Smart Money Podcast: Free Health Insurance and Finding Scholarships

Liz Weston, Sean PylesMay 10, 2021

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode starts with a discussion about a provision in the American Rescue Plan that qualifies millions of Americans for free or lower cost health insurance.

Then we pivot to this week’s question from Brittany in Oregon. They asked:

“My questions revolve around my college because I feel lost at the moment. I am currently in my final year for my BA in Library Science and have been trying to figure out if there is some way to help with the blow of student debt before I graduate.

"My questions are: One, where do I start looking for scholarships? Two, how do I know what is a scam and what is real? Three, are there advisors aside from my school that I could contact? Four, how come I am not qualified for many of the ones I have found? Thank you so much, Brittany."

Check out this episode on any of these platforms:

Need-to-Knows for 2021 College Grads
Check out NerdWallet and Inceptia’s guide to navigating money and careers after college.

Our take

On the subject of health insurance, if you receive any unemployment benefits in 2021, you qualify for a zero-premium silver plan with the maximum cost-sharing reductions through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. And regardless of whether you receive unemployment, you may also qualify for expanded subsidies. To see how much you’re likely to pay for health insurance, use this calculator from KFF, the healthcare think tank formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation.

When it comes to finding scholarships and making higher education more affordable, get ready to do some research. Financial scholarships are generally awarded based on financial need and merit. Cast a wide net when applying for scholarships. The more scholarships you apply for, the greater your chance of receiving one. You may also want to look into niche scholarships that pertain to your academic interests, personal attributes or other interests, like volunteer work.

Know how to spot scholarship scams, too. Scammers may use pressure tactics to push you into giving personal or financial information. They may also guarantee you’ll receive a scholarship if you pay a fee, or offer to submit your FAFSA for a processing fee. Report scammers to the FTC.

Look into other options for making higher education more affordable, beyond scholarships. You may qualify for work-study or grants. In general, tap all options for free aid before applying for federal loans and private loans. And be sure to submit the FAFSA to get the ball rolling.

Our tips

  • Leave no rock unturned when looking for scholarships. The more scholarships you apply for, the greater your chances are of receiving one.

  • But also focus your applications. You may be more likely to win a scholarship that’s specific to your niche.

  • Know how to spot scams. Common red flags are pressure tactics or requests for your bank or credit card information.

More about health insurance and finding scholarships on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Liz Weston.

Sean Pyles: And I'm Sean Pyles. To have your money questions answered on a future episode, turn to the Nerds. Call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD, or email us at [email protected].

Liz: One last plug before we get to the episode, we want to hear from you, our listeners. We put together a quick two-question survey. You can find the link in the episode description. Please take a few seconds to fill it out. We're always working to improve the show for our listeners, and this is your chance to help.

Sean: On with the show. On this episode, Liz and I answer a listener's question about how to find scholarships and make higher education more affordable. First, though, in our This Week in Your Money segment, we're talking about why you might be entitled to free health insurance right now. Liz, you recently wrote an article on just this topic. Can you give us the details of what people should know?

Liz: Absolutely. It's really surprising how much change there has been with health insurance, but those $1,400 stimulus checks really stole all the headlines, so I think a lot of people missed some of the big changes. One of the biggest had to do with the changes in who qualifies for subsidies on the Obamacare exchanges.

Sean: Who does qualify?

Liz: Before the new relief package that President Biden signed in March, people with incomes greater than 400% of the poverty line typically didn't qualify for subsidies. Now, people with incomes up to 600% of the poverty level can qualify. What that means is if you're a single person and your income is just under $77,000, you can get a subsidy. If you have a family of four and your income's about $157,000, again, you can qualify for subsidies. That's a big change. A lot more people are going to get help.

Sean: I also understand that the relief package that passed in March also reduced premiums for the vast majority of people who get their own health insurance.

Liz: In fact, nearly half of the 29 million people who are now uninsured can qualify for a free plan. That's a big change, yeah.

Sean: Wow, that's huge.

Liz: Yeah, it is. If you have income at, I think 150% of the poverty line, which is about $19,000 for a single person and just under $40,000 for a family of four, you can now qualify for zero-premium silver plans with annual deductibles of just $177. There've been some reduced cost-sharing measures and some other changes that have made these really affordable.

