DOMINGO CASTANEDA: Hi. My name is Domingo Castaneda (ph). I'm calling from Las Vegas, Nev. And the way I'm getting through this is with the help of my pets, especially my rescue dog. She always looks forward to every day with excitement and optimism. And it reminds me to do the same. It's pretty simple and very effective. Have a fabulous day.
MEGHAN KEANE, BYLINE: We are still taking more of these. So please, if you have a good tip about how you're managing right now during coronavirus, we want to hear it. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823. Just say your full name, where you're from and your tip and also a number where we can reach you. Or just send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are looking forward to hearing more of your tips. And thanks.
CHRIS ARNOLD, HOST:
Hey, I'm Chris Arnold. I'm an NPR correspondent, and I cover personal finance. And this is NPR's LIFE KIT.
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ARNOLD: The economic slowdown from the coronavirus has led to record numbers of Americans filing for unemployment. It was more than 3 million people in a single week. These are really scary times for a lot of people, both for health reasons and also because people have lost their income. And even if you haven't, a lot of people are worried about that.
At the same time, though, help is really on the way. The federal government just passed the largest rescue package in history - $2 trillion - to help get the country through this crisis. So in this special episode of LIFE KIT, I sat down with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro to answer some of your personal finance questions, from filing for unemployment to how to get approved to skip mortgage or credit card payments - that can be a really big deal and be helpful. And there's other ways, too, to weather this storm and emerge as financially intact as possible.
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ARNOLD: OK. So like we said, the government's throwing $2 trillion at this problem that we're facing. Hundreds of billions of dollars is going to flow to regular, everyday people like us if you've been hurt financially. And for millions of people, most of that money is going to come in the form of unemployment checks. So Ari was asking me...
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Who can qualify for unemployment benefits?
ARNOLD: Well, the Department of Labor is telling us that if you lose your job, obviously, you qualify. But also, if you've been quarantined and can't work, you qualify. If you can't work because you're taking care of a family member, you can collect benefits. And - this is a very big deal - that self-employed contract workers, gig workers, they now, too, can qualify for benefits under this bill. That's also - is part of that is this extra $600 we've been hearing about for people - they'll get that, too.
SHAPIRO: And so that's more than the 3.3 million people who have filed for unemployment. That's including people who can't file for unemployment.
ARNOLD: Correct. So it'll be way beyond that. And you know, gig and contract workers have not been able to get unemployment, you know, ever because they're not considered real employees or full employees. So this is just a huge deal for millions of people, like you're saying, who can now get help if they lose their income.
SHAPIRO: So how is the system handling these millions of people all applying for unemployment at the same time? It's unprecedented numbers. And we've heard of systems crashing, people not being able to get through on the phone. What's going on?
ARNOLD: You could look at this as a glass half-full, half-empty situation. So right, system is overwhelmed, kind of understandably. And that's frustrating. I talked today to Victorialee Arger-Medina (ph). She lives in New York, and she and her husband are both freelancers. She works in photography. He does events. And they're making no income at all right now. They're telling - they have three kids. They're like, don't drink full glasses of milk. You know, they're, like, rationing food 'cause they're scared. And she was told to go ahead and apply for unemployment as a freelancer now.
VICTORIALEE ARGER-MEDINA: That sounds good. I did the application online yesterday. But then with that, you have to call in to complete the application. But when you call in, either the line is busy or when you get through, they say due to high call volume, nobody's here to accept your call. But you have to call within the week to activate your case. So I don't know if my application is even going to go through, you know? So that makes me nervous.
ARNOLD: So you know, she's obviously feeling, like, all right, I'll believe it when I see a check in my hand. But look; we should say that this system was not designed for this massive and sudden surge. And it's kind of astounding. I mean, you know, the good news, if you want to call it that here, is that 3 million people - more than that - did manage to file for benefits just last week. States say they're staffing up. So you know, the news is - the advice is, just keep trying.
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ARNOLD: So if it sounds like you are eligible for unemployment, this is all coordinated at the state level. So what you do is you go to your state's website to file for unemployment, and they'll have a bunch of updated information there for your particular state.
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ARNOLD: And we should say, too, if you're having trouble connecting with your local unemployment office - and that's happened to a lot of people - there are a few things that you can do to try to make sure that you're advocating for yourself as best you can. And one of my favorite reporters at NPR, Yuki Noguchi - shout out to Yuki; she's super awesome - she wrote a really good story about this.
And she says look, first, you want to make sure that you document every attempt that you make to file your claim. And that means write down the dates and the times that you've call. Like, take screenshots. Or just take out your phone and take a picture of the laptop screen when the system was crashing on you when you were trying to file for unemployment. And that way, if it takes you a long time to get through, this evidence might help you collect benefits dating back to your first attempt at receiving them, and that could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars, right? So take the time to make some notes and take some photos while you're trying to do this.
