OPTION 1: GET HELP LOWERING BILLS

There are many ways to lower your expenses or debts. You may be able to negotiate with your creditors to lower what you owe. Most companies have programs to help customers experiencing COVID-related hardship. Tell your creditors and other companies to whom you owe money if you are experiencing a COVID hardship.

Couple talking with loan officer

TIP! Prioritize Essential Expenses First

Pay for essential needs before anything else. Essentials include shelter (mortgage or rent), food, and utilities. Before an unpaid bill can be reported to the credit bureaus, which would harm your credit score, it must be at least 30 days late. A single late payment fee is preferable to a high-cost loan, which will cost you much more in fees. If you are uncertain about which option might be preferable, you can always call Capital Good Fund’s financial coaching hotline at 866-584-3651.

Housing

Homeowners:  The Illinois Homeowner Assistance Fund (ILHAF) has re-opened for another round of applications through January 31, 2023. We recommend that interested applicants watch an informational webinar to learn more about the process and requirements. Visit illinoishousinghelp.org/ilhaf to watch the webinars, find more information, and submit an application.

If you are struggling financially, consider obtaining a COVID forbearance, which enables you to postpone paying your mortgage. Without your monthly mortgage expense, you will be better able to pay for your other expenses. The easiest way to obtain a COVID forbearance is to apply on your mortgage servicer’s website. Alternatively,  you can call them and ask for a “COVID forbearance.” If you have a COVID forbearance already that has or is close to expiring, visit your mortgage servicer’s website to apply for an extension or call your servicer.

If you have a complicated situation or are encountering obstacles, find a housing counselor near you by using the online HUD search tool or by calling their toll-free number at (800) 569-4287 (multilingual assistance available). Call 888-995-HOPE (4673) to be connected to free, comprehensive, foreclosure assistance 24/7.

Renters: Obtaining rental assistance can take a lot of pressure off your overall finances. Information about available rental assistance options and applications is available at IllinoisRentalAssistance.org and Housing Action Illinois. Another site, rentervention.com, focuses on Chicago residents, but can assist any Illinois resident. Check the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s search tool for more local and County rental assistance programs across Illinois. If you’re being threatened with eviction, visit EvictionHelpIllinois.org for free legal assistance. Chicago residents who are worried about eviction can find free legal help, rental assistance programs, and other resources at Chicago.gov/eviction.

Housing Counseling: Housing counselors can provide advice on buying a home, renting, loan defaults, foreclosures, and credit issues. Many housing counseling organizations do financial wellness education at no cost to the participant. Local Chicago examples are Spanish Coalition for Housing, Chicago Urban League and The Resurrection Project. Check IllinoisHousingHelp.org and sign up for email alerts to learn when the Illinois mortgage assistance programs are open.

Car Payment

Contact your lender. Options may include changing the due date of your payments, creating a new repayment plan to lower your monthly payment, or deferring (postponing) your payments.

Utilities & Internet

Utilities: Each major Illinois utility has its own bill assistance program: ComEd, Peoples Gas, North Shore Gas, Nicor, and Ameren. Explain that you are experiencing a COVID hardship. This will help you access funds and policies set aside for COVID support.

If you are lower income, contact both your utility provider and the state utility assistance program. For help with gas and electric bills, visit the State of Illinois Utility Bill Assistance website or call 877-411-WARM (9276) (Mon–Fri, 8 am–5 pm). For help with water and sewer bills, visit HelpIllinoisFamilies.com to learn more about Illinois’s new assistance program.

Internet: Eligible Illinois residents can access low-cost internet, affordable refurbished computers, and digital education training through the nonprofit PCs for People. PCs for People is a participant in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), reducing the price of their monthly internet service to $0 and significantly discounting computers. To learn more and shop, please visit www.pcsforpeople.org.

The federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) can help low-income households pay their monthly internet bill. Eligible households can get up to a $30 per month discount on their internet bill. Visit ACPBenefit.org to find out if you’re eligible, submit an application and choose an internet service provider. If you need to talk to someone about eligibility or your application status, call the ACP Support Center at (877) 384-2575.

Student Loans

President Biden extended the COVID-related loan payment suspension on certain federal loans to December 31, 2022.  If your loans are not covered by the President’s order or if you are unsure, contact your student loan servicer and explain your hardship. We recommend you begin preparing now to make your payments in 2023.

