How to Keep Your Credit Score in Check During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 virus has spread unease and fear in 2020, and not just from a health standpoint. With millions of Americans out of work and small businesses forced to close shop due to the pandemic, financial fears have pushed front and center over the past few months. This article will address a common financial fear as of late: How to ride out this storm while keeping your credit score as stable as possible.

Check Credit Score Regularly

You should already be regularly monitoring your credit report during the best of times, but it’s especially important to do so during this tumultuous season in order to spot possible mistakes before they have a chance to negatively affect your credit score. Contact the creditor immediately if you do catch a mistake. Recent mistakes can typically be rectified with minimal headache while ones that sit on your credit report longer can take longer to get resolved. With COVID scams happening and many Americans’ income in flux, it’s good practice for the time being to check your credit reports monthly. In fact, the three national credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian, and Transunion—are offering free weekly credit reports until April of next year. You can access your reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Make On-Time Payments or Contact the Creditor

When possible, continue to make on-time payments, even if it’s just the minimum amount due, through the pandemic. A positive payment history is a major step in ensuring that your credit score stays the course. However, if your income has been affected and emergency savings accounts have been drained, this might not be possible. If this is the case, the best course of action is to contact the lender or creditor as soon as possible as they may have workable payment options available to help you get through this time. Proactive and early communication is paramount. Be prepared to discuss how much you can afford to pay and when you expect to resume regular payments.

Consider a Balance Transfer

You may have found over the past few months that you’ve needed to rely more on credit cards while simultaneously being unable to pay them off each month. If so, now might be a good time to explore a balance transfer where your debt would be transferred to a card that offers a lower interest rate on that balance and may reduce your monthly payment. The low-interest rates are typically temporary, but the payment reduction from lower-interest rate cards can at least help to keep your credit card debt from escalating out of control until you can get back on your feet.
Budget and Make a Plan / Prioritize Payments / Revisit Budget
This crisis is affecting almost everyone, whether you’ve lost your job, you’ve experienced a reduction in work hours, or you’re anxious about the economic fallout of the pandemic, so there’s no better time to rework your budget following these steps:

  • Assessing any take-home income.
  • Examine your financial commitments and variable spending
  • Determine where you can cut back, even temporarily

Taking steps to free up more money in your budget helps to decrease financial stress, which allows you to focus on the most necessary financial commitments while better positioning yourself to protect your credit. If needed, that money can be used for essential expenses, like food and bills, but if you’re in a better position, you can sock away some of it in an emergency savings account for future use.

Remote Working During COVID-19: Tips for Productive Days

More people are working remotely now more than ever, and the change from office to home might have proven to be a surprising adjustment. The flexibility that comes with working from a home office is a definite advantage, but staying focused, motivated, and disciplined might be challenging. Throw into the mix a significant other who’s also working from home and kids and pets, and your day can quickly veer off track. Below are some tips to help your days be more productive.

Designate a Workspace

Designate a specific area in your home to get work done. If you don’t have a home office, take over a spare bedroom or another space that can offer some privacy—even a closet can be converted into a workspace. Having this space dedicated to your workday will help you stay mentally focused. Make sure this space is equipped with the equipment and tools you’ll need on hand during the day, such as a computer, high-speed Internet connection, any office supplies, and sufficient light. If you find your designated space wholly uninspiring, spruce it up with some artwork, potted plants, a rug, etc.

Set Structure and Boundaries

With all household members in close quarters, it’s crucial to set boundaries. Set up and maintain working signs and cues (i.e. close the door when on a phone call and use timers for the kids to set designated not-to-be-disturbed work time). Also be sure to set a consistent working schedule so you’re not tempted to be pulled away throughout the day by non-work related chores and requests. To keep your workflow moving, create a to-do list each day with specific and achievable tasks and deadlines, with the most important at the top. Whatever you don’t get done, put at the top of your list for the next day. Finally, treat your weekdays just as you did before. This includes waking up at the same time every day and getting dressed in the morning. Don’t roll out of bed and lug your laptop onto the couch and expect to have a productive day.

