How student loan borrowers can benefit from COVID-19 relief

The CARES Act suspends payments on federal student loans. Consumers hit hard by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can find some help, thanks to new legislation passed by Congress. Those who can benefit include some student loan borrowers.

The federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act suspends payments on federal student loans until Sept. 30. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office and Iowa College Aid are spreading the word about benefits for borrowers. “The economic pain caused by this pandemic is devastating for many,” Attorney General Tom Miller said. “I want to ensure borrowers and employers are aware of these benefits.” Miller also urges private lenders and creditors not part of the CARES Act to provide a reprieve for distressed borrowers.   “We’re all in this together,” Miller said. “Let’s reach out, be compassionate and treat each other right.”

If you are paying off student loans, here’s what you need to know: Not all loans qualify. The suspension mandated in the CARES Act is only for loans held by the U.S. Department of Education. It does not cover FFELP (Federal Family Education Loan Program) loans or Perkins loans held by private lenders, nor does it cover private loans. However, some private lenders might provide these benefits on a voluntary basis. If you’re not sure whether you qualify, contact your loan servicer. If you don’t know who your loan servicer is, you can look it up at Federal Student Aid, studentaid.gov/fsa-id/sign-in/landing.

If your loan does qualify, you don’t need to do anything. Your payments will automatically stop from March 13 through Sept. 30. Interest is suspended, too. No interest will accrue on your loan until Sept. 30, so your outstanding loan balance won’t grow while your payments are suspended. So is collection on defaulted loans.

If you’re in default, your wages will not be garnished until Sept. 30. You can still pay if you want to. If you choose to continue paying off your loans during the suspension, your monthly payments will be the same as before the suspension. You won’t lose eligibility for loan forgiveness.

If you’re in a public service loan forgiveness program or an income-driven plan that requires a certain number of consecutive payments, this period of suspension will not count as an interruption. You will still be responsible for your loan. After Sept. 30, you will be responsible for paying on your loan once again. The amount will not be reduced. If you’re an employer, you can contribute up to $5,250 toward each worker’s student debt through Dec. 31 on a tax-free basis.

Keep in mind that guidance on student loan suspension is subject to change. You can find recent news and current updates at Federal Student Aid, studentaid.gov/announcements-events/coronavirus.
Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Managing Personal Finances in Tough Times

Audio Blog

Concerned about your finances during these uncertain times, but not sure where to start? ISU Extension and Outreach invites you to get in touch with one of our Human Sciences financial educators. They can help walk through ideas and options to revise a budget, prioritize bills, pay down debt, connect with community resources to stretch reduced incomes, and other personal finance topics—totally free of charge.

Our 11 financial educators are listed below with the counties they serve and are available to talk with anyone in Iowa. Because Extension and Outreach staff are currently working from home, please send an email. They will get back to you during regular business hours within 48 hours. You also can leave a phone message at Extension and Outreach’s toll-free Iowa Concern Hotline (800-447-1985) to have someone get back to you.

Contact an ISU Extension and Outreach Financial Educator

Central Iowa – Kalyn Cody  [Dallas, Madison, Polk, Warren]

North Central Iowa – Barb Wollan  [Boone, Hamilton, Hardin, Humboldt, Marshall, Story, Webster, Wright]

Northern Iowa – Brenda Schmitt  [Cerro Gordo, Emmet, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Kossuth, Mitchell, Palo Alto, Winnebago, Worth]

Northwest Iowa – Jan Monahan   [Clay, Dickinson, Lyon, Monona, O’Brien, Osceola, Plymouth, Sioux, Woodbury]

West Central Iowa – Carol Ehlers  [Audubon, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Cherokee, Crawford, Greene, Guthrie, Ida, Pocahontas, Sac, Shelby]

Southwest Iowa – Sandra McKinnon  [Adams, Adair, Cass, Clarke, Decatur, Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Page, Pottawattamie, Ringgold, Taylor, Union]

