Extra Utility Assistance Available to Iowans affected by COVID

Iowans who have experienced a COVID-related income loss any time since March 17, 2020 may be eligible for extra assistance with utility bills including electric, natural gas and water bills if they are at risk of disconnection. Many households whose incomes are above the regular guidelines for energy assistance may qualify for this help.

The Residential Utility Disruption Prevention Program went into effect about a week ago, with an application deadline of November 20, 2020.

Applicants must meet income guidelines (80% of median income, which is more generous than regular utility assistance), and must already have an unpaid utility bill. More eligibility details, as well as required documentation, are found at the program’s website.

You must apply on-line; if internet access is a problem, families are encouraged to get help from a trusted friend. A local Community Action Agency may also be able to help.

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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Managing Winter Heating Costs During the Pandemic

When prioritizing expenses, a major household bill is utilities (e.g., electricity, gas, water and sewer, landline and cell phone, and internet/cable). The highest utility cost is typically heating the home.

Plan for increasing home heating costs over the next six months. COVID-19 may increase these costs because many families are spending more time working and/or learning from home.

Average Iowa household utility expense of $2,580 varies widely according to the size of a home, climate, and utility usage patterns. Regardless of what you pay for utilities, there are ways to pay less. 

Step 1: Check Eligibility and Request Energy Assistance. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assists households with a portion of the home heating bills, particularly those facing disconnection or who have trouble paying their utility bill. Early applications for LIHEAP started October 1 (for elderly and disabled applicants), with November 1-April 30 as the annual application timeframe through a local community action agency.

A general overview of the LIHEAP program is available in multiple languages.  Information on where to apply, through your local Community Action Agency, is found on the Iowa Department of Human Rights website. It is generally necessary to call ahead for an appointment.

Step 2: Ask for A Winter Moratorium. You may avoid a utility shut-off during the “winter moratorium” if you apply for and qualify for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

  • If you are certified eligible for LIHEAP, utilities cannot shut off your gas or electric services from November 1 through April 1.
  • You should try to pay as much as you can on your utility bills, even though you cannot be shut off, because the bills will come due in April. If you have made a good faith effort to pay throughout the winter, the utility company is more likely to work with you on a payment arrangement.

It is always best to keep making payments to the maximum extent possible during any period when your utility provider is prohibited from disconnecting your service. Making payments during the winter moratorium creates “good will” with the utility company (with whom you may be negotiating a payment plan) and also keeps the problem from getting worse.

Step 3: Manage Utility Bills

-Know How Much to Expect:  Ask your utility provider for how much the utility bill was last year for your home or apartment. Electric and Natural Gas average monthly costs start at $215 and go higher depending on the size of your home and weather conditions. Pay as much as you can afford monthly.

-Weatherize: Leaky or old windows can account for 10%-25% of heating costs due to warm air escaping. Replace windows with double-pane windows or installing storm windows. Get help from the Iowa Weatherization Assistance Program https://humanrights.iowa.gov/dcaa/weatherization

-Lower the Thermostat- Dial down the thermostat saves energy in the winter by setting the thermostat to 68°F while you’re awake and setting it lower while you’re asleep or away from home. Even one degree lower can make a difference.  Industry figures for every degree you turn down your thermostat (and leave it for 8 hours) you save between 1 and 3 percent of your heating bill.

To provide help in making decisions about bills and expenses, free financial consultations are available to all Iowa residents through ISU Extension and Outreach’s Human Sciences Specialists in Family Finance. We can help revise budgets, prioritize spending and link you to community resources. Find your local contact at our webpage or by contacting your County Extension Office.

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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October Dates to Remember

Around this time of the year, I get a surge of individuals wanting me to prepare the previous year’s taxes. Then I remember…October 1 is the first day to file the FAFSA for college financial aid. Some colleges award scholarships and financial assistance on a first-come, first-served basis.

October Dates to Remember

October 15 is the new deadline to file your return if an extension was filed earlier this year.  If you filed for an extension on your taxes, October 15 is also the last day to contribute to a SEP IRA for self-employed people and small business owners.

Sometime in the fall, usually beginning in October or November, most employers hold their open enrollment period so you can change your employee benefits for the upcoming year. Review your health election, 401(k), and other employee benefits like life and disability insurance to see if they’re still meeting your needs. Do you have a flexible spending account (FSA)? Use those funds for qualified medical expenses or child care expenses by the end of the year. That money generally won’t roll over into next year. If you have a health savings account (HSA), that money will roll over and is tax-deferred, so consider maxing it.

November 1 is just around the corner and is the opening day of the federal health insurance marketplace enrollment for 2021 coverage. Iowa State University Extension has online class scheduled to help individuals choose wisely, the kind of health insurance they need.  The Smart Choice Basics class is intended for individuals that are 65 or younger and helps you select the right plan. Smart Choice Actions teaches individuals how to make wise use of the health insurance plan and intended for adults of any age.  Both workshops are 1 hour long at begin at 6:00 PM.  For dates and registration information, go to…

10/26/20  Smart Basics

11/2/20  Smart Use

12/1/20  Smart Basic   

12/8/20  Smart Use

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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Prioritizing Bills

What’s unique about the COVID-19 experience is the financial stress we’re also experiencing at the same time. My colleagues and I (all ISU Extension financial educators) are listening and learning from people facing financial challenges who contact us for unbiased information and ideas.

