Nursing Home Residents: Keep your economic impact payment

If finances are tight, the federal economic impact payment being issued through the CARES Act for coronavirus relief may have a big impact on your well-being. Unfortunately, residents of care facilities in many states (including Iowa) are being told incorrectly that they must relinquish their payment.

This problem occurs when an individual is receiving Medicaid benefits to help cover the cost of their care. Nursing home administrators, acting on misinformation, believe they must recover the extra income to defray Medicaid costs. However, the CARES Act specifically labels the payments as “tax credits,” and tax credits are exempt from income and resource limits placed on those who are benefiting from certain government assistance programs.

Nearly every United States household should receive an economic impact payment, including households that receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Veterans Administration benefits. The payments should be deposited automatically to the same account where you receive either your tax refund or your SSA, SSI, or VA income. The IRS, which is responsible for issuing the payments, offers a lookup resource to help people track their payment. Note: the look-up link for those who do not file a tax return is separate from the link for tax filers; be sure to use the correct link.

If you have loved ones living in care facilities, especially if they are receiving Medicaid benefits to help cover the cost of care, be on the watch for any attempts to get them to turn over their economic impact payment to the facility. If this has already occurred, it should be refunded; contact the Iowa Attorney General’s office for help if needed. Note: it is important to keep in mind that nursing home administrators who try to claim the payment are not trying to steal; they are trying to do the right thing, but are simply misinformed about what the law requires.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Meat Rations

My local grocery store announced that they will limit fresh meat purchases to four items for the current time. Many grocery chains have set limits to prevent shortages. The slowdown of processing at meat packing plants has made this step necessary to balance supply and demand.

I called the meat department for details. A prepackaged retail item counts as one item. Meat case items can be bundled: for example, if I request 5 pounds of ground meat and have it wrapped in 1-pound packages, the five will be over-wrapped with one price tag and count as one item. Canned meat items, including tuna, salmon, spam, etc., do not count toward the purchase limit. Be sure to check with your local store; their policies might be different.

Eggs, peanut butter and beans are nutritious substitutes for red meats and poultry.  Stores may also be marketing institutional cuts. These are larger pieces of meat such as whole loins or rump roasts that can be cut into individual servings and frozen. Another approach is to cook the large cut, then divide the meat into packages appropriate for recipes that call for pre-cooked meats. To freeze meat for later use, place it in a plastic freezer bag and over-wrap with heavy foil or freezer paper. Be sure to add a label with date.

Cutting back on serving sizes or using recipes that stretch the protein content are other solutions.  Stir-fry recipes put more emphasis on vegetables. Rice, pasta and beans in a recipe may make it possible to reduce the amount of meat or poultry to ¾ or ½ the amount in the original recipe and still supply adequate nutrition. Low cost, protein-stretching recipes are available at the Spend Smart Eat Smart website.

To extend the quality of raw meats in your refrigerator, store the cuts at 40 degrees or less.  The meat drawer is designed to provide the ideal conditions for storage. The temperature in the freezer compartment should be zero degrees or less.  If your refrigerator does not have an internal thermometer, you can purchase one at appliance or hardware stores. 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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An Ounce of Prevention

I shouldn’t be surprised by the increased number of bogus offerings, threats and scare-tactics arriving in my inbox, mailbox and phone. Scammers are offering everything from face masks to toilet paper and expedited deposits of the stimulus payments. Identity theft and related scams often spike during times of crisis. So…desperate times require extra diligence on our part, to protect our identity and our hard earned money.

The three national credit-reporting companies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, are offering free weekly online credit reports through April 2021. By requesting a free credit report at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action, an individual will get a report from all three companies with the single application.

By establishing a “myEquifax” account at equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/free-credit-reports  or by calling 866.349.5191, individuals can receive six free credit reports every twelve months from Equifax, through December 2026…that is in addition to the one free report that can be obtained each year from all credit reporting companies at AnnualCreditReport.com.

While checking your credit report is an important habit, there are other things individuals can do to protect their identity and improve their score.