Sean: One of the other big changes also affects people who receive unemployment, which we know a lot of people have received. One thing that people should know is that if you get unemployment benefits for any part of 2021, you can qualify for a zero-premium silver plan with the ACA.

Liz: I know I've been telling my friends about this, and the reaction is, "No, that can't possibly be true." But, if you got even a single unemployment benefit check, you can get this free silver plan with all these cost-sharing reductions for free. Go check this out. This is really important.

Sean: Well, that brings me to my next question, which is how people can qualify and find these plans.

Liz: These plans need to be purchased through the Obamacare exchanges, the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Healthcare.gov is where most people can go. If you have a state plan, it will funnel you to your state plan. Otherwise, you can buy your insurance on healthcare.gov. If you already have a policy, the refunds should be automatic. You shouldn't have to do anything. But, if you don't have a plan, you should sign up if you qualify.

Sean: We're currently in a special enrollment period that people can take advantage of through Aug. 15 of this year.

Liz: I wouldn't wait, because you never want to be without healthcare insurance, but you do have some time to take advantage of these.

Sean: Well, speaking of unemployment, there was also a change to COBRA coverage, where people can get free COBRA coverage.

Liz: When people lose their job, a lot of times their preference is to extend the coverage that they had through their employer, right? You're familiar with that plan. You're familiar with that insurer. You just want to keep that going. The problem is, even though you do have access to your employer's health insurance, typically for up to 18 months, you have to pay the full freight, and that can be extremely expensive. Most employers subsidize your healthcare insurance, even though most people are paying a premium, they're not paying the full premium. When you suddenly have to do that, a lot of people simply can't afford that.

Well, this new law says that the government essentially will be paying your insurance, your COBRA premium from April through September. If you don't qualify for other insurance, if you've lost your job and your spouse doesn't have coverage, for example, you can get this free COBRA coverage for six months. Then, if you're still unemployed at the end of that, there's going to be a special enrollment period, so you can hop on the Obamacare exchanges and get your coverage that way.

Sean: That's a great benefit.

Liz: Yeah, it's pretty neat. As we mentioned earlier, a lot of people don't know about this. If you're in a situation where you don't have employer-provided coverage, or you recently lost your job, this is something you really want to check into.

Sean: Tell your friends, tell your family, tell your neighbors, tell anyone you know, because they can get free health insurance if they qualify.

Liz: Yes, exactly.

With that, let's get onto this week's money question.

Sean: This episode's money question comes from Brittany in Oregon, so she must be my neighbor. She writes, "My questions revolve around my college because I feel lost at the moment. I am currently in my final year for my BA in library science, and I have been trying to figure out if there is some way to help with the blow of student debt before I graduate." Ooh, I've been there before.

"My questions are," Brittany writes, "one, where do I start looking for scholarships? Two, how do I know what is a scam and what is real? Three, are there advisors aside from my school that I could contact? Four, how come I am not qualified for many of the ones I have found? Thank you so much, Brittany."

Liz: To help us answer Brittany's question on this episode of the podcast, we're joined by student loan Nerd Anna Helhoski.

Sean: Hey Anna, welcome on the podcast.

Anna Helhoski: Thanks for having me, Sean and Liz, appreciate it.

Liz: Anna, let's start with the basics. What are scholarships?

Anna: Scholarships provide students with free money for college. There are a ton of them out there that are up for grabs, but you have to know where to look, and you also have to qualify for them. Scholarships and grants, unlike student loans, don't have to be paid back, so they're really the best first place to start when you're talking about financing a college education.

Sean: This sounds like a great deal. You're basically getting some money based on your application. How are scholarships typically awarded?

Anna: They're usually awarded based on financial need or on merit, or some kind of combination of both need and merit. Scholarships are a lot of times confused with grants, and they essentially do the same thing, but grants are always based on financial need. Both of them are known as gifted.

When you're looking for a scholarship, availability is really going to vary. They can come from all kinds of places. It could be your school, community groups, private companies or individuals, and national nonprofit organizations. Your school might also award scholarships, especially if it's a scholarship that's based on need, or you might have to apply for it. I would say if it doesn't come from your school, you're probably going to have to apply. Scholarships are primarily going to be based on family income or merit requirements, as I mentioned, such as GPA or academic or artistic achievements. You might have to apply to them using letters of recommendation, a résumé of your school or volunteer accomplishments, and some kind of an essay.

