Should You Refinance Your Student Loans?

Due to financial consequences of COVID-19 — and the broader impact on our economy — now is an excellent time to consider refinancing most loans you have. This can include mortgage debt you have that may be converted to a new loan with a lower interest rate, as well as auto loans, personal loans, and […]

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8 Essential Rules for Surviving Financial Hardship

At some point, most people experience an unexpected crisis that shakes their financial world. It could be losing a job, receiving a huge medical bill, or having a car break down at the worst possible time. But surviving a pandemic is a situation you probably never thought you would face.

No matter what challenge you’re facing, you’re not the first.

Along with the public health toll, the COVID crisis has put millions of people out of work. For those struggling financially, here are eight critical rules to help you manage money wisely, stretch your resources, and bounce back from this unprecedented health and economic disaster.

8 rules for managing a financial hardship

Here are the details about each rule to manage a financial setback during the coronavirus crisis.

Rule #1: Accept your situation and use your resources to seek help

The key to successfully navigating a financial setback is to be realistic. If you’re in denial and don’t face money troubles head-on, you can quickly compound the damage.

Instead of focusing on the problem, getting angry, or letting stress overwhelm you, channel your emotions into finding solutions. Start talking about your challenges with people and professionals you trust, such as a money-savvy family member, financial advisor, legitimate credit counselor, or an attorney.

Instead of focusing on the problem, getting angry, or letting stress overwhelm you, channel your emotions into finding solutions.

The following financial associations have certified volunteers who can offer free help and advice:

  • National Association of Personal Financial Advisors
  • The Financial Planning Association
  • Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education

Rule #2: Get a bird’s eye view of your finances

To fully understand your situation, create a list of what you own and owe; this is called a net worth statement. Compiling your data in one place helps you evaluate your financial resources, make decisions more efficiently, and have essential information at your fingertips if creditors or advisors ask for it.

First, list your assets: 

  • Cash
  • Investments
  • Retirement accounts
  • Real estate
  • Vehicles 

Then list your liabilities:

  • Mortgage
  • Car loans
  • Student loans
  • Credit card debt

Include the estimated values of your assets, the balances on your debts, and the interest rates you pay for each liability. You could jot down this information on paper, enter it in a computer spreadsheet, or create a report using money management software.

When you subtract your total liabilities from your total assets, you’ve calculated your net worth, which is an indicator of your financial health. It’s not uncommon to have a low or negative net worth when you’re in financial trouble.

RELATED: 10 Things Student Loan Borrowers Should Know About Coronavirus Relief  

Rule #3: Understand your cash flow

An essential part of bouncing back from a financial crisis is keeping an eye on your monthly income and expenses. Create a cash flow statement that lists your expected income and typical expenses, such as rent, utilities, food, prescriptions, transportation, and insurance. Again, you can create this report manually or by using budgeting features in a financial program.

Understanding where your money goes is the only way to prioritize expenses and cut all non-essential spending.

Understanding where your money goes is the only way to prioritize expenses and cut all non-essential spending. Making temporary sacrifices will help you recover as quickly as possible with less long-term damage to your finances.

Rule #4: Shop your essential expenses

As you review your spending, it’s an excellent time to comparison-shop your essential expenses. Evaluate your highest costs first, such as housing, vehicles, and insurance, since they offer the most significant potential savings.

For instance, you may be able to move into a less expensive home, purchase or lease a cheaper vehicle, and shop your auto insurance to find better deals. Ask your utility provider about assistance programs that offer energy-saving improvements at no charge.

Rule #5: Communicate with your creditors

If you haven’t been in contact with your creditors, start a dialog with each one immediately. You’ll come out ahead and get favorable treatment from creditors if you are proactive and honest about your financial troubles. Ask them for solutions, such as deferring payments for several months, setting up a reduced payment plan, or refinancing a loan to reduce your financial burden.

You’ll come out ahead and get favorable treatment from creditors if you are proactive and honest about your financial troubles.

Creditors are likely to ask about details regarding your financial situation, so have your net worth and cash flow statements on hand when you speak to them. Be ready to complete any required assistance applications quickly.

