How to Navigate Bills Right Now, From Student Loans to Phone Plans

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Americans who are struggling to pay their bills during the coronavirus crisis may be able to access relief from their loan service, creditor or lender. (iStock)

When officials began issuing local and statewide shelter-in-place orders in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus, scores of businesses across the country were forced to shutter, leaving a historic number of Americans unemployed and grappling with overwhelming financial loss.

To help soften the blow, Congress passed the CARES Act, a massive $2.2 trillion stimulus package. Among many other things, the bill includes one-time payments of up to $1,200 per person for millions of Americans with adjusted gross incomes of up to $75,000, plus $500 for each qualifying child. On April 11, the Internal Revenue Service announced it had issued the first set of checks.

But $1,200 only goes so far — especially in the Bay Area — and if you find yourself still unable to pay your bills, there are other forms of financial assistance potentially available. But before contacting creditors and lenders, it's crucial to come up with a solid game plan.

“I think the very first step that you need to take is to sit down and look at all of your financial resources and take into account everything that you have available to survive a reduction or loss of income,” said Bruce McClary, a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nationwide network of nonprofit financial counseling organizations.

McClary suggests that everyone — even those with substantial savings — implement an emergency budget and be aware of relief options. “Things are changing on this front, and there are more programs that are likely to be announced,” he said.

If you’re experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic, navigating available relief options can be a downright overwhelming process. So, here’s what you need to know about paying the bills that might be on your plate:

 Calling About Payment Options? Read This First

Before contacting your creditors or lenders, make sure you’re prepared and know what to say in order to access the full range of payment relief options available, whether it be loan deferments and fee waivers options or payment plans and continued service guarantees.

Guide: Filing for Unemployment

“It could be a lot of phone calls, but it's very important that you start the process and that you're the one who initiates these conversations,” McClary said.

According to the Consumer Protection Finance Bureau, you should have the following information in hand before contacting lenders:

  • Your financial and employment status
  • How much you can afford to pay
  • When you’re likely to be able to restart regular payments
  • Detailed information about your income, expenses and assets

“It's always best to enter into the conversation with a broader question about what programs are available for people who are experiencing financial hardships that are related to COVID- 19," McClary said.

Beginning the call with an open-ended question allows the lender or creditor the opportunity to tell you what kind of relief options are available. Explain your situation and be sure to explicitly say you’re experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus. Some lenders may have certain processes already in place for borrowers who are impacted by the crisis, but not necessarily for those experiencing unrelated financial hardship.

If possible, make sure you request in writing any assistance options that are offered by your financial institution, and at the very least, take good notes.

It could also be beneficial to consult a financial or housing counselor before reaching out to creditors to make sure you're prepared. You can access free or low-cost financial counseling through the NFCC or the Financial Counseling Association of America.

If you've lost a significant chunk of your income, one commonly offered form of relief is known as a forbearance program. It allows you to skip one or more bill or loan payments, usually without penalties like late fees or having services turned off.

If forbearance isn’t an option, other programs may also be available, like reduced payment plans.

“If someone says 'We don't have forbearance programs,' don't hang up the phone and think that you're out of options,” said McClary. “Ask leading questions to identify what other options are available.”

And if you don't think you're getting the assistance you're entitled to, some experts suggest filing a complaint to federal and state consumer protection agencies (which you can do here and here).

"Sometimes that can make a difference," said Kevin Stein, deputy director of the California Reinvestment Coalition. "And there are people in the agency who are supposed to be looking for trends and bad actors, so maybe it's information they would act upon.”

Below is a list of specific relief programs available if you're struggling to pay your bills. But remember, creditors and lenders may be able to provide relief on a case-by-case basis, even if certain options aren't listed on their websites.

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Banks and Credit Card Lenders

Many banks and credit card lenders are now offering forms of assistance to help borrowers impacted by the pandemic, including options like fee waivers and forbearance. Again, when speaking to a lender, make sure you explicitly explain you are suffering financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic and allow them to tell you what programs are available.

The American Banker Association compiled a directory of U.S. banks and what they’re doing to assist customers who are financially impacted by the crisis. Even if a bank or credit card lender’s policy doesn’t explicitly outline the kind of assistance you’re looking for, relief may be available on a case-by-case basis.