Stick to Schedules with Children

Some schools are getting back in session as early as later this month, and many parents are opting for digital learning or homeschooling. If you have school aged children, staying organized during this time is crucial. Attempt to replicate the schedule of a typical school day, with designated breaks for lunch and “recess”. If you have younger kids, the bulk of your work may need to get done during naps or quiet time. If your partner is also working from home, try splitting the day between the two of you, so one is “on shift” with the kids in the morning and the other in the afternoon. It might take some trial and error to find what works for your family, but once you find a good fit, be sure to stick to it.

Overcommunicate

Communication is more critical when working remotely, and needs to happen more frequently. Be sure to consistently reach out to managers and colleagues, and know what’s expected of you. Being proactive on this front will help you define weekly goals and build more sustainable relationships with coworkers. If you’re managing a team, be sure to bring everyone in on conversations so no one feels out of the loop, and everyone knows about assignments, deadlines, and various moving parts. If you do this regularly, it can be handled more as a casual check-in rather than a big formal meeting.

Take Breaks and Make Time for Creative, Physical, and Mental Health

This is a stressful time for everyone, so it’s even more critical to take care of your creative, physical, and mental health. Anyone who’s worked at home for a while will tell you that it’s possible for hours can go by without even realizing it when you’re lost in the work. Aside from the fact that sitting for excessively long periods of time can lead to back and neck pain, it also isn’t healthy for your mind. Be sure to take breaks, go for walks, exercise, and get into a creative project or hobby.

What Employers Need to Know About the Relaxed PPP Rules

Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act (PPPFA) on June 5, 2020, amending several provisions in the original PPP loan program. Along with granting business owners more flexibility and time to spend the PPP loan proceeds, the Act permits funds to be used on a wider-ranging variety of expenses while still allowing for loan forgiveness. Here is how this will affect businesses moving forward with a PPP loan.

Extended Covered Period

Originally, borrowers had 8 weeks from the receipt of loan proceeds to spend funds on forgivable expenditures. Now the covered period specifies 24 weeks after the origination of the loan, or December 31, 2020, whichever is sooner. To qualify for forgiveness, however, borrowers must maintain payroll levels for the full 24-week period. Borrowers do have the option to stick with the 8-week deadline, and they must likewise maintain payroll levels through the full 8 weeks to qualify for the full loan forgiveness amount.

Additional extensions include the timeline for eliminating reductions in workforce and wages, as well as restoring workforce levels and wages to pre-pandemic levels required for loan forgiveness (both extended to December 31, 2020).

Changes to Percentage of Payroll Costs

The PPPFA reduced the payroll expense requirement from 75% to 60%, which means that 40% of the PPP loan funds may now be put towards forgivable non-payroll expenses such as mortgage interest, rent, and utilities. Note that the expenses originally designated as forgivable have not changed.

Changes to Repayment Period

For borrowers whose loans are not forgiven, the PPPFA increases the repayment timeline from two years to five years. The 1% interest rate remains the same.

Changes to Rehiring Requirements

The PPPFA also extends the rehire date to December 31, 2020 and allows for a reduced headcount. Rather than basing loan forgiveness on a borrower’s ability to rehire the same number of employees on payroll as was used to calculate the loan, the PPPFA allows for loan forgiveness amount to be determined by documentation showing that the borrower was (1) not able to rehire former employees and unable to hire similarly qualified employees, or (2) not able to return to pre-pandemic levels of business activity in response to federal guidelines related to COVID-19.

Changes to Payroll Tax Deferment

The CARES Act originally prevented borrowers who received PPP loan funding from deferring additional payroll tax once the lender decided to forgive the loan, but the PPPFA eliminates this restriction, and borrowers can now defer the payroll tax for the period from March 27 to December 31, 2020.

Overall, the PPPFA will ease the burdens of businesses that received PPP loans, but it doesn’t fix everything or answer all the questions, so expect more regulations and changes to the PPP program in the near future.