Rule #6: Prioritize your debts carefully

Based on guidance from creditors and finance professionals, prioritize your bills and debts carefully. Your goal should be to conserve as much cash as possible without skipping essential payments. Always pay for necessities first: food, prescription drugs, and auto insurance.

Debts related to child support and legal judgments have severe consequences and should be prioritized

Use your net worth statement to rank your liabilities from highest to lowest priority. For instance, debts related to child support and legal judgments have severe consequences and should be prioritized. Keeping up with an auto loan is a high priority if you rely on your vehicle for transportation. Federal student loans are in automatic forbearance through September 30, and the relief may get extended through 2020.

Your unsecured debts—medical bills, credit cards, and private student loans—are lower priorities. Never pay these debts ahead of rent, a mortgage, or utilities when you have a cash shortage.

Rule #7: Don’t let collectors force you to make bad decisions

Prioritizing your debts means some may be paid late or not at all. If a debt collector contacts you about a low-priority debt, such as a medical bill or credit card, don’t allow them to persuade you to pay it before your highest priority bills.

Collectors may try various aggressive tactics, such as threatening to sue you or ruin your credit. A lawsuit could take years, and a creditor is more likely to negotiate a settlement with you. Remember that a creditor or collector can’t send you to jail for civil debts.

If you are behind on bills, that fact is likely already reflected on your credit reports. By the time a collector contacts you, the damage is already done, and paying the bill won’t improve your credit in the short-term.

Rule #8: Take advantage of local and federal benefits

If your income and savings have entirely dried up, use these resources to learn more about local and federal benefits.

  • FeedingAmerica.org has a map showing local food banks
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the federal food program you may qualify for based on where you live, your income, and family size
  • MakingHomeAffordable.gov can help you find a housing counselor or see if your mortgage is backed by the federal government and qualifies for forbearance
  • Benefits.gov has a questionnaire that helps you discover the benefits you’re eligible for
  • Medicaid.gov is the federal health insurance program you may qualify for based on where you live, your income, and family size
  • Healthcare.gov is the federal health insurance marketplace where you may find plans with substantial subsidies if you earn too much to qualify for Medicaid

Financial challenges can cause you and your family to experience a flood of emotions, including anger, fear, and embarrassment. As difficult as it might be to put a financial crisis into perspective, it’s critical. No matter what challenge you’re facing, you’re not the first. There are millions of people who are dealing with COVID-related financial hardships.

Face the fact that your recovery could take a while. Do everything in your power to manage your budget wisely by getting organized, seeking ways to earn more, and spending less. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from creditors, seek free advice from professionals, and take advantage of every local and federal benefit possible.

A Guide to Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

As you explore funding options for higher education, you’ll come across many different ways to pay for school. You can try your hand at scholarships and grants, but you may also need to secure federal student loans. Depending on your financial … Continue reading →

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10 COVID-19 Stimulus Benefits for the Self-Employed

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, life and business certainly have changed. If you’re self-employed full-time or earn business income on the side of a day job, you may be wondering what economic relief applies to you.  

Let's review what relief Congress passed to help self-employed Americans cope with financial challenges. I’ll review ten key stimulus benefits that apply to solopreneurs and small businesses.

If you're experiencing economic hardship due to the coronavirus, using some of these new regulations may be the ticket to managing your personal and business finances better.

10 ways the self-employed can get financial relief

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law on March 27 as the largest stimulus legislation in American history since the New Deal in the 1930s. Here are ten ways it provides relief for individual solopreneurs and small business owners.

1. Getting lower interest rates

On March 3, the central U.S. bank, also known as the Federal Reserve or Fed, made a surprising emergency interest rate cut of half a percentage point. That’s the largest single rate cut since the financial crisis of 2008. While this move wasn’t part of a coronavirus stimulus package, it was an aggressive cut meant to prepare the economy for problems the pandemic was expected to cause.

An economic recovery could take a few years, which likely means the Fed rate will stay near zero through 2023.

