As Congress and the White House continue to negotiate the details of a second stimulus package, millions of Americans who relied on the now-expired $600-per-week enhanced unemployment benefits are facing tough decisions about how to prioritize their bills. The extra unemployment money helped many avoid defaulting on housing payments, utilities, credit cards and more.
When you're worried about how to pay your bills, many financial experts recommend taking a hard look at your budget and being clear on what expenses are most crucial. The National Consumer Law Center categorizes credit card debt as one of the lowest priority bills, falling behind rent, utilities and auto payments. First and foremost, you need to focus on meeting your essential needs like having a place to live, food to eat and some form of transportation.
If you can't pay your credit card balance, there's help available. Many credit card issuers are offering assistance programs that include benefits like temporarily pausing payments and/or interest through deferment or forbearance, lowering interest rates, forgiving minimum payments and more. Call your card issuer or visit their website to learn more about what help is available.
"It's a little bit different than what it would be if coronavirus wasn't going on," Brenton D. Harrison, a financial advisor with Henderson Financial Group tells CNBC Select. Qualifying for a relief program might not be as hard now as it was in the past. But to get the best results, Harrison recommends having a letter from your employer on hand, or a copy of the notice that your extra unemployment benefits are ending.
You should have this ready to go before you even call your card issuer.
"As long as you have the documentation and fit the parameters of your card issuer's program, you are going to be approved," says Harrison. However, you may need to request to speak to a supervisor, or someone at a higher level, who can sign off on such an accommodation.
But remember: Not every credit card relief program is the same. "One card company might say they are going to freeze interest, while another might lower your minimum payment. Credit card companies are not required to give you the same kind of relief," says Harrison.
After you've been approved for a credit card relief program through your issuer, or a continuation of an existing forbearance or deferment program, Harrison encourages people to stay vigilant.
"Ask the credit card company to send a letter verifying that it is going to offer you relief," he advises. "Another department may report a payment as late if wires get crossed."
You want to avoid getting dinged for a missed payment because of a miscommunication or administrative error. Ask the customer service representative to put a note in your file and email you written confirmation with the details of your relief program.
Then, monitor your credit report to make sure you are not penalized. "Turn on notifications for changes in your credit file," Harrison says. You can use a free service, such as CreditWise® from Capital One or Experian free credit monitoring. Paid services, like IdentityForce® UltraSecure and UltraSecure+Credit come with extra features like social media monitoring and score tracking so you can compare your credit score over time.
To learn more about IdentityForce®, visit their website or call 855-979-1118.