Deep breath in….deep breath out.
Jobless claims surged past a record 3.28 million last week amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Experts predict tens of millions more could lose their jobs in the coming weeks and months.
If you lose your job or have your hours reduced because of the coronavirus pandemic, you will want to take immediate action to shore up your financial life. Here are 6 steps to prioritize, according to financial experts.
1. File for unemployment
The federal government is not only allowing states to expand eligibility for unemployment benefits to workers affected by coronavirus shutdowns, but it has also added $1 billion for claims processing and passed legislation that extends benefits to independent contractors and self-employed workers.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act increases the amount of money jobless Americans can receive and lengthens the amount of time they can receive it.
So if you’re laid off or have your hours significantly reduced, the very first thing you should do is apply for unemployment.
“In this emergency, I would not discourage anyone from trying to apply for benefits, even if they wouldn’t have applied before,” Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, told CNBC Make It.
And file as soon as you can, Evermore urges, even if you don’t think you qualify. Workers who can’t work because they have been quarantined can qualify for partial unemployment.
To apply, you’ll need personal financial information on hand, including your Social Security number, reason for leaving your job and bank account information. You can use the Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop site to look up your state’s unemployment website and contact information.
With so many people applying, it may take a while for you to be approved but don’t get discouraged. If you are denied, you can appeal, and you should. With the response to coronavirus constantly changing, your eligibility may change, too.
2. Retool your budget
If you’ve been laid off, you need to be ruthless with your budget for a few months, Ande Frazier, CEO of myWorth, tells CNBC Make It. Write down exactly how much money is coming each month and when, and how much is going out and when your bills are due.
Get to the “basics of the basics” that need to be covered, Frazier says. Review your subscriptions, memberships and any delivery services you rely on. Ask yourself what you can cut out temporarily. She recommends pausing payments like your gym membership, if you can, so that you don’t have to pay a fee to renew it when you’re back at work. Also, make an effort to cut back on online shopping and other nonessential spending.
Once you’ve cut your discretionary expenses, Frazier recommends going back through your monthly bills and seeing what else you can cut. For example, if you’re staying at home your transportation costs could be lower. And food costs, too, could be less if you’re prepping all of your meals at home.
3. Contact your lenders for relief
After you’ve taken stock of how much money you have and how much you owe, contact all of your banks and lenders for relief. You’ll need to be proactive in this regard; it’s better to contact them before there’s a problem, Frazier says. Make a list of your accounts, utility companies and other lenders and contact them individually to see what relief they might be offering.
Frazier also encourages everyone make sure they understand the relief terms they are agreeing to. “If payments are deferred, is interest still accruing? Are there fees associated with that?” she says. “You want to read the fine print.”
It’s especially important to understand how and when your lender expects you to pay back the money. In some cases, banks are requiring borrowers pay back deferred mortgages in one lump sum. (Here is a list of what banks are currently offering their customers.)
Start by calling your bank, credit union, credit card issuer, etc., to see what they can do specifically for you, as many institutions are making decisions on a case-by-case basis.
4. Review your health insurance options
If you are one of the 49% of Americans who get health insurance through your employer, this can be an especially scary time to lose it.
First, review any paperwork you received after being let go to see if there is any type of coverage you can opt into. For many Americans, that may mean choosing coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, which lets you stay on your current health insurance for up to 18 months.
If you sign up for COBRA, you will still have the same plan you had when you were employed, but you will be responsible for the full cost of the plan, with premiums running close to $7,000 per year for an individual and over $19,600 for a family coverage, on average, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
If that’s too expensive, you can look for a plan on the health insurance marketplace. Losing your job qualifies you for a special enrollment period, and you can go to healthcare.gov to see all of your plan options.
You may also qualify for Medicaid, or be able to your parents’ plan if you’re under 26 or your spouse’s plan within 30 days of losing your insurance.
5. Consider your next steps
It’s not an easy time to look for a new job, so you’ll need to get creative about ways to make money. Frazier recommends thinking through if there is anything you could do part time or as a consultant while you look for full-time work.
“Uber drivers are not getting a lot of rides, so they’re starting to deliver food from [restaurants],” she says. “A lot of teachers right now are finding they are able to pick up extra tutoring and home-schooling opportunities.”
6. Get immediate help
Finally, consider immediate forms of financial aid, like personal loans or 0% APR credit cards. Be careful so that you don’t overextend your spending on these products, and that you set up a plan so you can repay them on time.
When looking for a loan, you want to consider the interest rate and how long you will have to repay the loan. Predatory lenders always offer poor terms to people who do not know all of their options.
Ideally, look for a loan charging no more than 36% interest, Rebecca Borné, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, told CNBC Make It, and gives you a few months to a year or more to pay off the balance. An installment loan will be easier for you repay than a single payment loan. Shop around: federal credit unions often offer even lower interest rates than banks.
And don’t forget your credit cards. Compare the APR you’re charged with the interest rate offered on any loans you apply for. Your card might be a better deal.