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COVID-19 economic relief measures helped many Americans weather some of the severe financial challenges that accompanied the pandemic. Disposable personal income grew more than 15% from the first quarter (Q1) of 2020 to Q1 2021, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data. However, many assistance programs are due to end soon. If you received student loan or mortgage deferral, rent relief, unemployment benefits or other financial aid during the pandemic, it's time to start adjusting your budget and planning for when life—and your finances—go back to normal. What steps can you take now to help avoid financial trouble ahead?
When Will Pandemic Assistance Programs End?
First, find out when the COVID-19 relief programs you use will end. As of May 2021, these dates are as follows:
- Expanded federal unemployment benefits end September 6, 2021: These include $300 in weekly benefits, an extra $100 in weekly benefits for those who had both a job and self-employment income, benefits for self-employed people and others who don't normally qualify, and extended federal benefits after state benefits are used up. Some states have decided to opt out of the enhanced federal unemployment benefits prior to the September 6 cutoff date, so it's a good idea to contact your state unemployment office or visit its website to see when your state benefits end and whether you need to reapply.
- Student loan relief ends January 31, 2022: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act suspended payments and paused interest on federal direct loans and FFELs (Federal Family Education Loans). The number of student loans in deferral or forbearance more than doubled in 2020, according to Experian. Some private lenders also offered forbearance or deferral options; if your private student loan payments are currently suspended, ask your loan servicer when this will end.
- Rent relief: The federal moratorium on eviction for nonpayment of rent ends October 3, 2021. However, many states have their own renter protections. Visit your state government website or check the Eviction Lab's database of federal, state and local eviction policies for more information.
- Mortgage relief: The CARES Act suspension of foreclosures on homes with federally backed or insured mortgages ends September 30, 2021. As of April 2020, the number of mortgages in deferral or forbearance had doubled, Experian research shows. If your mortgage company suspended your loan payments, ask them when your deferral or forbearance ends.
- Utility bills: Some state and local governments prohibited utility companies from shutting off essential services to people who couldn't pay their bills. If you're taking advantage of such a program, contact your service provider to see when it will end.
- Health insurance: The federal government paid for COBRA coverage for qualifying individuals during the pandemic; these payments end on September 30, 2021. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, enacted in March 2021, expanded access to Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance as well as tax subsidies for buying it. If your federal COBRA payments are ending, you can shop for insurance on Healthcare.gov through August 15, 2021. Federal and state tax subsidies may cover some (or even all) of your premium costs.
Make a Post-Pandemic Budget
If payments you've deferred will be starting up again, find out exactly how much you will owe and when. If assistance is ending, assess how that affects your income. Use this information to create a new budget and prioritize payments.
Many relief programs won't end for several months. Use that time to:
- Reduce spending. Consider moving in with family members, taking on a roommate or cutting out all but the essential expenses. A HUD housing counselor can help you explore options for lower-cost housing. If you're just graduating from college, moving home could help you save up for payments due in the fall.
- Increase your income. Look for ways to make extra money. Consider getting a second job, selling clothing or other items on eBay or Craigslist, or starting a business.
- Build up your savings. Sock away as much money as you can. Instead of spending any money you may have received as a tax refund or stimulus payment, save it instead.
What to Do if You Can't Pay Your Bills
If you're worried about paying your bills once pandemic relief ends, don't wait until payments are due. Contact the creditor or service provider right away to explain your financial situation and see if you can:
- Get an extension. If an extension on your benefits or loan suspension is available, find out if it's automatic or if you must apply. Complete any required applications immediately to avoid delays in processing.
- Negotiate your payments. Creditors may be willing to reduce your payments, change payment due dates to a better time of the month, or split big payments into multiple smaller ones (such as paying your rent biweekly instead of monthly).
- Modify your loan. Home loan borrowers in financial hardship may qualify for mortgage modifications such as a reduced interest rate or extended repayment term. If you have a federal student loan, you may be able to change your loan repayment plan.
- Refinance your loan. With interest rates at historic lows, borrowers with solid credit and income could refinance a mortgage, student loan or auto loan into a smaller, more manageable payment. By refinancing a federal student loan with a private lender, you'll lose the benefits federal student loans enjoy, such as the possibility of loan forgiveness and suspended payments under the CARES Act, but you may be able to reduce your monthly payments with a lower interest rate.
Seek Other Sources of Financial Help
Investigate federal, state and local programs that can offer financial assistance. Depending on your income, you may qualify for welfare or food stamps, or assistance paying for telephone service, broadband internet service, home energy, medical care or prescription drugs.
Visit your state and city government websites for relief programs in your area. Renters can check the National Low Income Housing Coalition's database of COVID-19 emergency rental assistance programs.
Your employer may be able to help you repay student loans. The CARES Act allows employers to contribute up to $5,250 annually in student loan repayment assistance, tax-free to both employer and employee, through the end of 2025. If you're unemployed, you may be able to put federal student loans in deferment after the federal relief program ends, although interest will keep accruing on unsubsidized or PLUS loans.
Keep Up with National and Local News
New pandemic relief measures continue to roll out, and more may be coming. For example, some believe the president or Congress will propose expanding federal student loan forgiveness or income-based repayment plans. Stay informed so you don't miss out on programs that could help you.
Your state, city or town may also offer financial aid. In California, for instance, Governor Gavin Newsom recently proposed another $8 billion relief plan including state stimulus checks, renter assistance and direct payment of utility bills.
Protect Your Credit
Payment history is a big factor in your credit scores, so be sure to make all your payments on time. Track due dates and minimum payments for each bill. Consider setting up autopay so you don't pay late and potentially hurt your credit.
Scams typically spike during a crisis, and the pandemic is no exception. To protect against identity theft, review your bank and credit card accounts for unusual transactions. Check your credit reports with all three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax). Through April 2022, you can get a free copy of your credit report from each bureau every week at AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also sign up for free credit monitoring from Experian for additional peace of mind.
With careful planning and smart money management, you can successfully handle your bills—and maintain your credit score—as life post-pandemic returns to normal.