  1. Pay all your bills on time if possible. It may get difficult with layoffs and furloughs, but try to make at least your minimum debt payments by their due date every month to avoid hurting your credit score.
  2. Contact your lenders for help and ask about hardship options as soon as possible—ideally before you miss a payment. Lenders may be able to temporarily lower your interest rate or payment amount, or pause your payments for a period of time. Lenders may also be able to place your loans in deferment or forbearance, which would eliminate payments for a time; as a result, there would be no late payments to report to the credit bureaus. Under the CARES Act, when a consumer contacts their creditor before falling behind in payments, and reaches an agreement with the creditor to a modified payment plan (reduced payments or forbearance), then the creditor may not report late or missed payments to the credit reporting company as long as the consumer follows the agreement. That protection for the consumer lasts until the later of July 26, 2020 OR 120 days after the COVID-19 national emergency declaration ends.
  3. Check your credit regularly and make sure the information is accurate. You can identify any potentially fraudulent activity and respond to it before it damages your credit.
  4. Dispute inaccurate information immediately. Remember that disputes need to be made with each credit bureau where the disputed information appears.
  5. Contact your service providers. If you do not think you can pay your utility, cell phone, cable or other monthly bills, reach out to your providers to see if they offer flexible payment options during this time.
  6. Be extra vigilant about protecting your identity. If you fear identity theft may occur or has occurred in your name, you can also place a free security freeze on your credit file so lenders cannot gain access to it. This prevents people from applying for credit in your name. You can lift the freeze at any time, for free.
  7. Seek financial management help. The Iowa Concern Hotline (800.447.1985) can put you in touch with a financial consultant who will provide confidential information and discussion, free of charge.
  8. For those with investment or retirement accounts, U.S. market fluctuations could cause significant concern. Before you make any rushed decisions with your investments, consult a reputable investment professional who can look at the details of your situation and provide personalized financial guidance on what actions, if any, you should consider at this time. Not sure where to start? The professionals at the firm holding your investments or with your employer’s retirement plan can be a first contact for analysis of your situation.
  9. Make a budget and plan ahead. If you think current conditions may affect your income or finances, consider tightening your budget to help make sure you have enough funds to cover your expenses.

For more information about free help and guidance during these difficult times, check out https://www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/.

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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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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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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Seek Additional Resources

Audio Blog

In all aspects of life, when we face any kind of shortage (time, money, food, etc) we generally have two choices. We can prioritize and narrow down our goals, which we have discussed in earlier posts. OR we can expand our available resources. In most cases, it’s smart to do a little of both!

The current public health crisis is wreaking havoc with the economy at large and with the economic well-being of many individual households; the widespread nature of the crisis has led to availability of expanded public supports for those whose income is disrupted. Find out if you are eligible for the unemployment relief available during the COVID-19 crisis, and apply. Learn about food pantry options in your community; spending less on food can free up funds for other critical needs and bills.

In addition, consider your personal resources. Do you own something you can sell to help you through this crisis?  If you have a boat or a snowmobile or other item of value, selling it can provide a boost. If you are currently laid off from your regular job, is there temporary work available in your community? Keep an open mind and consider all options for dealing with your current situation.

If you have lost your health insurance, check on the free or subsidized health insurance available through the Affordable Care Act: contact DHS at 855-889-7985 to see if you are eligible for free insurance, OR for subsidized insurance through the marketplace, go to www.healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596. Through the marketplace, your share of the insurance premium is on a sliding scale depending on your income: people generally pay premiums equivalent to 2% – 8% of their income, and the government pays the remainder.

Seek other public or community assistance as well if you qualify. These resources exist because we live in a society that wants to ensure all can stay safe and healthy. Perhaps you are new to seeking help, but consider that others have needed them in the past and others will need them in the future; now is the time when you need them. If you don’t know much about available resources in your area, dial 211 or go to the website. This free service provides information and referral on a wide range of issues.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Communicating with creditors

When a tight financial situation leaves you truly unable to pay all your bills according to the prescribed schedule, then difficult choices must be made, as discussed in my previous post. After evaluating your situation and figuring out the best strategy you can come up with, the next step is to make some phone calls. Note: in some cases emails or on-line communication may be the company’s only option, but I encourage you to first attempt to reach creditors by phone.

As much as you might dread the phone call, communicating with creditors is essential if you cannot pay on time. The fact that you called and explained your situation will make a huge difference in their willingness to work with you. This is especially true if you have previously been a reliable customer; creditors recognize the losses people are facing during this unprecedented crisis. A couple of suggestions:

  1. Be prompt – call them before your payment is due.
  2. Be honest with them – tell the truth without embellishment or exaggeration.
  3. Ask if they have any “hardship plan” that would reduce or eliminate the fees or interest that come with late payments.
  4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Example: sometimes people are so nervous that when the creditor says “Will you be able to pay the remaining balance by next Wednesday,” the customer just says yes, even though it is not realistic. If they want a promise that you are not sure you can live up to, consider this option: you can promise that you will make another payment by next Wednesday, although you can’t guarantee it will be the full amount.
  5. Keep a record of what phone number you called, who you talked with, the date and time of the conversation, and what exactly was agreed.