Southern Iowa – Joyce Lash  [Appanoose, Davis, Jasper, Jefferson, Lucas, Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, Poweshiek, Van Buren, Wapello, Wayne]

Southeast Iowa – Mary Weinand  [Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Johnson, Keokuk, Lee, Louisa, Washington]

East Central Iowa – Phyllis Zalenski  [Benton, Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson, Jones, Linn]

Eastern Iowa – Casey Codner  [Cedar, Clinton, Muscatine, Scott]

Northeast Iowa – Jeannette Mukayisire  [Allamakee, Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Grundy, Howard, Tama, Winneshiek]

The information provided is educational in nature to help you make your own informed decisions and is not intended to substitute for professional advice or serve as an endorsement of any financial product or service.  Consult with licensed professionals prior to implementing any of the information provided to determine the course of action is best for you.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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COVID-19 and Unemployment Insurance Benefits

This is a stressful time for individuals and communities across Iowa and we are dealing with many unknowns. Communities are impacted by the temporary closure of businesses, schools and other public facilities or events, and in some cases, quarantines. While these actions are necessary steps to help reduce exposures, it may bring financial uncertainty for many people who could experience a loss of income due to illness or workplace closures.

If you do experience unemployment, remember there are supports in place for you and your family. Iowa unemployment benefits are available to individuals who are unemployed through no fault of their own. If your employer needed to shut down operations and no work is available, you would be eligible to for unemployment benefits. Unemployment claims that are filed as a result of COVID-19 will not be charged to employers.

Many people wonder if they can receive unemployment benefits if they need to stay home from work to care for a dependent, family member or if their child has school cancellations. The answer is, “It depends”. A good approach is to contact your employer regarding potential telecommuting, sick leave, PTO, FMLA, Disability and other options they may be offering.  If those options are not available, you may file for unemployment insurance benefits to determine your eligibility.

Also note, an employer can require an employee to stay at home for the fourteen day isolation period if they have traveled out of state or had contact with someone who visited an area affected by COVID -19. Your employer should attempt to provide paid leave but if that is not available, employees might be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

To learn more about filing an unemployment claim, contact your local Iowa Workforce Development Center or apply online at:  https://www.iowaworkforcedevelopment.gov/file-claimunemployment-insurance-benefits.

Mary Weinand

Guest Blogger: Mary Weinand, Iowa State University Extension Family Finance Field Specialist.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Financial Cause and Effect

As a site coordinator and quality reviewer at a local Volunteer Tax Assistance site, I am able to see hundreds of real-life examples of “cause and effect”. 

  • What EFFECT will cashing out my 401k have on my taxable income? It may CAUSE a portion of your Social Security taxable.
  • What EFFECT will $24,000 of income (with no withholdings) have on a 19 year-old full-time student living at home? The EFFECT will be felt by the student who will owe taxes and by the parents who will not be able to claim the child as a dependent.

The most recent unpleasant EFFECT was CAUSED by gambling winnings.  A very lucky woman in her 70’s received a W-G from a local casino, indicating she won $20,800 worth of winnings with NO taxes withheld. The fact that no taxes were withheld did not bother her because she also had documentation showing her losses, which far exceeded her winnings. She knew that her losses could be deducted from her winnings. What she did not understand was…

  • She could only write-off the losses that were equal to her winnings…meaning…of the 25,000 of losses she had incurred trying to win the $20,800, she could only write off 20,800.
  • What she also did not know was…The losses are reported on a schedule A, while the winnings are counted as income. Once the winnings were added to her pension income and the $26,418 of social security income, she discovered that, not only had the winnings pushed her into a higher tax bracket, her income now was high enough that $13,661 of her Social Security was now taxable. Last year, with no gambling winnings, none of her Social Security was taxed.
  • It was only after her total income was calculated that she could subtract her itemized deductions (which included her gambling losses). 