Could the Coronavirus Lower Home Prices? Well, Maybe.

Since early March, the COVID-19 pandemic has been making a substantial financial impact on millions of people across the country.  With 22 million jobless claims in just one month and a slowly moving economy, many homeowners are left wondering if their properties will see a decline in value as workers continue to lose their jobs and minimize personal spending. Spring is traditionally the prime time for buying and selling homes, but thanks to COVID-19, listings have dropped significantly. 

What We Already Know

Beginning in March, mortgage rates have fluctuated significantly. They’ve fallen to record lows—the average for a new 30-year fixed-rate mortgage currently falls near 3.33% – and may continue to drop. For those who already own homes, applications to refinance their homes are up almost 168% from March 2019. 

Mortgage rates and home values, while related, are two separate entities. History shows us that home prices are likely to fall during recessions, but to what degree is specific to your local market. If available homes in a particular area are already highly sought-after (places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Seattle), it is unlikely homeowners will see their property values go down much at all. That said, with such low mortgage rates available, buyers who haven’t suffered from layoffs or unemployment could find their opportunity to purchase a property. If there is still a demand for homes in an area, home prices are likely to remain steady. 

Past research from Zillow shows us that during previous pandemics in the US that home prices remained stable with only small declines in home prices. The research also showed that there were fewer real estate transactions and NOT sales happening at a loss. 

COVID-19 is already an oddity, and its impact cannot be denied around the world. With that, all homeowners with interest in selling should be prepared for the likelihood of home values dropping until this pandemic passes and the economy settles. While a drop in home values could leave sellers in a challenging situation, it’s also not ideal for anyone who may be looking to draw upon their home equity in the not-so-distant future. 

While so much of our lives remain up in the air, and while the economy is so unsettled, this is an opportunity to pull back and see what happens. If the panic around COVID-19 dies down sooner than anticipated, buyers and sellers may not even notice a change in the market. 

Protect Your Retirement from Coronavirus – 3 Ways to Preserve Your Cash

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress at the end of March provides direct economic assistance to Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the bill, certain provisions allow people to withdraw from their retirement accounts, including their 401(k)s and IRAs, without the usual early withdrawal penalty. Individuals must have been directly affected by coronavirus – through personal, spousal, or dependent diagnosis or furloughed, laid off, or reduced hours from their job to be eligible for the fee-free withdrawals.

While pulling from retirement funds seems like a simple and fast fix, it may not be the best option based on an individual’s circumstances. Those who stand to suffer the most amid the pandemic are those who are nearing retirement and those already in retirement. The unexpected ups and downs, current unemployment, and new potential health costs in this unprecedented time leave many Americans wondering how they’ll be able to retire comfortably in the current economic climate. 

Consider these Options to Counteract the Effects of COVID-19 on Retirement Funds

Keep Current Costs Low

Take a look at current expenses and determine if anything can be eliminated or reduced. Any unused subscriptions? Are you paying for the right amount of insurance? Consider shopping around for lower rates. Can you negotiate any current bills – cell phone, credit cards, internet, anything with an interest rate, even your cable? Hold off on any major home or equipment upgrades and work with what you already have before adding on another expense. 

Use Your Home

Assess your risks for taking out a second mortgage or a reverse mortgage. If your mortgage is already paid off, look into home equity loan options. A cash-out refinance may also be available if you’re still paying the mortgage. Over one-third of Americans have their wealth tied up in their homes, so it may be worth it to see if downsizing your home is an option. If so, it might be possible to pay for your smaller home in cash and use the remaining proceeds from the sale of your old for any outstanding debts or liabilities as you near retirement. The location of your home should also be considered – the cost of living can vary significantly from state to state, so moving to a new state or country may bring you more bang for your buck. 

