Are you one of tens of millions of Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits or had your income affected by COVID-19?
If so, it’s understandable that it may be more difficult to pay your bills and manage expenses during the unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak.
To help you make some difficult financial decisions during this COVID-19 emergency, here are some tips on how to effectively prioritize your bills.
Take Care of Home First
Keeping morale high during this coronavirus pandemic is nearly as important as having money in the bank. One major blow to feeling positive, safe, and secure is losing one’s home, especially during a public health crisis.
No one should have to worry about surviving this outbreak on the street. So when it comes to prioritizing your bills, be sure to take care of your housing costs first.
If you have the means, be sure to pay your mortgage if you are a homeowner or your rent if you are a renter. If you can’t afford to do so, connect with your lender or landlord to see if you can adjust your payment due date or make other financial arrangements in the short-term.
Two of the most urgent needs during this time are having shelter and being able to feed yourself and your family. So, it would make sense for these to be of top priority as you develop your financial plan. If you cannot afford food, you can take a few of these measures:
- Apply for SNAP benefits – The Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) is based on the money you have in the bank, as well as your income. So, if your funds are low or you have experienced a loss in income, you may be eligible to receive SNAP benefits.
- Apply for TANF – Every state has a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, that offers short-term cash assistance. Similar to SNAP, TANF is based on the income and funds you currently have, and is a great way to locate money to purchase food.
- Visit a food bank – Places like food pantries, churches, and community-based organizations all over the country are offering food to individuals who are struggling financially. If you are not sure where to go, use FeedingAmerica.org to find food pantries in your area.
- Nutrition and food support – Never be afraid or too proud to look into the nutrition and food support offered by the CARES Act. The bill has provided more support for free and reduced school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels, WIC, and The Emergency Food Assistance Program. Check with your state’s health and human services department to find out the programs for which you are eligible.
No one should have to go hungry, especially during the current public health crisis. Accordingly, put food and nutrition close to the top of your financial priority list.
Cover Essential Utilities
You and your family cannot function without internet, lights, heat, and water. Whether you are homeschooling your kids, handling work at home, or are social distancing, you want to keep your power and utilities on, especially if you are in a part of the country that sees extreme weather and temperature changes.
If you cannot take care of these expenses, seek help. There are federal resources like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and utility payment support available at the local level (in some states). Again, check your state’s health and human services departments for financial assistance options.
Evaluate Credit Obligations
Once you have managed financial planning pertaining to your necessities , it is time to start working through any credit or debt obligations. Typically, we recommend that you avoiding only making minimum payments on your credit balances. But given the magnitude of the current crisis, you may want to make minimum payments in order to preserve cash.
Additionally, some provisions offered by the CARES Act may alter how you prioritize your credit or debt obligations.
Here are some helpful ways to prioritize debt payment during COVID-19:
Car Notes/Auto Loans – If you are essential personnel and still need to get to work, or are thinking of using your car to increase your income if you have been furloughed (for example, meal delivery service workers), then you want to make car payments. If you do not have the funds to pay, many automakers and lenders are allowing individuals to defer payments.
Credit Cards – Credit cards typically have the highest interest rates of any debt. Either make your scheduled payments on time, or connect with your credit card issuer to explore deferment options. Most large banks are deferring payments and waiving fees for a limited time. However, if you are not able to work anything out, this would be the second-most important expense to handle after managing your housing and utilities.
Student Loans (Federal and Private) – Fortunately, the CARES Act has established a provision that suspends payments and interest accumulation for people who owe federal student loans. If you’re eligible, all loan payments and interest are automatically suspended through Sept. 30, 2020.
However, if you have private loans, the CARES Act does not apply. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t get a break.
In fact, a group of 10 states in April 2020 reached agreements with private student loan companies to help provide payment flexibility for those struggling to keep up with private loans. The 10 states where residents are covered include:
- New Jersey
- New York (had an agreement in place before the multi-state deal)
Just be aware that the agreements don’t cover every single student loan company, o, you’ll still need to see what your state is doing, and reach out to your specific private loan servicer to request any needed help.
While the obligations above are the most relevant, there will always be other expenses that arise. You will have to decide what works best for your specific situation.
Nevertheless, here are some ways you can prioritize additional bills that may arise:
Healthcare/Medicine – If you have lost your job, you may now qualify for Medicaid with the loss of income. Also, some states are allowing for open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act if you have lost your job due to COVID-19. It is worth noting that all COVID-19 related testing is free, but you may need additional medical tests and relevant medicine; therefore, check with your local government to see what you are eligible for.
Insurance payments – Many larger insurance companies are offering credits on things like auto insurance premiums since most people are driving less. Some insurers are also waiving fees and not canceling insurance plans for those who cannot pay. Be sure to call all your insurance providers to see how long you can defer payments.
Entertainment – Even amid a crisis like COVID-19, it’s normal to want to participate in activities you enjoy. While not a significant bill priority during COVID-19, if you want to include entertainment, take advantage of lower-cost streaming sites like Netflix, Disney+, or Hulu. Also, don’t forget that YouTube has free content for adults and kids.
We understand that the public health and financial situation related to the outbreak is rapidly changing. We hope the content above can help you prioritize your bills during COVID-19 and tackle this ever-evolving situation. Be sure to regularly check AskTheMoneyCoach articles for more COVID-19 personal finance guidance and resources.