More than 3 million Americans are suddenly unemployed as businesses lay off their workforce in massive numbers or shutter completely in the midst of the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic.
Losing your job is stressful under normal circumstances, but alongside a global pandemic and predicted recession, things can seem especially bleak. Meanwhile, you still need to put food on the table, a roof over your head and manage other financial obligations.
While it may feel like everything is out of your control, there are steps you can take to manage your finances and programs in place to help you keep your head above water.
It’s important to remember: Scores of people are in the same position as you right now. Calling the same banks, lenders and government agencies. Be prepared for long hold times; don’t let that discourage you from getting the relief you need.
Step 1: Apply for unemployment benefits
In most cases, you can file online, but contact your state’s unemployment office if you need help applying for benefits. Some workers who don’t qualify for unemployment under normal circumstances — including gig workers and people who are self employed — now qualify thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which Congress passed on March 27.
Many state unemployment agencies are still awaiting guidance from the Department of Labor on how to implement various pieces of the CARES Act, so they may not be equipped to process new types of claims allowed under the law right away. Continue to check your state’s website and sign up for coronavirus email updates, if offered. Your state unemployment office’s Facebook and Twitter accounts can also be great resources for updates and guidance as it is available.
The CARES Act also boosts weekly unemployment benefits with an additional $600 per week of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. You can receive this amount even if you’ve exhausted your state benefits. Expect a delay as states work with the federal government to distribute these funds.
If you’ve already filed a claim and were approved, you don’t need to do anything to receive the additional benefits.
Be warned: State unemployment offices are overwhelmed by the dramatic rise in claims. It may take several attempts to file your claim via phone or online, and benefits could be delayed as state agencies try to keep up with demand and adjust to new federal guidance from the CARES Act.
Step 2: Contact your banks and lenders
“Contact any company you pay regularly and see if they can waive or reduce fees for a while,” says Tara Unverzagt, a financial planner and founder of South Bay Financial Partners in California.
Be proactive and ask for the help, stating specifically that you are financially impacted by the coronavirus. Many financial institutions are deferring payments on personal loans, auto loans, home loans and credit card payments for those who were laid off or are sick and can’t work.
If you have a mortgage backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, you can reduce or suspend your payments for up to 12 months if you’ve lost income because of the outbreak. That covers about half of all home loans in the U.S. Other banks and lenders are doing the same, albeit for a shorter time frame (typically 60 to 90 days).
Federal student loan borrowers have some wiggle room with their payments, thanks to the CARES Act, which automatically suspends payments on most federal student loans until Sept. 30. Borrowers will not be charged interest during this time and do not need to do anything to suspend or restart their payments. If you have a private student loan, contact your lender to ask about emergency relief.
Suspending payments can help free up cash for the things you can’t delay, like food and possibly rent.
Step 3: Triage your finances
Cut out any nonessential spending for the time being. That may mean canceling or suspending gym memberships and subscription services, and even paring down your cable package. You can tap free resources to keep you entertained during this period of unemployment and social distancing.
Remember that these cuts are temporary. The goal here is to free up as much room in your budget as possible for the things that can’t be paused.
Step 4: Tap into community resources
Communities are pulling together to help those hardest hit by the pandemic. Now is the time to take advantage of those resources.
Schools may be closed, but some districts are providing free breakfast and lunches for students. Check your local district to see if there is a meal-pickup program.
Other community groups and industry associations are banding together to help those in the service, entertainment and hospitality sectors, which have been hit particularly hard by mandatory closures.
Community kitchens and food pantries in most areas are also stocked and ready to help.
Step 5: Apply for short-term help, if you need it
Some banks and credit unions are offering emergency loans to help cover the gap between the time you're laid off and when unemployment checks come in or you are able to return to work. These loans are typically for a few thousand dollars, maximum, with no payments for 60 to 90 days.
Step 6: Make a plan for stimulus funds
The $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package includes a one-time payment of $1,200 to many Americans, though the exact amount a person receives will be based on income. Those payments will likely take a few weeks to arrive.
The stimulus package also includes relief for small businesses forced to shutter due to the coronavirus.