The combination of increased income (due to gambling winnings), plus the increased tax bracket, plus the increase in the taxable portion of her social security, and the fact that there were no tax withholding on the gambling winnings; this woman owed more than $2000 for her federal tax return…something she had not anticipated.

Before doing anything different with your money, it is important to stop and consider what effect it will have on your tax return.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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The Point of Pause: How Many Hours Will It Cost You?

Audio Blog

I realize that I still have unopened boxes from when I moved into the house 5 years ago. My closets and rooms are full. My rule is if something is coming in, something is going to have to go out. Every time I think about buying something for the house, like a recliner, even a kitchen gadget, I ask myself, “What will need to be taken out to give room for this new item?” It’s all about balance.

Traditionally, as a personal finance educator, I teach budgeting by focusing on balancing money coming in and going out of the household. For example, if we have $3500 in monthly income, then we only have $3500 to spend, save and share. Saving includes goals we are working toward, like retirement, children’s education, a vacation or a kitchen remodel.

How much do we really spend? Tracking where our money goes for a month or two helps give us real numbers to work with in a budget. Many times people do not actually know where that $20 bill in their pocket went. Spending also includes all the out-of-pocket expenditures like eating out or the quick stop before work for a cup of coffee.

Before spending money, focusing solely on the dollars, what if we think in terms of hours worked? Would it give us pause before spending? Would budgeting our hours worked make more sense? Would it help us look at our spending differently? For example, when finding a recliner, we would ask ourselves, “Is it worth it? Do I work enough hours to buy this item?” Here’s a scenario to illustrate the point of pause – Ben clears $20 an hour and works full-time. Ben’s rent is $750, so he has to work 37.5 hours to pay rent. That’s almost a week’s work! He tracked his food expenses and discovered he has to work 11.5 hours each month. He rarely goes out to eat. So how many hours does Ben have left to pay for utilities, goals, clothing, car maintenance, etc.? Can he buy the recliner he has been eyeing?

Guest Blogger: Sandra McKinnon

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Lending Money in Tough Times

Man handing out money.

Times are tough when money is tight. When you are in need of money NOW, you may find banks unwilling to loan money, especially if your credit score is poor. For some, the only option is to borrow from family or friends, especially if you need the money fast.

If you are the lender, it will be hard to say no. You want to help a friend in need and if you say no, you will feel guilty if they lose everything. If you lend the money and they still lose everything, there may be hard feelings because the debt goes unpaid. If the loan is made to a family member, family gatherings will be uncomfortable. The lender may make mental inventories of anything purchased (while the debt is unpaid) especially if purchases are viewed as WANTS instead of a NEEDS.

When making the decision to lend money, it is important to keep emotions out of it. You should not lend money that you can’t afford to lose. If you do expect it to be paid back, don’t expect it to be paid back quickly. You may want to consider the money as a gift instead of thinking of it as a loan.  Then if you get the money back, it will be a pleasant surprise…instead of a disappointment when it isn’t paid back.

Another thing I have done in the past is to buy groceries or to offer to fill up the gas tank for a friend or family member.  This would free up money for the emergency that would have been set aside for gas or groceries. I have also offered to pay for a service, like painting a bedroom which helped the family member make ends meet, without having to ask for a loan. Make sure your spouse is in on the decision to lend money.

As of the 2019 tax year, the IRS has a $15,000 gift tax rule. A small loan will not make a difference, but if you do not charge interest on a loan of that amount or more, it may be considered a gift. If you do not charge interest, the IRS can say the interest you should have charged was a gift . In that case, the interest money goes toward your annual gift giving limit of $15,000 per individual. If you give more than $15,000 to one individual, you are required to file a gift tax form.  The rate of interest on the loan must be at least as high as the minimum interest rates set by the IRS.

