What to do if you can't pay your bills

By Jennifer Jolly, Chief News Officer

Posted in: 

EDITORS NOTE: 

JustAnswer has seen a significant increase in questions from people asking what to do if they can't afford to pay their rent, mortgage, or other bills due to coronavirus hardships. Here's a story I recently wrote about the issue for USA Today. In addition to the online resources mentioned below, JustAnswer told me that hundreds of experts are standing by to help as well, to assist you in these trying times. 

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Like so many people in America right now, 26-year old San Francisco resident, Shawna McCune doesn't know how she’s going to pay her bills come May 1st. The single-mom of a five-year-old son was furloughed from her job as an afterschool kindergarten teacher earlier this week, the same day the city announced it’s extending shelter-in-place orders another month. “I’m super anxious and very overwhelmed,” she told me over the phone. “I’m one of those people, I try to think positively, I try not to freak out, but I am definitely really worried and stressed.” 

McCune’s biggest concern is paying rent. She shares a small two-bedroom apartment with another single mom and son duo, and her roommate was laid off from her job last month in April. “We got an extension from our landlord, we have until the 15th now to pay rent,” McCune said,  “I saved up a little [with a side-hustle as a Lyft driver], but we all pretty much live paycheck-to-paycheck. Without work, I don’t know how we’re going to make it.” 

Last month, a third of all renters in the United States couldn't pay their rent between April 1st and April 5th, according to data from the National Multifamily Housing Council. This month, that number is expected to be much higher — especially in a city like San Francisco where the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,102. 

“There was a crisis before coronavirus,” says Brad Hirn, the lead community organizer with the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRCSF). He says they normally see about 5,000 tenants a year seeking help with rental situations. Now, they’re taking calls from more than 5,000 a month. “People with good jobs — even two and three jobs — were struggling before with a lack of affordable housing. Then coronavirus hit and pulled back every veil and sped up all of these existing issues and all kinds of people who were on the edge before are now out of work too. I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

“We have never seen this level of financial stress spike so suddenly and unexpectedly as it has in this pandemic,” adds Kimberly Palmer, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet and author of Smart Mom, Rich Mom. “The Great Recession, for example, compared to the unemployment figures now, overnight, it’s just astronomical, and that’s why it’s so shocking and stressful for so many people.”

Hirn, Palmer, and many other people I spoke with said the first thing to know if you’re struggling right now, is that you’re not alone, and critical help could be right at your fingertips. Here’s a list of important online resources, and answers to the most common questions around paying bills. 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T PAY RENT:

The first thing you should do if you can’t afford to pay rent in May is send an email or written letter to your landlord explaining the circumstances, followed by a phone call. Most states have template letters available online through the state attorney general’s office, or through tenants-rights groups like HRCSF. At least half of the states in America have temporary eviction moratoriums in place, and dozens of cities have adopted measures as well.

“As a general rule, the money isn’t being forgiven, you still have to make the payments at some point,” says Palmer. “But when you’re in crisis mode, buying yourself time can be really useful, with the hope you will have income coming in soon.” 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T PAY YOUR MORTGAGE

Palmer says to call your lender right away and use the “magic words” many customer service representatives are trained to listen for, “if you say you have been sick, or that you’ve lost work, or are facing other hardships — they are actually listening to hear you say you have been impacted by the pandemic, specifically with health or job loss.” Some lenders are letting people waive payments for three months, and tacking it on to the end of their mortgage, while others are telling people they have to pay in full when the three months are up. No matter what, Palmer says, “you have to be the one to take that first step and make that call.” 

If you have trouble getting someone on the phone, the site GetHuman might help. It lists working customer service phone numbers with insights on the wait times and the best times of the day to reach someone. If that still doesn’t work, send the company a direct message through Twitter. I’ve done that a few times recently and it actually worked putting me in touch with a person when all else failed.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T MAKE YOUR CREDIT CARD PAYMENT

Palmer says this same rule applies to credit card payments, with one caveat. If you have a credit score of 690 or higher, now is a good time to apply for a zero percent interest rate card. If you’re able to get approved quickly, Palmer says you might be able to transfer balances from higher interest cards and make payments that way. She also said that some credit issuers, such as Apple, deferred payments without charging any interest last month, and more might be willing to that as pandemic-related burdens continue to take their toll. 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T BUY GROCERIES, MEDICATION, OTHER ESSENTIALS

Call or go online to a service called 211.org. It’s the most comprehensive source of locally curated social services in the U.S. and Canada. You can call, text, or chat with a community resource specialist in your area 24/7 to get help with food, housing, utilities, and a host of other needs. Calls are completely confidential and help is available in 180 languages. 

WHAT TO DO IF YOU CAN’T MAKE YOUR CAR PAYMENT

If you’ve already called your lender and used the “magic words” to no avail, car-buying guide Edmunds has a running tally of relief automakers are offering right now on loans through manufacturers. 

Another good go-to here — and in general really — is a legal services website called DoNotPay. It bills itself as the world’s first chatbot lawyer, and it can help you access national, state, and local laws to uncover coronavirus related relief. You can use the site to help draft letters to lenders and ask for late or deferred payments on most of your bills, get help filing for Unemployment, and even use it to cancel subscriptions you no longer use. 

TAKE A DEEP BREATH

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the situation and don’t give up say the experts. It’s scary to see bills piling up and not have any money coming in, but don’t panic. Relief efforts are underway from the federal to the local levels to help people get through this difficult time. 

Many tech companies like Task Rabbit and Nextdoor (with Walmart) are also lending support. Both online services launched special programs recently dubbed TaskRabbit for Good and Neighbors Helping Neighbors to connect people with volunteers who can do things like pick-up groceries, medications, and other essentials, and then deliver them without contact.