If you do receive forbearance or other forms of assistance from a lender, routinely check your credit report to ensure no inaccuracies are being reported. You can access a free credit report once a year from each of the following companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Utilities

Many of us are spending a lot more time at home these days and because of that, we're likely using more electricity than normal. Coupled with coronavirus-related financial pressure, you may find that you need assistance paying your monthly utility bill and making sure the lights stay on.

How to Avoid Getting Scammed

Across California, many utility companies — including Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Sacramento Municipal Utility District — have all promised they won't shut off power to customers who can't pay their bills during the coronavirus crisis.

Additionally, people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 may qualify for PG&E’s California Alternate Rates for Energy Program, which provides a 20% to 35% discount on utility bills. Households with three or more people may also qualify for an 18% discount on electricity through the utility's Family Electric Rate Assistance Program. Text “CARE” to 20283 to find out if you’re eligible.

Phone and WiFi

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai asked telephone and broadband service providers to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which ensures a continuation of service to customers during the coronavirus crisis.

More than 700 companies have signed on to pledge so far. Here is a list.

That means, for at least 60 days, those companies have promised to do the following:

  • Not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus.
  • Waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the crisis
  • Open Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needs them

Below are some additional offerings available from the largest internet providers in the Bay Area for people who have been impacted by the coronavirus crisis. This list is not all-inclusive, so contact your WiFi provider to inquire about assistance available for your specific situation. All of the following companies are also promising no disconnects or late fees during this period:

  • Comcast: Comcast is making 1.5 million of its Xfinity WiFi hotspots free across the country during the pandemic. To locate a hotspot near you, search this interactive map. Qualified new low-income customers can also get 60 days of free internet. The company is also giving customers unlimited data for 60 days with no additional charges.
  • Spectrum: Spectrum is making its WiFi hotspots available for public use. The company is also offering free internet access for 60 days to households with students and educators.
  • AT&T: AT&T is providing three months of free wireless service for frontline nurses and physicians nationwide.
  • Verizon: Verizon is offering customers additional mobile hotspot data.
  • Sonic: Sonic is offering three months of free internet access and unlimited nationwide home telephone service to households with students or residents 60 and older.

Student Loans

Under the CARES Act, you may be able to suspend student loan payments through Sept. 30, 2020, but only if they’re federal loans, not ones issued through private banks, credit unions, schools or other entities.

Payments for student loans owned by the federal government will be suspended automatically, so you don’t need to worry about contacting your loan-service provider. The interest rate is set to 0% through Sept. 30.

Many private lenders, however, are offering reduced payment plans or ways to postpone your payments. Contact your lender directly to find out about payment options.

If you don’t know who your loan servicer is, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-433-3243 to find out.

You should never be asked to pay a fee to suspend your federal student loans. If this occurs, report it to the Federal Trade Commission.

Car payments and Insurance

If you can't pay your auto loan, your lender may be able to work with you to provide some relief. Several major lenders have offered options to help people paying off a car or buying a new one, such as waiving late fees or allowing deferred payments.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends following these steps:

  • Ask to change the date your payment is due
  • Request a payment plan
  • Ask for a payment extension/deferral
  • Consider refinancing your auto loan

For your auto insurance, you're likely eligible to receive a rebate or payment deferrals. As shelter-in-place orders have reduced traffic on the road, California insurance commissioner Ricardo Lara ordered insurance companies to return premiums to drivers and businesses during the coronavirus crisis.

Reach out to your insurance company to find out the full range of financial relief they may be offering during the pandemic.

Rent, Mortgage and Property Taxes

For tenants: KQED created a guide outlining what to do and what protections are available if you can't pay rent during the coronavirus crisis.

If you can’t pay your mortgage, or can only pay part of it, you should reach out to your mortgage servicer, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has a guide on mortgage relief options, including information about protections through the CARES Act for homeowners with federally backed mortgages.

In most California counties, property taxes were due April 10, but nearly all counties in the state have agreed to waive penalties for late payments on a case-by-case basis if you can demonstrate that you've been financially impacted by the crisis.

San Mateo and San Francisco counties also both extended their property tax deadlines to May 4. Check out KQED's guide to paying property taxes in all nine Bay Area counties.

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