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Covid-19 stress is driving the most vulnerable Americans to the brink. These 4 steps can help you cope

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The Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected low- and middle-income Americans as well as communities of color, exacerbating inequality and leading to increased financial stress.

Those hit hardest by the pandemic are now feeling the most anxiety about their personal finances. Nearly 75% of Americans with annual household incomes of less than $50,000 said they were at least somewhat concerned about their financial situation right now, compared to 63% with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more, according to a September survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education.

This marks a change over the last few months — in April, a similar survey from NEFE showed that financial stress was consistent for those on opposite ends of the spectrum. Now, the burden has shifted to lower income and minority families, whose wages and safety nets have been stretched further as the Covid-19 crisis continues.

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Even families that had an emergency cushion are probably seeing those funds getting low now, said Billy Hensley, PhD, president and CEO of NEFE.

"It's harder to make up for that the less you make," he said. "It's very troubling, and it will just continue the longer this goes on."

To make it through the pandemic, 74% of Americans have adjusted their personal finances, according to the NEFE survey, yet changes haven't been equal across the board. Eighty-six percent of Black and 74% of Hispanic people surveyed had made a financial adjustment, compared to 70% of White respondents.

As the pandemic continues, it may be harder for the most vulnerable families to further cut back expenses, especially as they draw down any emergency savings. Still, there are actions that people can take to improve their financial standing, regardless of socioeconomic status.

1. Negotiate bills if possible

If it's not possible to cut back on essential expenses, there are other ways to lower monthly bills or at least gain some flexibility in payment, according to certified financial planner Lee Baker, owner and president of Apex Financial Services in Atlanta.

He recommends calling your bank and other creditors to see if there are any programs you could benefit from during the pandemic. Some credit card issues are offering flexible payments, or waiving late fees and interest because of the Covid-19 crisis. Borrowers may also be able to take advantage of mortgage forbearance programs that may lower or suspend monthly payments.

"We've been encouraging people to not leave any stones unturned — be proactive early on," said Baker, a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.

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2. Find a pro bono financial planner

If you feel overwhelmed by money and don't know where to begin, there are organizations that offer pro bono financial planning for those in need.

The Financial Planning Association offers free counseling for people who need emergency help due to Covid-19, and has advisors taking pro bono cases in many states.

If you feel that you've run out of choices, "definitely reach out to a pro bono planner," Dennis Moore, a CFP and chief operating officer of Dallas-based Quest Capital Management. "They'll help find ways to see what options are out there for them."

That could include anything from helping you organize your finances, making a plan to manage debt or assessing where to pull money from savings or retirement, said Moore.

In addition, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling has a number of resources to help people navigate money and housing during the pandemic, and the Foundation for Financial Planning has a Covid-19 resource center that includes free nonprofit financial experts to contact for advice.

3. Take advantage of free or low-cost resources

Increasing your financial literacy can help alleviate stress around money and help you better set yourself up for the future. Many organizations offer free or low-cost education sessions, said Hensley from NEFE.

NEFE has a free online program called Smart about Money that helps people learn the basics, according to Hensley. There are also local programs available across the country through United Way. And, AARP offers online education sessions for seniors, as well.

We've been encouraging people to not leave any stones unturned — be proactive early on
Lee Baker
owner and president of Apex Financial Services

4.  Start building a plan for the future

Unfortunately, many families will continue to struggle financially through the coronavirus pandemic and recession, said Hensley. But eventually the crisis will subside and the economy will stabilize, putting many Americans back in better standing.

"It's hard to focus on tips when you're in a freefall," said Hensley. "But once you recover, create a plan for that, set goals."

He also said to accept that it may take time to rebuild your finances such as an emergency fund, especially if you had to draw from it during the pandemic.

"Don't beat yourself up if it's going to take a long time," he said. Don't be "discouraged by the fact that you had it, and you used it because you needed it."

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