In mid-September, the Fed reiterated its promise to keep interest rates near zero until the economy improves and the unemployment rate declines. They indicated that a recovery could take a few years, which likely means the Fed rate stays near zero through 2023.

While savers never celebrate low interest rates, they're beneficial to borrowers. In general, the financing charge on variable-rate credit cards and lines of credit goes down in lockstep with interest rates. Carrying a balance on your personal and business credit cards may be slightly less expensive, depending on your card issuer and type. For instance, if your card’s annual percentage rate or APR is 20%, your adjusted rate could go down to 19.5%.

If you have a fixed-rate credit card, the APR doesn’t change no matter what happens in the economy or with federal interest rates. Also, note that if you pay off your balance in full each month, a credit card’s APR is irrelevant because you don’t pay interest on purchases.

2. Having more time to file taxes

Earlier this year, the due date for filing and paying 2019 federal taxes was postponed from April 15, 2020, to July 15, 2020. You didn't have to be sick or negatively impacted by COVID-19 to qualify for this federal tax delay. It applied to any person or business entity with taxes due on April 15, 2020.

If you missed the tax filing deadline, be sure to request an extension.

Most businesses make estimated tax payments each quarter. Those payment dates have shifted, too. The 2020 schedule gives you more time as follows:

  • The first quarter was due on July 15, 2020, which changed from April 15, 2020
  • The second quarter was due on July 15, 2020, which changed from April 15, 2020
  • The third quarter was due on September 15, 2020
  • The fourth quarter is due on January 15, 2021

Individuals and businesses can request an automatic extension to delay filing federal taxes. But it doesn’t give you more time to pay what you owe for 2019, only more time to submit your tax form—until October 15, 2020.

If you missed the tax filing deadline, be sure to request an extension. Individuals must file IRS Form 4868, and most incorporated businesses use IRS Form 7004.

However, depending on where you live, you may have to pay state income taxes, which have not been postponed. If you need a state tax filing extension, check with your state’s tax agency to determine what’s possible.

Taxes due on any date other than April 15, 2020—such as sales tax, payroll tax, or estate tax—don’t qualify for relief.

3. Getting more time to contribute to retirement accounts

You typically have until April 15 or the date of a tax extension to make traditional IRA or Roth IRA contributions for the prior year. But since the CARES Act postponed the federal tax filing deadline, you also have until July 15 or October 15, 2020 (if you requested an extension) to make IRA contributions for 2019.

However, this deadline doesn't apply to retirement accounts you may have with an employer, such as a 401(k). Nor does it apply to self-employed accounts, such as a solo 401(k) or SEP-IRA, which correspond to the calendar year.

4. Getting more time to contribute to an HSA

Like with an IRA, you typically have until April 15 or the date of a tax extension to make HSA contributions for the prior year. Under the CARES Act, you now have until July 15 or October 15, 2020, to make HSA contributions for 2019.

To qualify for an HSA, you must be covered by a qualifying high-deductible health plan. In early March, the IRS issued a notice that a high-deductible health plan may cover COVID-19 testing and treatment and telehealth services before meeting your deductible. And just as before the coronavirus, you can pay for medical testing and treatment using funds in your HSA.

5. Delaying tax on retirement withdrawals

While you typically must pay income tax on retirement account withdrawals that weren’t previously taxed, the good news is that for a period, you can delay or avoid tax altogether. The CARES Act gives you two options for withdrawals made in 2020:

  • Repay a hardship distribution within three years to your retirement account. You can replace the funds slowly or all at once, with no change to your annual contribution limit. If you take money out but return it within three years, it’s like you never took a distribution.
  • Pay taxes on a hardship distribution from your retirement account evenly over three years. If you can’t pay back your distribution, you can ease your tax burden by paying one-third of your liability for three years. 

Since withdrawing contributions from a Roth retirement account doesn’t trigger income taxes, it’s a good idea to tap a Roth before a traditional retirement account when you have the option.

6. Skipping early withdrawal penalties

Most retirement accounts impose a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take make withdrawals before age 59.5. Under the CARES Act, if you have a coronavirus-related hardship, the penalty is waived.

