Pandemic-Induced Goals?

The current period of job loss and reduced income has affected people in different ways. The result? Different households face different financial challenges at this point. Whatever your situation, now is s a good time to assess your financial situation, evaluate your priorities, and take steps to improve your situation as necessary. If you’d like some help, your local ISU Extension financial educator is available to work with you, providing free, non-commercial information and a sounding board as you make your plans.

  1. Some of you have been living with seriously reduced income – and still are. Your task has been to find every possible way to reduce your expenses and/or find new income and make use of new resources, including public assistance if you qualify. You must communicate with all of your creditors, but avoid making promises you cannot keep. If returning to something like normal looks unlikely, you may need to consider major lifestyle changes.
  2. Some of you lost income for a while, but are now back to an income you can live on. It is likely that you got behind on bills, built up credit card debt, and/or depleted your savings during your crisis. Strong focus on repaying those debts and building up emergency savings will get you ready in case of an unexpected expense or another loss of income. Careful examination of your spending choices will help you regain equilibrium and then build a strong cushion.
  3. Others of you had stable income, but have realized that if you did lose income, you would be in a very difficult spot. Facing the reality that you lack basic financial security can motivate you to build up savings and pay down debt. Start by cutting your living expenses so that your regular monthly expenses are 10-25% less than your income. Putting the extra funds toward savings and expedited debt payment will build you a cushion that will bring peace of mind and make your life easier if/when hardship strikes.
  4. Still others have stable income, and have felt secure that even if you did have a cutback, you would be okay. In your case there is no obvious need for change, but it’s wise to maintain control of your finances through good planning. You may wish to build an even stronger savings cushion, after seeing others struggle with lost income for six months or longer. As you build savings, seek out accounts that pay slightly higher interest while still providing ready access to your funds.
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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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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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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Defining Financial Wellbeing: A New Way of Thinking

What comes to mind when you think about your financial wellbeing?  It may be paying bills on time, understanding your credit report, keeping financial accounts in balance, managing investments, or a long list of other financial tasks.  Although these items are important aspects of our financial lives, recent research has found that other key factors may be critical to our financial well-being

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau talked to consumers across the country to learn what financial wellbeing means to them.  Based on those interviews they found that four elements were mentioned:

• Feeling in control

• Capacity to absorb a financial shock

• On track to meet goals

• Flexibility to make choices

Financial wellbeing is not based on income level.  It’s more personal and based on satisfaction with your financial situation. Based on their research the CFPB developed a definition of wellbeing as having financial security and financial freedom of choice, in the present and in the future.

To measure your financial wellbeing, link to the wellbeing tool. Answer ten questions to get your score. You will not share any personal financial data. Steps to improve financial wellbeing are included.

Guest Blogger Phyllis Zalenski Family Finance Field Specialist…Providing Financial Management education for individuals and families including spending plans, budgeting for your needs, consumer decision-making, dealing with credit and debt, and planning for your future – savings, insurance, and retirement.

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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Prepaid Card? Doesn’t replace bank account

Banking is something many of us take for granted, so it may surprise you to learn that a noticeable share of American adults (perhaps ten percent) are UN-banked — meaning they don’t have any connection to a bank or credit union.

Some people are satisfied without bank accounts, using prepaid cards to: receive direct deposit from wages or tax refunds; pay bills; and make retail purchases. Of course, there are fees for prepaid cards: users can compare and choose the card with the best fee structure for the way they will use the card.

Prepaid card users may decide a few fees are worth it to avoid the “hassle” of bank account management. But credit union or bank accounts offer important advantages:

  • Strengthen credit scores. Using prepaid cards does not contribute to your credit history, while a solid banking relationship does. That may be especially important currently, when other aspects of credit history may be “fuzzy.” A recent Wall Street Journal article points out that because many lenders and businesses have offered easy terms for deferring payments during the COVID emergency, a credit report may fail to show the full picture of a prospective borrower’s financial stability. With that in mind, some lenders may rely more heavily on banking information when evaluating credit risk.
  • Safety. Bank accounts, debit cards, and credit cards all offer substantial legal protections to the owners when the account or card is lost, stolen or misused through fraud. Prepaid cards offer little or no protection.
  • Stability. I recently tried to assist a woman who knew she had received her $1200 economic impact payment; it had been deposited to the same prepaid card she had used to receive her 2018 tax refund. BUT she didn’t have the card anymore, and she didn’t even know what company had issued it. She was unable to make use of that valuable benefit. Based on the information from that 2018 return, I was able to help her search for the bank and find a phone number to call. I don’t know what happened after that. I hope she was able to get a replacement card somehow, but I imagine that she had to jump through some hoops (including proving her identity) before she was able to do so. A stable banking relationship makes life easier in many ways.

If someone you know is going through life unbanked, you might suggest they reconsider. Being “banked” has distinct advantages. If they face obstacles to obtaining an account, it might be worthwhile to contact a local bank or credit union for guidance. Some financial institutions offer programs that help people again qualify to open accounts.

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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