Even in a financial crisis, you have options
Anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic and its financial fallout can feel paralyzing. But a quote often attributed to tennis great Arthur Ashe offers a path forward: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
If you never built up an emergency fund to tap in times of crisis, now’s no time to beat yourself up over that. Instead, check to see what resources you do have and learn how to deploy them most effectively.
Check for outside help
Lenders and credit card issuers are scrambling to put together programs to help people during the epidemic. Your auto lender, student loan lender, mortgage and credit card issuer may offer temporary concessions. Visit the lender or card issuer’s website or call to check your options before you pay.
Don’t be afraid to sign up for payment or forbearance programs. According to the two major credit scoring companies, FICO and VantageScore, having such programs on your credit reports will not affect your credit scores.
You may qualify for help with other bills. Check your service providers’ websites to learn what’s offered. Many power, phone and internet companies are suspending disconnections as well. Check out the extensive resources at the 211.org website or simply call 211 to be connected.
If you lose your job or your income drops significantly, check the website of your state’s workforce agency. In addition to traditional unemployment benefits, you might find programs to help you through a temporary reduction in hours, information on paid sick leave and more. Also, check your state’s website for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to see if you qualify for help buying food.
Assistance efforts will evolve as the situation unfolds, so check websites and reputable news sources regularly.
List sources of ready credit
If staying afloat means spending money you don’t yet have, so be it. Credit is a tool, and tools are needed for certain jobs. This is one.
If your credit is good, it might be wise to ask for higher credit limits on your cards. Higher limits will soften the impact of higher-than-usual balances on your credit score and reinforce your safety net.
If your credit is not so good, beware of payday and car title loans. They can seem tempting but often lead to debt spirals, and a title loan puts your transportation at risk. Explore alternatives such as borrowing from family and friends, selling items you don’t need or getting a payroll advance from an employer. Even using a pawnshop is better than a payday or title loan because it does not endanger your credit score or lead to collections.
Use and pay credit cards strategically
If you need to carry balances, use the card or cards with the lowest interest rates first to minimize the interest you have to pay. Avoid maxing out any one card — spread spending across several cards.
Knowing what affects your credit score will help you limit the damage to it. Pay at least the minimum due — and keep in mind you might be facing tight times for a while. Don’t try to pay in full this month if that endangers paying next month. It’s important to avoid missing a payment altogether because going 30 days or more overdue can stay on your credit report for up to seven years.
While rising credit card balances also can reduce your credit score, that damage is easier to address once the financial crisis is over. Your score will rebound once you lower balances.
One note: If you’ve had credit missteps that led to collections, don’t let a debt collector pressure you into prioritizing that debt now. Preserve your funds to cover living expenses and deal with collections later.
Guard against fraud
The Federal Trade Commission and other agencies have warned consumers to watch out for scammers exploiting the crisis. Be suspicious of messages claiming to be from your creditors, employer or charities. Even clicking on what you believe to be a list of safety precautions can install malware on your computer.
Don’t respond to emails or phone calls directly; instead, use a number or email address you know is accurate, like the contact information on a creditor’s or charity’s website. If you are seeking information on the coronavirus, navigate directly to trustworthy sites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you have elderly friends or relatives, know that they may be targets for scammers. Discussing possible scams can both inform them and ease the isolation that might lead them to engage with scammers.
O’Shea writes for personal finance site NerdWallet.
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