 “When the crisis hit, I was glad I knew how to pay attention to the most important bills. Obviously rent and groceries were our priority.”

What expenses should I pay in a time of crisis? Step One is to Separate your essential and non-essential expenses. Prioritize bills to keep you safe, help you survive and stay employed— they include: Food, medicine, rent or mortgage payments and utilities. Iowa Legal Aid recommends paying water and energy bills in full to avoid accumulating debt and facing potential utility service disconnection.

The second step is figuring out how much cash you must have to pay the essentials.  You’re responsible for paying all your expenses on time. When we don’t have enough to cover our needs consider building a short-term plan. This plan may involve paying some bills late and needs to consider the consequences of failing to pay certain bills.

Feeling more in control will be worth the time it takes to plan. Research shows that taking these steps builds financial confidence and reduces anxiety.

Establish a short-term plan and reduce the financial stress during these tough times by contacting an ISU Extension Family Finance Specialist near you to talk through ideas and find a place to start. You can also connect with your local educator by calling Iowa Concern 800-447-1985.

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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Unemployment and Taxes

Did you know unemployment benefits count as taxable income? If you (or someone you know) have received unemployment income during this year when so many people have experienced job loss, here is the bigger question: Did you have taxes withheld from the payments?

If you are currently receiving unemployment income, now is a good time to check and see if federal and state income taxes are being withheld; if they are not, you should be able to change that going forward. Why does it matter? Next winter when you file your 2020 tax return, you will find out how much tax you owe on your 2020 income. If you didn’t have enough withheld from your paychecks, then you may need to pay in by April 15. It’s possible that the amount you need to pay in could be $1,000, $2,000 or even more. In addition, you may owe penalty for not having enough withheld, and/or a penalty for late payment if you cannot pay the bill in full by April 15.

What can you do now? If you received unemployment income and did NOT have taxes withheld, I would encourage you to go to the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator, and enter information about all your income for the year, along with the information it asks for about family size and other tax-related issues. Don’t worry; this is anonymous – it’s just a calculator for your own benefit. Based on the results of your calculations, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect. If it looks like you will owe taxes, you can start saving now, or even send in one or two quarterly estimated payments using IRS form 1040 ES. Checking in with your tax preparer might also be a good idea.

The IRS recently issued a poster alerting people to take action and avoid the unpleasant surprise of a big tax bill. If you can, please consider posting it on social media or posting printed copies at your place of work, or house of worship, or at local businesses, to help others plan ahead.

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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Have You Received Your $1200 EIP? We can help!

For many of us, the $1200 Economic Impact Payment (EIP) authorized by the CARES Act is old news; I, for example, received my payment in early May. But if you have not received the payment, it is not too late! There are steps you can take to claim the payment! Take these steps by October 15 to avoid further delay.

A first step is to find out if you are eligible. Most adults are eligible if they have a social security number, are not claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return and have income below the (generous) income guidelines. Even people who do not need to file a tax return are eligible. This includes people whose main income source is Social Security, or a non-taxable income such as SSI or VA benefits. If you have friends or family members who should receive the payment, help them out by sharing this information!

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) manages the EIP program and maintains a webpage to assist us and keep us informed. They offer two tools. The first is called “Get My Payment.” At this secure IRS site, users enter their social security number, date of birth, and address. Note as long as you are at the real IRS site, you can feel safe entering that information. If you file taxes jointly with a spouse, we suggest you enter the information about the spouse who is listed first on the tax return. The second IRS tool is the “Non-Filers Tool,” designed for those who do not need to file a tax return.

If you use one of the IRS tools but are unclear about what the tool tells you, we can help! ISU Extension and Outreach Human Sciences Specialists in family finance are equipped to help Iowans trouble-shoot the process. Please contact us if you need assistance!

For many people, the first step in claiming the payment is to file their 2019 tax return. Yes, the deadline is past, but you can still file anyway. In many cases, my co-workers and I can connect you with a way to file your tax return for free.

Final Note: it is our understanding that filing a 2020 tax return (starting in February of 2021) will provide one last chance to claim the EIP, and will be used to verify that households received the correct EIP amount. However, we do not yet know how that will work. And why delay?! Take action now to claim this valuable benefit!

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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National Preparedness Month

Considering all the catastrophes that Iowa is currently facing, it is fitting that the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has named September “National Preparedness Month.”  Between our ongoing struggle with COVID-19 and its associated challenges regarding health and employment, farm prices slumping over the past several years, and now the derecho, Iowa has certainly witnessed the importance of being prepared.  As many of us have learned, sometimes even the best laid plans are insufficient.  However, that caveat shouldn’t prevent any of us from taking steps to cushion ourselves from unexpected events. 