Sean: You mentioned income, which is something that I wanted to home in on. That's how I actually was awarded a good amount of scholarships in my undergrad from my very expensive liberal arts college, and it helped me tremendously. Can you go in a little bit about what need-based scholarships look like?

Anna: Yeah. Need-based scholarships usually have some kind of a means test in them. Usually they use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which you need to submit every year in college in order to access federal, state, as well as school financial aid.

Liz: I had a question about the need aspect of it, because my understanding was that if you had a lot of need-based financial aid, if you got a scholarship, that could actually replace one of the grants you got. Is that something that people need to be concerned about?

Anna: It really depends on the kind of aid that you're talking about. If you're awarded a federal Pell Grant, for example, that's never going to be reduced if you win a private scholarship or a scholarship from your school, even if you end up getting a scholarship that exceeds the cost of attendance. The Pell Grant is really based on your estimated family contribution, not on financial need. Any kind of other changes in financial aid don't really affect the amount of the Pell Grant that you get. But, if you're awarded multiple scholarships, that could affect any kind of school grants that you might receive, or if you're even able to accept all of that money, because you can only get financial aid up to the cost of attendance.

Liz: OK. We just want to let people know this might be a possibility, so they don't break their necks trying to find a scholarship that just winds up leaving them in the same position that they started in.

Anna: Yeah, definitely.

Sean: All right, I also want to talk about how to find scholarships, because that's a pretty central part of Brittany's search as well. How do you think people should go about locating the best ones for them?

Anna: I can honestly say I did not do enough of this when I was an undergrad, and I wish that I had. But, what you need to do is cast a very wide net. The more scholarships that you apply for, the greater your chance of receiving one. But, that doesn't mean that you should just go about applying for any scholarship that comes to you. The key is really applying for scholarships that you're going to be eligible for, so ones that you can actually win. Scholarships could be a one-time thing, but the best ones are ones that are going to be renewable each year.

Sean: When I was in college, I applied for scholarships that were specific to my niche, so LGBT student scholarships and also journalism student scholarships. I'm wondering if this is still a good route for students to go.

Anna: It definitely is, and I also got a journalism student scholarship, so I know how that went. Niche scholarships are really the ones where you can distinguish yourself. That could be through volunteer work, club membership, athletics, classes or what you plan to study. But, you really can find scholarships that are also related to identity, could be by race or ethnicity, LGBTQ identity, religion, community, where you live, hobbies, interests, any kind of volunteering that you do, civic involvement, if your family member has military status, could also go by immigration status or nontraditional student status. That could be being a parent, an older student or if you've just received a GED.

Liz: I want to circle back to what you said about renewable scholarships. This was something that you had experience with, right?

Anna: I did. My freshman year of college, I ended up getting quite a few scholarships, and that really helped pay for my expensive liberal arts college. But, that was really just a freshman year scholarship. I ended up needing to actually transfer to a state school because it just wasn't going to be affordable for me anymore to try and attend a college in the middle of Manhattan when I really couldn't afford that after my first year. A lot of times when you front load a lot of financial aid, that can put you in that same kind of position, where, sure, you can afford your college your freshman year, or maybe even your sophomore, but as time goes on, it's just going to end up being more expensive and you could end up taking on more debt that's going to be really difficult to repay after you graduate.

Liz: We should also talk about where to look for these scholarships. We talked about finding the ones where you can distinguish yourself, but where do you actually go to find them?

Anna: Using the U.S. Department of Labor scholarship search tool is kind of my go-to when I'm giving anyone advice on looking for a scholarship. But you should also talk to your own school. If you're in high school, talk to your guidance counselor. If you're in college, talk to your school's financial aid office.

There also could be industry organizations related to your field of study that you might want to look into. You can search locally at community organizations, local businesses, religious organizations or civic groups. You also could inquire about scholarships that might be sponsored by your parent's employer or your own employer. Then, of course, there are a ton of scholarship databases; Cappex.com, Scholly, College Board, the Ultimate Scholarship Book, Fast Web, Big Future, Scholarship America, Unigo, there's a ton of them out there. It's also going to be really important that, once you have your big list of scholarships that you want to apply for, to pay attention to those deadlines. Make that list early, take note of the dates so that you can really keep track.

Sean: All right, so Brittany was also worried about scholarship scams. How can people identify whether a scholarship they're looking into is legitimate or not?

