. 

Child care

For those facing unemployment, child care may not seem like an essential expense. But it may be difficult to return to work or find a new job without it. Many states and local municipalities offer subsidies and grants that can help families pay for child care. 

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

Don't miss: 26% of Americans have taken advantage of some type of payment deferral plan

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