The 2020 theme for Preparedness Month is, “Disasters don’t wait.  Make your plan today.”  We learned this lesson acutely 2 weeks ago when we had only 30-40 minutes notice of our inland hurricane. 

So, what sort of things should we be preparing?  What elements should our plan contain?  DHS recommends taking concrete action steps each week in September.  Week 1 advises making a plan to communicate before, during, and after a disaster.  Week 2 suggests building a kit of emergency supplies to last your family a few days.  Week 3 asks that you know your situation including the types of disaster that may strike your area and checking on your insurance coverage.  For example, if you live in an area that might flood, it is better to find out if you have flood insurance before you are swimming in your basement than after.  Finally, Week 4 requests that you clearly share your plans with your children including strategies for reconnecting or communicating if you become separated in a disaster. 

As always, it is a good idea to have some degree of emergency savings readily available.  The conventional wisdom states that a person should save enough to cover 3-6 months of living expenses, but this can often total in the thousands of dollars.  If this number isn’t realistic for you at the moment, start small by setting a goal of putting aside $25 or $50 a month until you have a few hundred dollars on hand.  Being able to cover some smaller emergencies can help keep you from experiencing the increased stress of cascading troubles. 

If you find yourself struggling with your finances, you can always contact your local Extension office to get in touch with your Family Finance Specialist.  We are here to help and can offer 1-on-1 consultations.

Kalyn Cody photo

Guest Blogger, Kalyn Cody, 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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Brushing – Another Scam

I find myself spending more time cleaning and pitching now that I am spending more time at home. In the toss-pile is a large collection of freebies that were handed out at fairs and tradeshow booths…stress balls, pens with weird gizmos attached, whistles, mini Frisbees, etc.  There is even a package or two of wildflower seeds that arrived in the mail promoting the planting of pollinator fields to save the bees.

The latest free thing that is arriving in the mail these days are UNIDENTIFIED seeds from an UNKNOWN source. Seeds that have not been ordered.  They are arriving mostly from China and Uzbekistan. This is of great concern to the USDA and the State Departments of Agriculture.  These seeds could be an invasive plant that does not currently exist in the US or they may contain seed-borne diseases that do not exist in the US. Some packages have an unknown seed treatment that could be dangerous to human health.

Most likely, these packages are part of a BRUSHING scheme….fake orders used in e-commerce to boost a seller’s rating. Because a shipment has to take place to make an order valid, sellers may ship an empty box or some cheap item. These fake orders can boost the seller’s rating, which can make it more likely that their item will appear at the top of search results on e-commerce sites.

What the USDA and the State Departments of Ag want you to do is…

– Do not plant the seeds

– Do not open the packets

– Do not eat the seed.

– Retain the packages and contact the IDALS (515.281.5321 – Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship) or USDA (515.251.4083 – US Department of Agriculture) for further instructions.

More information from our ISU agriculture colleagues and from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

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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Public Health Scam

One of our colleagues received this message from the county public health office where she works. If it could happen in one county, it could happen anywhere… as always, be skeptical of unsolicited calls or emails, especially when they request payment!

The email read:

A local bank just made me aware of a scam going around regarding Public Health. Someone is calling people saying they are with the local Public Health office and telling that person they have been exposed to a positive case. The caller then says the office wants to send a COVID-19 test kit and all they need is a $50 processing fee. Public Health will NEVER ask for your banking or credit card information and we wouldn’t be charging for a COVID test to be done.

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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ID Theft Protection

Lately I find myself asking my husband if he got the mail because there is not the usual pile waiting for me on the kitchen table. Then I started to wonder if he had already sorted and tossed the junk. Nope! It is not my imagination…there truly is a lot less junk mail these days since COVID 19 began. So much less that it has created a collapse in mail volume. The decline could be as much as 60% by the end of the year, which is bad news for the US Postal Service…considering it has been struggling for about 14 years.

On the other hand,…the supply of junk e-mail continues to grow at a steady pace.  It has even creeped into my text messages. Some emails and text messages look very authentic so, it is important to be alert to scammers. Be wary of messages requesting immediate action. Poor grammar and spelling errors are a good indication the email is fraudulent.

Nearly all e-businesses have a process in place for reporting such emails and texts that are made to look like they are coming from their legitimate company…Facebook, Amazon, etc. You can do a quick search and find how best to notify businesses when you receive messages from scammers; examples include phish@facebook.com, stop-spoofing@amazon.com, spam@uspis.gov. You will probably get an auto-reply indicating that your message was received and appreciated but don’t expect the company to personally reply to your email.

If you are concerned about data breaches or identity theft, you may be considering signing up for identity theft protection services. Before you enroll, it is important to weigh the costs and benefits of various types of services. You also can compare them with free and low-cost services. The federal government’s IdentityTheft.gov website provides free personal recovery plans and step-by-step guidance to help identity theft victims recover.

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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