Now, if your unemployment claim is denied, you can appeal. And that could be a good idea because look - I mean, just about everybody is eligible for benefits now, I mean, gig workers, Uber drivers, everybody. You know, if you've lost significant amounts of income, the idea behind this bailout package or this rescue package the government's doing is that pretty much everybody should be eligible for unemployment. So if you do get denied, you can try to appeal. You know, you can Google online and try to figure out how to do that. In normal times, there are legal aid advocates who can help you, so you might be able to reach some of them, too.
But one way or another, do persist because if you feel like you should be getting aid, don't just take no for an answer. And in the meantime, there are other safety net programs out there, like SNAP for food assistance or Medicaid. And you might also be eligible for that.
Now let's turn to a question that lots of people are thinking about right now - paying bills. Ari Shapiro and I talked with one listener who had this question.
SETH DIETZ: I was recently laid off my job of 10 years because of this recent pandemic. My question is this - should I continue paying my mortgage and other bills? I will very likely run out of money very soon, but I'm not sure when and if unemployment will cover my expenses.
SHAPIRO: That question comes to us from Seth Dietz (ph). And we wanted to chat with him, so we got him on the line. Hi, Seth.
DIETZ: Hello. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: I'm really sorry for what you're going through. Can we talk - can you tell us a little more about the situation that you're in?
DIETZ: Sure. Well, I've been gainfully employed at the same place for the past 10 years. When all this was let loose, I guess, I had no clue that it would even affect me, you know? I mean, this is totally seemed like a world away.
DIETZ: And then all of a sudden, I got conference-called in on the end of my vacation and was suddenly laid off. And you know, this - I haven't been unemployed in almost 15 years. And this is - I mean, I have a mortgage payment. I have bills, like, on autopay, and everything's coming out. And I just feel like, you know, mostly we're getting so much mixed information from our government and everybody. And I don't have a lot of clear - I mean, nobody's telling us what to do. Like, you know, like...
SHAPIRO: I understand.
DIETZ: ...How to handle this.
SHAPIRO: So Chris, what would you recommend for Seth?
ARNOLD: Well, Seth, actually I think I have, like, all kinds of good news for Seth. Like you're saying, there's so much information out there. We all want to know about droplets of coronavirus in the air. You know, there's so many things we're worried about. Some really important things have not been widely reported. And one of them is it's very likely, if you've lost your job, that you can get a pause on your mortgage payments. And a lot of financial firms are moving very quickly to do this. We spoke to Holly O'Neill with Bank of America.
HOLLY O'NEILL: We have assistance that includes refunds on fees, deferred payments and, at the same time, no negative credit bureau reporting. And this is across our products - deposit accounts, credit cards, mortgages, auto loans and small business loans.
ARNOLD: This is really important. You can't just stop paying your bills. That's going to mess up your credit score. You need to reach out. So let's say you're a homeowner - you've got to call up the company that you write your check to every month and say, you know, I've lost my job. I need help. Please get me into what's called a forbearance program. Odds are that's going to work. And you can try the same thing for your car loan, your credit cards, whatever. And lenders are recognizing if we just let people pause for two, three months, whatever it takes, the whole system's going to be better off.
SHAPIRO: Seth, I hope that's helpful.
DIETZ: Thank you. I appreciate it.
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ARNOLD: So this should be a really big help to people who are homeowners, though I want to stress that it'll be a help if it's done right by the lenders and the mortgage companies that are involved 'cause this is not free money. They're giving you a break on your payments for a few months, but you're going to eventually have to make those payments. And so if it were me, I would press my lender and say, all right, look, I lost my job. If I don't make payments for three months, what I would like to do is just extend the term of my loan by three months so when I can start paying again, my payments stay exactly the same.
If your lender has a different plan that's going to cost you more money every month, push back and say no, that's not what I want. And for half the loans in the country, those backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, lenders are required to give you an option that does not raise your monthly payments. So tell them you know that. You could ask them if your loan is backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. And get all this in writing and really push so you don't have to pay more on your mortgage when this whole thing's over.
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ARNOLD: OK. So a lot of people, of course, are not homeowners and they rent the place that they live. And we got a lot of questions for people wondering, what about us? What about renters?
NATALIE RYAN: Hi. My name is Natalie (ph), and I am a small business owner from Southern California. My business has been essentially ground to a halt because of the COVID-19 outbreak. We are a continuing education company for hairstylists, and our business depends on our ability to travel. My question is about the moratoriums on evictions going on. Does that mean that I can or should stop paying rent since we have no idea how long we'll be with income? Our family does live month to month, and I'm worried that choosing to pay for April could mean not having the means to buy food for May, especially since the potential 2,400 that my wife and I could receive doesn't even cover our rent.
