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Whoever said “nothing in life comes free” didn’t take into account government programs that help people pay for things like college, day care and a new home. It certainly doesn’t hurt to explore your options.
Free money from the government
Free money from the government took on a new meaning in 2020 and 2021, with the issuance of significant COVID relief. While much of the pandemic-related relief has ended for now, there are other day-to-day government programs available to those in need. But unlike the stimulus checks that were issued automatically during COVID, you'll have to seek out and apply for these financial boosts.
Most of these programs are funded by taxes, so technically you pay something, but it's as close as you’ll get to finding free money from the government.
1. Get help with utility bills
Need help paying your heating or phone bill? These programs may be able to help:
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helps low-income households cover heating and cooling costs. Grants are issued via states, which receive funding from the Department of Health and Human Services. Each state sets its own eligibility requirements, including income levels.
The Lifeline program offers discounted phone or internet service. You must meet certain eligibility requirements.
2. Find money for child care
Day care is a major expense for many families. Annual costs for infant care range from just shy of $5,000 in Mississippi to more than $22,600 in Washington, D.C., according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on low- and middle-income workers.
The Child Care and Development Fund can help ease the burden for low-income families. Administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the fund gives states, territories and tribes money to distribute to families to help pay for child care. Grants are income-based and typically cover care for children under 13. Find the Child Care and Development Fund contact for your state.
3. Recover unclaimed money
This isn’t so much free money as it is money owed to you. It could be a long-forgotten deposit paid to a utility company, a lost savings bond, unclaimed life insurance benefits or an uncashed paycheck.
These unclaimed funds are turned over to the state when the owner can’t be located, often due to a clerical error or companies having an old address on file. Visit unclaimed.org, a site affiliated with the National Association of State Treasurers, to find out if you have money waiting to be claimed.
During the 2020 fiscal year, more than $2.8 billion in previously unclaimed property was returned to owners, with an average claim payment of about $1,600.
4. Get down payment assistance
You want to buy a home but can’t afford a down payment. Enter state-based down payment assistance. These grants and loans help you cover the upfront costs of purchasing a home.
In Nevada, for example, prospective homeowners who qualify can pay a fee and receive a grant of up to 5% of their home loan value to put toward a down payment and closing costs. Help isn’t reserved for low-income borrowers. For government loans, Nevada’s grant program is available to those with an annual income below $105,000. See if you qualify.
See NerdWallet's guide to find down payment assistance programs in your state.
5. Find tax credits for health insurance
Individuals and families who buy medical coverage through the government's health insurance marketplace (HealthCare.gov) may qualify for a credit toward their insurance premiums. The premium tax credit can be paid directly to your insurance provider, lowering your monthly payments.
6. Apply for college grants
College grants, like the federal Pell Grant, can make it easier to pay for college. Students who are eligible for the Pell Grant could get up to $6,495 for the 2022-23 award year. The exact amount awarded is based on factors that include financial need, the cost of attendance and enrollment status. Students can apply for the Pell Grant by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The application is also used to qualify for many state and institutional grants and scholarships.
Other federal grants for college include:
The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant.
The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant.
Watch out for scams
While there are ways to get free money from the government, there are also grant scams that claim to give you free money from the government in hopes of stealing from you. Don’t be fooled. The government rarely reaches out to people with offers of free money, and when it does, it’s never via social media.