These are tough times, especially for the farming community. Be sure to share information, phone numbers and links from the Iowa Concern Hotline.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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To Reconcile or Not

Bank Check
Bank Check

Reconciling a checking account, comparing the bank’s records of checking account activity with your own records, is one of those things I learned when I opened my first account at the age of 16. There is something very satisfying when it matches to the penny AND it ensure that my checking account balance is correct.

It is a challenging to teach tech-savvy individuals to value and adopt the practice of reconciling their bank accounts. Many just rely on a phone app to ensure there is enough money in their account before writing a check. The flaw in this strategy is this: what if there are outstanding checks that have not yet cleared, so there is actually less money in the account than there appears to be on the banking app on your phone?

This week I learned an alarming new reason for reconciling your bank accounts. Over a period of several months, my daughter had purchased supplies for a group she volunteered for. She electronically deposited the reimbursement checks into her account by taking a picture of the checks with her phone. She put the deposited checks in a neat stack on her desk so she would remember to file or destroy them later. Weeks later, her husband found and deposited the checks not knowing they were waiting to be destroyed. He encountered no red flags or warnings, and the checks were deposited a second time. The error was not discovered until the group for whom she volunteered reconciled their account. Had they NOT reconciled their account, the error might never have been discovered.

I find this alarming. There was a period of time where I wrote checks at a large chain store; they scanned my check and handed it back to me. What if a dishonest clerk would have scanned it twice and pocketed the cash from the register? Her register would have balanced at the end of the day. What if I had lost the check and someone deposited it? What if…?

What measures are you going to take to protect yourself from this potential problem? For information about reconciling a bank account, check out How To Reconcile A Bank Account.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Business On The Side

Mary Weinand
Our guest blogger is our colleague Mary Weinand, Human Sciences Specialist, Family Finance, in southeast Iowa

Given the economy, many people are trying to make ends meet with a side job or small business. Before you begin, consider what expenses might go with the business as well. Running a business can be profitable but it can be expensive too. Deductible expenses help entrepreneurs with many of the costs of running a company. Business owners include expenditures on tax returns so that not all of the business sales are taxed as earnings.

The IRS realizes there is a cost to doing business but there may be limits and timing issues for many deductions. Business expenses are reported in the year they are paid – which can differ from the year income is earned. There are some exceptions to this rule, which can allow a business to carry a loss forward to the next year. If your expenses exceed your income for the year you may be able to carry forward some of the business expense to the next year. Check with your tax accountant to make sure you are reporting correctly on your taxes.

According to IRS.GOV, you have to file an income tax return for 2018 if your net earnings from self-employment were $400 or more. If your net earnings from self-employment were less than $400, you still have to file an income tax return if you meet any other filing requirement listed in the Instructions for Form 1040.

Generally, the amount subject to self-employment tax is 92.35% of your net earnings from self-employment. You calculate net earnings by subtracting ordinary and necessary trade or business expenses from the gross income you derived from your trade or business. You can be liable for paying self-employment tax even if you currently receive social security benefits. The law sets a maximum amount of net earnings subject to the social security tax. This amount changes annually. All of your net earnings are subject to the Medicare tax.

Some common deductions for small businesses:

Vehicle – If you use your vehicle in your business, you can deduct vehicle expenses. If you use your vehicle for both business and personal purposes, you must divide your expenses based on actual mileage.

Employee Salary – If you pay someone to perform business services then you can deduct their salary or contract services on your taxes. Be sure the service is related to the business and not for your personal benefit. For example, if you own a home cleaning service you can’t deduct the employee salary to clean your own home.

Interest – You can deduct the expense of interest for money borrowed for business activities.