Plan for the Long-Term

Health care and long-term care can be an extreme cost for senior citizens. Assisted living and nursing home facilities usually top $60k+ for just one year. Long-term care insurance is costly but can help prepare you and your loved ones to pay the necessary costs. With Americans living longer each year, it’s worth it to plan on trying to stretch your retirement savings to last until age 90. Calculate how much you (and/or a spouse) would need with the assumption you’ll live to be 90. It’s also worth looking at final expense insurance, which could help cover final expenses at the end of your life. Planning for the event in advance can take the financial stress off family members left behind, whether it’s through final expense insurance or setting up a savings account with the express purpose of paying for any final expenses. 

While we’re in a global pandemic, everything isn’t all doom and gloom. COVID-19 has hit the country, and our bank accounts hard, but people will bounce back after this economic crisis – much like investors after other recessions in our nation’s history. 

COVID-19 Stimulus Checks: Who Qualifies and What to Expect

The U.S. Government has already started sending stimulus payments to Americans from the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed into law on March 27, 2020. But there is still some confusion surrounding the details. Here are some things to know about the stimulus payments.

Income Requirements

The stimulus plan outlines that individuals will receive the following: $1,200 for individual tax payers with an adjusted gross income of up to $75,000; $2,400 for married couples filing jointly with an adjusted gross income of up to $150,000, and $112,500 for heads of household. Additionally, families will receive $500 per qualifying child under the age of 17. Dependents over the age of 17 who are claimed under someone else’s tax return will not receive their own payment, which means that most college students won’t qualify to receive a check. If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is more than what’s outlined above, you’ll fall into the “phase out” category—the more your AGI increases, the more the stimulus amount granted decreases, specifically by $5 less for every $100 over the limits noted above. The total phase out amounts based on AGI are: $99,000 for single filers, $198,000 for married couples filing jointly, and $136,500 for heads of household. The AGI will be based on your 2019 tax return, or your 2018 tax return if you haven’t filed 2019 yet.

Disbursing Payments

Stimulus checks will be direct deposited into the bank account listed on your 2019 tax return (or 2018, if you have yet to file for 2019) beginning mid-April. The IRS will send a physical check to your most recent address on file if a bank account is not listed on either tax return. For those whose banking information has changed since then, the IRS is developing a web-based portal where individuals can provide their banking information to the IRS online to ensure that as many people as possible can take advantage of receiving a direct deposit rather than waiting for a check in the mail. This tool is expected to be available around April 17.

You will receive a notice of payment from the Treasury approximately two to three weeks after your payment has been disbursed, which will be sent to your last known address. The notice will include the method by which payment was delivered (direct deposit or check), the address where payment was sent, and a phone number to contact the IRS if, say, your banking information has changed but hasn’t been updated and therefore you did not receive the payment.

Back Taxes

As long as you meet the income guidelines, you should still receive a stimulus payment if you owe back taxes, even federal, state, and student loans. The one exception is for those who owe child support payments.

Who doesn’t Qualify?

In addition to high wage earners and college students, other individuals may be left out of receiving a stimulus check: senior citizens and disabled people who are claimed as dependents by someone else; non-resident immigrants, temporary workers, and immigrants who are in the country illegally (immigrants with green cards, H-1B, and H-2A work visas qualify to receive payment); unemployed high wage earners: those who earned more than $99,000 last year but are now unemployed will be eligible for a rebate on their 2020 tax returns if they earn below the phase-out limits this year; Too, parents of babies born in 2020 won’t receive their $500 payment for that child until next year.

Low Income Earners

Individuals who make less than $12,000 a year are not required to file taxes. If you fall into this category and haven’t filed taxes in the last two years, you are still eligible to receive a check, but there’s an extra step involved. First, if you receive social security benefits, you will automatically receive a stimulus check. But for the estimated 10 million Americans who fall into the “low income” wage earning bracket, don’t receive social security benefits, and haven’t filed taxes for the last two years, the IRS has set up a web portal that will allow you to register for a stimulus check. Visit IRS.gov and look for “Non-Filers: Enter Payment Info Here”. The IRS has also partnered with TurboTax to set up a web page where individuals can answer a few questions and then choose to receive their payment via paper check or direct deposit.



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