President Biden also a student loan debt cancellation program. Single borrowers making less than $125,000 per year in income (or households making less than $250,000 per year) can apply to have a certain amount of student loan debt forgiven: those who received a Pell grant to attend college are eligible for $20,000 in cancellation, while those who did not receive a Pell grant are eligible for $10,000 in cancellation. Cancellation will not be automatic – you will need to submit an application on the federal student aid website. It will take approximately 4-6 weeks to process cancellations. The federal government has not set a cut-off date, but you should apply as soon as possible. For more detailed questions, check this Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page from the Student Borrower Protection Center. Through the end of 2025, Illinois residents will not be required to pay state or federal income tax on loan forgiveness.

The Biden Administration also started a Fresh Start program for student loan borrowers who are in default on their loans. Some program benefits are available now, and others will be available in 2023 after the payment pause ends. The Department of Education is reaching out to defaulted borrowers to inform them of the steps they should take, so you should make sure that your student loan servicer has your current contact information. To learn more, visit the Department of Education’s Fresh Start page.

When talking to your loan servicer, ask about an income-driven repayment plan (making your payments affordable based on your income), a deferment of payments, or a forbearance, which is a temporary pause making loan payments. A new, free online service called Summer can help you simplify your loan payments and maximize savings.

Automatic, Recurring Payments

Many people pay their bills through automatic, recurring payments (e.g., subscriptions, gym memberships, loans, credit cards). Contact the companies that deduct money through autopay to request COVID-hardship relief. They may be willing to temporarily freeze your account. If that’s not an option, you have the right to revoke your authorization for the company to deduct money. You will probably still owe the company money, but you can manually control the timing of the payment and make the payment only after you have paid for essential items.

Credit Cards

Major credit card companies have COVID assistance programs. Visit the credit card company’s website. If you cannot find one online, call them to request COVID relief. Most companies will allow you to postpone paying your bill for a time without incurring late fees.

Medical Bills

Contact the medical provider/biller and explain that you are unable to pay the bill due to a COVID hardship and request a payment plan. If you do not have success with one representative, ask to speak to a supervisor who may be able to help more. Medical providers would rather put you on a payment plan than refer the account to a collection agency.

Child Support

If you owe child support and are unable to make the payments, first notify the person who receives the support. The State of Illinois also provides free child support services. Complete an online application for services. You can also call 800-447-4278 or visit any Department of Child Support Services office. These services can also assist you if you are owed child support.

If you cannot afford to make your child support payments, the court may modify your obligation if you have lost your income or have another major hardship. The Greater Chicago Legal Clinic has a helpline to learn more at 312-796-3070. Illinois Legal Aid Online has an online guide to help you with paperwork.

Accounts in Collections

Request a payment plan. If you already have a payment plan but are unable to afford the monthly payments, ask to adjust the plan.

Collection agencies would rather you pay something than refer it to their lawyers to collect through the court system. Staying in communication with them is most important.  For advice for dealing with debt collectors – including what they can (and can’t) legally do to collect on debt and sample letters you can use when communicating with debt collectors – see this article from the National Consumer Law Center.

If a creditor or collection agency has sued you or is threatening to sue you, call legal aid.

Tip! Avoid Extravagances

Buy Now, Pay Later is an increasingly popular option for consumers to buy luxury items and other extravagances. There are significant financial risks associated with doing this. Proceed with caution.

Prefer Talking to a Live Person? Ask a Financial Coach.

Capital Good Fund’s financial coaching hotline provides one-on-one financial advice to any Illinois resident. Starting at $15 per month, the nonprofit can create a plan with you and can advocate on your behalf with creditors. They also offer a credit-builder program for $5 per month. Call 866-584-3651 (English or Spanish)

Working Credit NFP is a nonprofit that offers free financial counseling to help you build your credit, understand the credit system, and create a plan to reach your financial goals. Their credit building counseling program includes unlimited one-on-one support and coaching for 12 months for free. Sign up online (English and Spanish).

The City of Aurora’s Financial Empowerment Center provides free, high-quality, one-on-one financial counseling to low-and moderate-income residents of the Aurora region. Learn more.

Many credit unions also offer free or low cost financial coaching. Check with your local credit union to learn about their offerings, and check the list under Option 3: Lower Cost Loans if you need help finding a credit union.

Man getting advice

Acknowledgments

This resource guide is produced in partnership with Woodstock Institute, New America Chicago, , and Financial Inclusion for All Illinois.

Special thanks to all the hardworking nonprofits, socially-conscious lenders, and community partners who are helping restore wealth in our communities. Your work is so important! Thanks also to Jane Doyle, Brent Adams, Amy Eisenstein, Vanessa Rangel, Gordon Mayer, Meegan Dugan Adell, Bob Reddy, Joe Wilkes, LuLin McArthur, and Lauren Monaco Grossman for their work on this project.

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