Anna: Yeah, so this one's tough, because you want to believe that anybody giving you free money is just going to hand it over, right? You really need to be careful where you apply and what kind of information that you're providing. Some signs of a scam could be pressure tactics, so they're pushing for money or personal information a little bit too quickly. They want your bank account or credit card information right upfront. They want you to pay a fee to guarantee that you'll win by paying money, even if they say there's some kind of a money-back guarantee if you don't. The FTC actually says that oftentimes those guarantees come with some kind of a condition that make it pretty much impossible to get your money back. Your safest bet is to try and stick with free scholarship search services.

There are also ones that are asking you to submit your FAFSA for a processing fee. Those aren't technically illegal, but in order to submit the FAFSA, you'll need to provide them documentation and information that you would need to gather anyway, so it's really best to do it yourself, since the hardest part is gathering all of that personal and financial information together.

Sean: It seems like the elements that help anyone identify any kind of scam are relevant here, too. Where someone's trying to get your bank account information, and they're trying to get your personal information, they're trying to get you to pay for something that you shouldn't have to pay for. Those are common red flags across all personal finance decisions that you might be dealing with a scam.

Anna: The FTC also lists some kind of telltale lines about scholarship scams on its website, like the scholarship's guaranteed or your money back, or you can't get this information anywhere else, or we'll do all the work, you just pay a processing fee. Those are all going to be come-ons that are not going to be true and could very well lead you to be getting scammed.

Sean: All right. What should someone do if they think they have been scammed?

Anna: If you have been scammed and you have given them some personal information, or you have handed over your bank account information, halt all payments if you've provided that, and you also may want to freeze any credit cards that could be on file with one of these predatory companies. Then, you definitely want to file a complaint. File with the FTC, file with your state attorney general and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau so that they can log this.

Liz: We might also recommend that they freeze their credit, because if they're handing over all this personal information, it might not just be a one-off. It could be sold to other bad guys or used in other ways.

OK, so Brittany was also interested in contacting advisors who can help her. What's your advice about that?

Anna: I always go for the free ones first. Your best advisor would really be your guidance counselor at your high school, or your school's financial aid office or advising office. But, there are coaches and mentors and consultants that you can pay to help you get into college, get scholarships, etc. But, those services can be costly, hundreds of dollars or some kind of a monthly fee. They might be able to help you, but there's no guarantee that that will be the case, so it really depends on your comfort level.

Sean: One thing I want to talk about is how folks aren't going to get approved for every scholarship they apply for, which can be pretty demoralizing. I had that experience when I was applying when I was in college. I'm wondering what some common reasons are that people might not be granted the scholarship that they do apply for.

Anna: You might not meet the requirements. That usually is there, especially if it's some kind of a niche scholarship, or if there is a financial need component that you really just don't fit. There also could just be a lot of competition. Unless it's a local-only scholarship, where you're not really competing with a ton of people, it's best to try to apply for scholarships that you definitely can fit the bill. You don't want to apply for a scholarship whose criteria you really don't meet, because the competition for most scholarships is pretty high. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't keep looking. Really figure out what it is about you that's unique, or how you can fit your experiences or your volunteerism into some kind of a niche category. There's probably a scholarship for you out there, but you're just really going to have to look for it. Try and talk to your school counselor about your options, and look through an online database or two.

Liz: Do you have any other tips for how people can minimize college expenses?

Anna: Definitely. Scholarships are great, but so are other gift aid, like grants and work study, if you're eligible. Maximizing all kinds of free aid can really help you then keep your student debt low. Most students are going to have to take on some kind of a student loan debt in order to go to college. There is really a hierarchy of financial aid that we try and follow, so that's maxing out all free aid first before turning to federal loans, and eventually private loans, if you do need them. But, it really all starts with submitting the FAFSA.

Sean: I have another question that is outside of the realm of what Brittany was wondering about, and I'll admit is kind of in the self-interest of my household, specifically my partner, who is going to be entering grad school in the fall. I'm wondering if you have any advice for people who are looking for scholarships or ways to make grad school more affordable.

Anna: Yeah. I mean, first off, congrats to your partner. Grad school enrollment is really up right now, so that's really great to hear. Scholarships for grad school, similar rules are really going to apply, but you might want to look for some grad-school-specific scholarships. Again, start with that U.S. Department of Labor scholarship search tool. But this could also be an opportunity to really check in with professional associations, especially if you're going to grad school after having been in the workforce for a little while. Some grad-school-specific search engines are Go Grad, Sallie Mae Grad School Scholarship Search, but you can also find them on Fast Web, Big Future, Scholarship America, etc.