Under the CARES Act, if you have a coronavirus-related hardship, the penalty is waived.

For instance, if you, your spouse, or a child gets diagnosed with COVID-19 or have financial challenges due to being laid off, quarantined, or closing a business, you qualify for this penalty exemption. You can withdraw up to $100,000 of your retirement account balance during 2020 without penalty. However, income taxes would still be due in most cases.

The no-penalty rule applies to workplace retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s. It also applies to IRAs, such as traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP-IRAs.

Since you make after-tax contributions to Roth accounts, you can withdraw them at any time (which was also the case before the CARES Act). However, the earnings portion of a Roth is subject to income tax if you withdraw it before age 59.5.

7. Getting larger retirement plan loans

Some workplace retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s, permit loans. Typically, you can borrow 50% of your vested account balance up to $50,000 and repay it with interest over five years.

You can delay the repayment period for a retirement plan loan for up to one year.

For retirement plans that allow loans, the CARES Act doubles the limit to 100% of your vested balance in the plan up to $100,000. It applies to loans you take from your account until late September 2020, for coronavirus-related financial needs.

You can delay the repayment period for a retirement plan loan for up to one year. For example, if you have $20,000 vested in your 401(k), you could take a $20,000 loan on September 30, 2020, and delay the repayment term until September 30, 2021. You’d have payments stretched over five years, ending on September 30, 2026. Any amount not repaid by the deadline would be subject to tax and a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.

Note that individual retirement accounts—such as traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP-IRAs—don’t allow participants to take loans, only hardship distributions.

8. Suspending student loan payments.

Starting on March 13, 2020, most federal student loans went into automatic forbearance until September 30, 2020, due to the CARES Act. On August 8, the suspension of student loan payments was extended through December 31, 2020.

On August 8, the suspension of student loan payments was extended through December 31, 2020.

The suspension covers the following types of loans:

  • Direct Loans that are unsubsidized or subsidized
  • Direct PLUS Loans
  • Direct Consolidation Loans
  • Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL)
  • Federal Perkins Loans

Note that FFEL loans owned by a private lender or Perkins loans held by your education institution don’t qualify for automatic forbearance. However, you may have the option to consolidate them into a Direct Loan, which would be eligible for forbearance. Just make sure that once the suspension ends, your new consolidated interest rate wouldn’t rise significantly.

During forbearance, qualifying loans don’t accrue additional interest. Even if you have federal student loans in default because you haven’t made payments, zero percent interest applies during the suspension period.

Additionally, missed payments during the suspension don’t get reported to the credit bureaus and can’t hurt your credit. Qualifying payments you skip also count toward any federal loan repayment or forgiveness plan you’re enrolled in.

However, if you want to continue making student loan payments during the suspension period, you can. With zero percent interest, the amount you pay gets applied to your principal student loan balance, enabling you to get out of debt faster.

With zero percent interest, the amount you pay gets applied to your principal student loan balance, enabling you to get out of debt faster.

If you’re not sure what type of student loan you have or the pros and cons of consolidation, contact your loan servicer. Even if your student loans are with private lenders or schools, they may offer relief if you request it.

9. Having Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans forgiven

The PPP is part of the CARES Act, and it supports small businesses, organizations, and solopreneurs facing economic hardship created by the pandemic. The program began providing relief in early April 2020, and the application window ended in early August 2020.

Participating PPP lenders coordinated with the Small Business Administration (SBA) to offer loans to businesses in operation by February 15, 2020, with fewer than 500 employees. Loan amounts could be up to 2.5 times the average monthly payroll up to $10 million; however, annual salaries were capped at $100,000.

For a solopreneur, the maximum PPP loan was $20,833 if your 2019 net profit was at least $100,000. The calculation is: $100,000 / 12 months x 2.5 = $20,833.

When you spend at least 60% on payroll and 40% on rent, mortgage interest, and utilities, you can have those amounts forgiven from repayment. Payroll includes payments to yourself, but you can’t cover benefit costs, such as retirement contributions, or payments to independent contractors.