Business-Related Education – You can deduct seminars, classes, educational tapes or CDs, and convention fees related to your business.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Trends in Saying, “Good Bye”

Dad's Urn
My Dad’s Urn

My brother and I had what I would consider “a lot” of time to prepare for the passing of our father, since Alzheimer’s is a slow-progressing disease. We had time to talk, ask questions, research and make decisions. This was especially helpful since we knew that Dad would most likely pass in Indiana; the funeral would be in Iowa at my church; and the burial would be next to our mom in Minnesota. As we liquidated his Minnesota assets, we consulted our lawyers in Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota as we made decisions about where the estate’s bank account should be located and in which state to file probate. The choice of cremation made for less paperwork and expense when it came to transporting his remains from Indiana to Iowa and then on to Minnesota.

The funeral home director in Indiana made everything very easy and advised us on issues we had not considered like the purchase of a vault for the urn holding dad’s ashes. Not all cemeteries require urn vaults, but Dad’s did. For being nothing more than a small plastic box that is sealed with rubber cement, it came with a hefty price tag. The funeral director suggested finding one online, which was about a fourth the price.

It is interesting the things that are said during the time of grief. Old feelings bubble up. Emotions are raw and run deep. Two of our family members were struggling with the fact that they had not attended my mom’s funeral 30 years ago, and had not even known where she was buried; in some ways they were burying two family members that day. It became apparent to me the important role the graveside service played for these two family members. Interestingly though, the one struggling most had made the decision to donate her body to science. In this way, her body would then be cremated (at no cost to her) and the remains returned to her family. She intends to have no grave, no funeral…no final expenses. Her decision was purely a financial decision. I wonder if she will think differently now that she has experienced the effects of 30 years of deeply buried grief, magnified because she had experienced all the traditional rituals that come with the passing of a loved one.

A financially secure and elderly friend passed away recently. She was devout in a faith which we shared. Her children lived far away and I was eager and willing to help them make all the funeral arrangements through our church. It caught me completely by surprise that they decided that there would be NO funeral. She had the means to pay for such things. She was a long-time member of our church and community, so there were a lot of people planning to say “good bye” in a public way AND a lot of people trying to make sense of this decision. She had donated her body to science and the remains were returned to her children…end of story.

With increased access to information, survivors as consumers are seeking more alternatives to the conventional funeral. Funerals are among the most expensive purchases made in a lifetime. The national median cost of an adult funeral is $7,360. The time to make these decisions is now…not during a period of duress, grief, and guilt. Funeral Directors are excellent sources of information and you may want to check out this document by the University of Florida Extension – The Art of Goodbye; A Closer Look at Emerging Trends in End-of-Life-Rituals.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Peak Alert

Peak Energy Alert

I love the fact that our home has hot-water heat. As a person with allergies, I am not overwhelmed in the summer or winter when the central-air or furnace blows the collected dust out of the vents. But with hot water heat, there’s no option for central air conditioning; I would have to say that this week I would give almost anything to have central air! As I write this during a heatwave, it is expected to hit 95 degrees today with a feel-like temperature of 103 degrees. I can only imagine how widespread the brown-outs will be with everyone retreating to their air-conditioned homes and places of employment.

So, what about those brown-outs? In visiting with my co-worker (who has central-air) I have learned that our local energy-provider has a program called Appliance Cycling. This program will not only reduce the amount of energy used by the homeowner, which will reduce their cost…but the homeowner will also be compensated with a credit of $8/month for participating in the program.

When you sign up for the program, a technician will come to your home and install a small radio-control switch on or near your outdoor central air conditioner at no cost to the homeowner. 

If the demand for electricity escalates to a critical point, a “system emergency” or “peak alert” is announced, and a radio signal is sent to activate the switch on your air conditioner. Your outdoor cooling unit will then cycle off while the furnace fans continue to circulate the cooler, drier air already in your home. 

The program runs from May to September and the cycling events typically occur Monday through Friday from 1 PM – 7 PM…never on weekends or holidays.

My co-worker says she notices a slight difference in the temperature and humidity in their home during peak alerts but nothing that a box fan or ceiling fan can’t make up for. Do you have a similar program in your area?  What has been your experience? As for me…I think I will plan on supper at a restaurant!

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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