Liz: OK, so we've been focusing on scholarships, but grad schools kind of work differently than undergraduate anyway. Are there other options for reducing your expenses?

Anna: Yeah, so many grad and PhD programs are actually designed to offset your expenses. They'll pay your tuition and fees, and in exchange you teach courses. But not all programs are like this, or they may have limited slots, depending on the program.

Sean: All right, I have one last thing I want to throw at you, Anna, and also this is for you, Liz, and for me to talk about a little bit, too. We got another listener question from Andrea, who is wondering whether it is, quote, in their words, "A really stupid idea to put tuition on a credit card for the zero APR period, and then continue to transfer the balance to future similar cards until it's paid off." For a little bit of additional context, they said their tuition will be somewhere between $35K and $95K, their credit score is currently over 800, and that they've done this before with other credit card debt. Throwing that out there, anyone take a little bit of that information and let's talk about it.

Liz: You first, Anna.

Anna: Sure. You technically can use a credit card to pay for college, but it's kind of a bad idea. Schools aren't like other merchants, they usually charge convenience fees that are pretty high, so that could be around 2.75% up to 3%, maybe even higher. That can end up costing you more than the rewards on that card might actually net you. Usually you have to get rid of your balance fast to take advantage of those 0% interest periods, and even if you end up juggling the balance using different zero interest cards, you can get hit with transfer fees. Then if that zero interest period runs out, you're looking at a pretty high interest rate compared with federal student loans.

Say you have $35,000 on a credit card, as the reader estimated was on the low side of her potential balance. If you have an 18% interest rate and want to make a minimum payment of $350 a month — that's around the typical student loan payment, by the way — your payment wouldn't even cover the interest. Your more realistic monthly payment would be closer to $800. You'd end up paying over $22,000 in interest, and it would take you six years to pay it off.

Sean: That's a nightmare.

Anna: Yeah, so your much better bet is to take a federal student loan at a low interest rate. It's currently 2.75% for undergrad and 4.30% for direct unsubsidized loans for grad students.

Liz: One thing I have noticed is people who do use these balance transfer offers tend to expect them to always be available. As we know now, that's not always true. When the economy goes bad or lenders start to get nervous, even great credit scores might not guarantee your approval, or you might not get a large enough credit limit to move the whole balance over, and then you're in that situation that Anna just talked about, where you're paying incredibly high interest on this debt.

Sean: What makes me a little bit nervous about this is that, I'm sure that at some point in Andrea's life, a curve ball is going to come her way, and maybe she will miss a payment on something, she's on vacation and just forgets to pay a bill one day. Anything could happen that could make her credit score go beneath 800. That could make it go beneath the point where she'd even qualify for one of these cards, and then she's kind of out of luck.

Anna: Weirdly, [federal] loans provide you a safety net. They provide you with opportunities for loan forgiveness, but also income-driven repayment plans that tie your payments to a portion of your income. They really are just a better idea.

Sean: OK. Well, you said the word student loan forgiveness, so I have to ask you as someone who reports on this a lot, what are your current thoughts, if you could look into a crystal ball about what folks' odds are that they might get some student loan forgiveness this year?

Anna: I'm not going to place any bets. However, signs are sort of starting to point in the direction that we could at least see some kind of a proposal. It doesn't seem like it's going to happen in Congress. That is very clear by how hard Congress is pushing Joe Biden to make an executive order on this. Now, at this point, we're really just in a wait-and-see.

Sean: All right, well, thank you so much. If that happens, we might drag you back to talk about it.

Anna: I'd love to.

Sean: OK. Well, thank you for talking with us, Anna.

Anna: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Sean: With that, let's get on to our takeaway tips. First up, leave no rock unturned when looking for scholarships. The more scholarships you apply for, the greater your chances are of receiving one.

Liz: Next, also focus on your applications. You may be more likely to win a scholarship that's specific to your niche.

Sean: Lastly, know how to spot scams. Common red flags are scholarships that use pressure tactics or ask for your bank or credit card information.

Liz: That's all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Also, visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more information on this episode, and remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Sean: Here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Liz: With that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.