In other words, a solopreneur could have received a PPP loan for up to $20,833, paid the entire amount to themselves, and not repaid it by having the load forgiven. Using a PPP loan for qualifying expenses turns it into a grant.

The best part about PPP loan forgiveness is that it won’t qualify as federal taxable income. Some states that charge income tax have indicated that they won’t tax forgiven amounts.

However, if you have employees, the PPP forgiveness calculations and requirements are more complex. For example, you must maintain reasonable salaries and wages. If you decrease them by more than 25% for any employee (including yourself) who made less than $100,000 in 2019, your forgiveness amount will be reduced. 

PPP loan forgiveness also depends on keeping any full-time employees on your payroll. But if you had employees who left your company voluntarily, requested a cut in hours, or got fired for cause during the pandemic, your loan forgiveness amount won’t be reduced for those situations.

The best part about PPP loan forgiveness is that it won’t qualify as federal taxable income. Some states that charge income tax have indicated that they won’t tax forgiven amounts.

However, not all states have issued their rules on taxing PPP forgiveness. So be sure to get guidance if you live in a state with income tax.

You must complete a PPP Loan Forgiveness Application and get approved by your lender to qualify for forgiveness. The paperwork should come from your lender, or you can download it from the SBA website at SBA.gov. Most PPP borrowers have from six months after loan disbursement or until the end of 2020 to spend the funds. 

The forgiveness application explains what documents you must include, and they vary depending on whether you have employees. Once you submit your paperwork, your lender has 60 days to decide how much of your PPP loan can be forgiven.

If some or all of a PPP loan isn't forgiven, you typically must repay it within five years at a 1 percent fixed interest rate. You don't have to start making payments for ten months after loan disbursement, but interest will accrue during a deferral period.

10. Getting SBA loans

In addition to PPP loans, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers several loans for businesses and solopreneurs facing economic hardship caused by a disaster, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) can be up to $2 million and repaid over 30 years at an interest rate of 3.75 percent. You can use these funds for payroll and other operating expenses.
  • SBA Express Bridge Loans gives borrowers up to $25,000 for help overcoming a temporary loss of revenue. However, you must have an existing relationship with an SBA Express lender. 
  • SBA Debt Relief is a program that helps you make payments on existing SBA loans for up to six months.

Depending on your state, you may qualify for unemployment assistance, which allows self-employed people, who typically are ineligible for unemployment benefits to get them for a period.

This isn’t a complete list of all the economic relief available for small businesses and solopreneurs. There are federal tax initiatives, funds from local and state governments, and help from private organizations that you may find by doing a search online.

How to manage money in uncertain times

When it comes to surviving uncertainty, such as how COVID-19 will affect the economy, those who have emergency savings will feel much less financial stress than those who don’t. That’s why it’s essential to maintain a cash reserve of at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses in an FDIC-insured bank savings account.

If you don’t need to dip into your emergency fund, continue shoring it up when possible. If you don’t have a cash reserve, accumulate savings by cutting non-essential expenses, and even temporarily pausing contributions to retirement accounts. That’s a better option than succumbing to panic and tapping your retirement funds early.

If you don’t need to dip into your emergency fund, continue shoring it up when possible.

If you find yourself in a cash crunch, contact your creditors before dipping into any retirement accounts you have. Many lenders will be willing to work with you to suspend payments or modify existing loan terms temporarily.

RELATED: How to Reduce Money Anxiety—Compassionate Advice from a Finance Pro

My new book, Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers, covers many strategies to earn more, manage variable income, and create an automatic money system so you can strengthen your financial future. It’s a great resource if you’re thinking about earning side income or have already started a business.

Many economic factors that affect your personal and business finances aren’t under your control. Instead of worrying, look around, and figure out how you can create more income or cut unnecessary expenses. Working on tasks that you can control gives you more clarity and helps manage stress in uncertain times.

My Parents Can’t Afford College Anymore – What Should I Do?

When most parents offer to fund their child’s tuition, it’s with the expectation that their financial circumstances will remain relatively unchanged. Even with minor dips in income or temporary periods of unemployment, a solid plan will likely see the child…

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