SHAPIRO: So Chris, you spoke about mortgage payments a little earlier. What about rent payments in this situation?
ARNOLD: Yeah, I mean, that's tougher. And look; I mean, I don't think it's - you don't want to advise somebody to stop paying their rent, right? So a few things - I mean, one is she's a small business owner. There's going to be a lot of help for small business owners, so that's good. But another thing is just talk to your landlord. And some of the same flexibility in payments for homeowners, landlords can get some of these same breaks on the mortgages that they pay for their properties that they rent to people. And mom-and-pop landlords might not even know this. You could call up and say, hey, you know, I don't want to have to leave. And right now a landlord doesn't want, you know, a vacancy in their building either. So you know, talk to your landlord. Say, I need help. You know, talk to the bank; maybe they can help us. You know, make it an us thing, you know?
If it comes to it - like, you don't want to be in a heated battle with your landlord. But yes, it's true, they are banning evictions all over the place. And even in places where they're not, you know, you got to think, the sheriff's department is not going to make it a high priority to put people out in the street in the middle of a pandemic. But you know, before you go there, I would just advise everybody in that kind of situation just ask your landlord for help.
Of course, losing your health insurance when there is a global pandemic happening is not a good thing, obviously. So we got a lot of questions about, what if you lose your health care because you lost your job?
SHAPIRO: If you can briefly answer this question from John Vincent (ph) in Pennsylvania, he writes, if the government forces my employer to shut down and I'm technically unemployed, will my employer-sponsored health care insurance still be active?
ARNOLD: What I can say is part of this new bill, the idea is they're trying to craft it in a way so that employers can keep you technically employed so you keep your health insurance and the government can pay you through unemployment 'cause furloughed workers will get unemployment, too. And one other thing to know here is that losing your job technically makes you eligible to enroll right away in the state-level health care exchanges. You don't have to wait for that certain time of the year when that's OK. So you could just do that now if you've lost your job. We're talking about, like, the Obamacare system basically, the ACA. So you can look into that option, too.
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SHAPIRO: Now, Chris, you cover personal finance for NPR. And this may sound obvious. But I suppose it's also important advice that if your income has shrunk or you're not making any money, it's also good to look for ways to cut spending, right?
ARNOLD: Right. I mean, look; the thing is you want to get to the other side of this national crisis, national shutdown as financially intact as possible. And I talked to Angelica Rico in Southern California. She's 25, and she lost her job as a digital marketing specialist.
ANGELICA RICO: I kind of just went through everything that I - normally gets charged on my card and cancelled it - so Spotify, you know, canceling Amazon orders, deferring my student loan - and for food, basically, a lot of pasta, a lot of rice and beans. I have an InstaPot, so I can live on rice and beans for a while (laughter).
ARNOLD: So I mean, she's even canceling Spotify, which - her music subscription. I'm not sure if I'd be able to do that myself. But look; the idea is just trim all you can to get to the other side of this thing.
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ARNOLD: For many people it's very good news that this $2 trillion package just passed in Washington and money's going to be flowing. But you know, it's not flowing yet. We talked to Nick Sanford (ph). He works with kids with hearing disabilities in the schools of Detroit. But he's not an employee. He's a contractor, and he lost all of his income. And he says it's been really scary not knowing of what's going to happen.
NICK SANFORD: I mean, I work with so many other educational interpreters, and we're all extremely worried. I know - I don't have any kids, but I know many co-workers who have kids. And their spouses have been laid off as well. So we're just waiting.
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ARNOLD: They're waiting, of course, for money to start flowing from this big rescue plan. And now that it's passed both the Senate and the House, the gears are turning. You know, this is going to happen. But it's not going to happen immediately. Even in the best of times when you file for unemployment, it's something, like, two or three weeks before you actually start getting the money. Now we've got just a crushing number of people applying. So hang in there. Kind of channel Angelica with the rice and beans and just live as cheap as you can. But you know, be assured that the biggest rescue package in history is on the way. And if you've been hurt financially, the odds are very good that there's going to be money coming your way to help.
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ARNOLD: We know your questions don't end here in this unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in with what feels like half the country shut down. But we're working hard to continue to give you the answers that you're looking for.
In the meantime, we've got a lot of episodes on financial planning that can be useful. We made one about how to stop paying unnecessary fees, another how to do budgeting in a smart way to kind of limit your spending like we were talking about. We have a whole episode on investing in the stock market, in particular, how to ride it out when it starts feeling like a roller coaster. Check that out. You can find all those episodes at npr.org/lifekit.
We also want to hear your tips. What are your tricks for coping during this time of coronavirus? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at email@example.com. I'm Chris Arnold. Thanks for listening.
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