Need help with all this?  In many communities a non-profit credit counseling service is available to help you negotiate the process.  To find a reputable credit counselor near you, check with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling; either by phone or on-line, they can do a zip code search to find the member agency nearest you.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Prioritizing when money is tight

Audio Blog
Weighing Priorities

As we focus on what we can control in our personal finances, the most obvious thing we control is our spending. When money is tight, choosing your top priorities is critical. Prioritizing includes expenses like groceries, household supplies and personal needs: think about needs vs. wants and use your limited funds on the things that truly bring value to your family. Prioritizing can be even more important when it comes to paying bills.

Before going to the point of skipping a bill or making a partial payment, start by getting a complete picture of all your bills and debts – total owed, monthly payment, current standing (i.e. are you currently caught up), and interest rate or fees for late payment.

Then consider each bill’s importance. They will all need to be paid eventually, and it is never desirable to leave bills unpaid or partially paid, but in times of real financial shortfall, people sometimes have no choice. So how do you choose among your many bills?

Consider what you have to lose if a bill is unpaid. Losing housing, core utilities or a vehicle is generally the greatest possible loss to a household – therefore those payments may be top priorities for many families. By contrast, getting behind on a credit card account, student loan, or medical bill payment plan may not affect your immediate well-being. Note: it may affect your credit score, and is not something to take lightly, but that is an impact you can recover from.

In addition to prioritizing among your existing bills, it is also wise to consider what bills you will continue to incur. You may have on-going monthly subscriptions – to video services, cable, newspapers, weight-loss programs, wine clubs, (the list is endless). Stop and think about whether to continue them during this time. Those are often things we enjoy, and we don’t like the idea of giving them up, but if you’re worried about paying the car insurance or water bill, then it’s appropriate to include these subscriptions as you consider options.

If your situation has left you unable to pay all your bills, be sure to communicate with those creditors. That is the topic for tomorrow’s post, so stay tuned!

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also offers tips for protecting your finances during this time.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Crisis: Focus on what you can control

If you are experiencing financial challenges due to income loss or unexpected expenses during this time of pandemic and shut-down, you’re probably feeling tremendous stress. As always, one key to managing uncertainty and stress is to focus on what you can control. There’s no benefit to expending mental and emotional energy on things outside of your influence, and that energy drain will prevent you from focusing effectively on what you CAN do.

What do you have control over? Perhaps more than you realize. You control what you do, including what bills you pay and what money you spend. You may even control the option to return purchases you haven’t yet used!

You control what you say, including to your family members and to your creditors. You also control your attitude — keeping a positive attitude focused on problem-solving will help you be open to new ideas and opportunities.

What do you NOT have control over? Prices. Your past behavior (such as building up credit card bills). The stock market. Your employer (although you may have influence – if you do, consider how to use that influence in a productive way). Don’t waste time and energy stewing over these things. They are what they are. You have choices about how to respond.

Stay tuned the rest of this week for 3 more posts about managing through a challenging time.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Flexible Thinking

We have all had an overload of opportunities to exercise flexible thinking in the past few weeks. Some individuals shifted the workplace from the office to their home. The normal routines are not working. A number of workers lost all income security. School-age children are on an extended holiday in March!

Most of us are comfortable following routines; we don’t like to change our habits. In “normal” times, when nothing else in our life is changing, any suggestions for financial changes tend to be ignored. A time like this, when so much in our lives is being upended, can be an opportunity to make positive changes in our financial habits! Why not take advantage of the chance to change and grow? 

  • Think about others. There are many who don’t have the luxury of working at home or the security of a steady paycheck. If you can, let family and friends know you are willing to help if finances get strained. Sometimes a message of support can lessen stress and prevent someone from feeling they don’t have options.
  • Challenge your current spending habits. If you have survived a week or two without eating out, recreational shopping, or going to the movies; can you feel better about using a part of those funds to repay a debt or add to savings and not feel deprived?
  • Define some of your benefits in a different way. Hard earned vacation pay reserved for “fun”, might be easier to use now if you think of it as “paid time off.” A restricted definition of how available funds should be used can be a deficit when there are essential bills to pay.
  • Measure your workplace adaptability. It’s a great time to be an amateur, many individuals are being thrown into an online work environment or being asked to take on new responsibilities. Some new ways of working may become standard procedures and you can be the expert from all the practice!
  • Share what you are learning, especially if it pertains to alternatives for toilet paper!!!

I wish you all the best during these challenging times, we’ll learn some things about ourselves and have some new skills when it’s over.

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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