OPTION 1: GET HELP LOWERING BILLS

There are many ways to lower your expenses. Most companies have programs to help customers experiencing economic hardship. You may be able to negotiate with your creditors to lower what you owe. Tell your creditors and other companies to whom you owe money if you are experiencing an economic 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 before a bill is 30 days late 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) is not currently accepting applications. When available, this program provides up to $60,000 in mortgage assistance to eligible homeowners. We recommend that interested applicants watch an informational webinar to learn more about the process and requirements and check back regularly for when applications re-open.

If you are struggling financially, you may qualify for a mortgage forbearance, which allows you to postpone paying your mortgage. The easiest way to obtain a mortgage forbearance is to apply on your mortgage servicer’s website or call them directly.

If you have a complicated situation, are encountering obstacles, and/or prefer to speak to a live person, use this online search tool to find a housing counselor or call 800-569-4287 (multilingual assistance available). If you’re facing foreclosure, call 888-995-HOPE (4673) to be connected to free, comprehensive, foreclosure assistance 24/7.

Seniors: Illinois has expanded the Senior Citizen Real Estate Tax Deferral Program, which allows qualifying seniors to defer property taxes. Beginning with property taxes due in tax year 2023, the interest rate for eligible seniors who defer their property taxes has been lowered from 6% to 3%. Additionally, the State has temporarily expanded the income eligibility to participate in this program. Note that because past-due taxes are still accruing interest under this program, seniors should aim to pay their taxes on time unless it would cause extreme hardship. Learn more here.

Renters: Rental assistance can take a lot of pressure off your overall finances. Consider these resources for rental assistance options and applications:

  • The Chicago Department of Family & Support Services Rental Assistance Program (RAP) is open for applications. This program provides funding to Chicago residents at risk of becoming homeless and is available to all Chicago residents regardless of legal immigration status.
  • Housing Action Illinois
  • Rentervention.com focuses on Chicago residents but can assist any Illinois resident.
  • The Illinois Court-Based Rental Assistance Program (CBRAP) offers funding to Illinois tenants with pending cases in eviction court. View eligibility requirements and apply.

If you’re being threatened with eviction, visit EvictionHelpIllinois.org for free legal assistance. If you’re worried about eviction, you can find free legal help, rental assistance programs, and other resources at Chicago.gov/eviction (for Chicago residents) and Cook County Legal Aid (for Cook County residents).

Housing Counseling: Housing counselors provide guidance on buying a home, renting, loan defaults, foreclosures, and credit issues. Many housing counseling organizations offer financial wellness education at no cost to the participant. Some reputable organizations in Chicago that provide housing counseling are:

2-1-1: You can also try Chicago’s 2-1-1 hotline to be connected with housing assistance.

Car Payment

Options for assistance during an economic hardship may include changing the due date of your payments, creating a new repayment plan to lower your monthly payment, or deferring (postponing) your payments. Contact your lender for more information.

Utilities & Internet

Utilities: All major Illinois utility providers have their own bill assistance programs including ComEd, Peoples Gas, North Shore Gas, Nicor, and Ameren. Contact your provider to access funds and policies set aside for financial support.

If you are lower income, contact both your utility provider and the following state utility assistance programs:

For more information, call Chicago’s 2-1-1 hotline for housing or utility bill assistance in the Chicago and Cook County area.

Internet:

  • The federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which helps lower-income households pay their monthly internet bill, stopped accepting new applications and enrollments on February 7, 2024 due to a lack of additional funding from Congress. To receive the benefit, consumers must have been approved and enrolled with a service provider before 11:59PM ET on February 7th. If you need to talk to someone about eligibility or your application status, call the ACP Support Center at 877-384- 2575.
  • Lifeline is another government program lowering the cost of phone or internet service for eligible households. However, this program is more restrictive and less generous than the ACP. Review qualifications and apply here.
  • Many internet service providers offer affordable internet programs, including AT&T, Xfinity, and RCN. The Citizens Utility Board has compiled information on these programs here.

Student Loans

Policy changes under the Biden Administration have significantly expanded the options available to student loan borrowers to reduce monthly payments, prevent excessive interest from accumulating, and potentially obtain forgiveness on student loans.

For folks with federal student loans, if you have not done this already, login to your Federal Student Aid account and make sure your contact info is up-to-date. If you are having trouble affording your student loan payments, use the Federal Student Aid website’s Loan Simulator to find out about repayment options relative to your personal situation.

  • One set of options are income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, which are plans that make repayment more affordable by pegging your monthly loan payment to your income. Borrowers should review all their options to figure out which best fits their financial situation. Note that the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan is a newer and much more generous IDR plan that could reduce your monthly payment to $0.
  • All of the IDR plans provide that after 20 or 25 years of repayment, any additional debt will be forgiven. Borrowers who enroll in an IDR plan may therefore want to rethink their repayment strategy: rather than aiming to pay off your debt, you may want to focus on making your monthly payment as low as possible and take advantage of debt forgiveness in the future.
  • Borrowers in default on their loans should look into “Fresh Start,” a one-time temporary program offering special benefits, including relief from collections, through at least September 2024.
  • Borrowers with multiple federal loans should consider “consolidating” their loans, which could move you closer to partial or total forgiveness. You can learn more on the Federal Student Aid website’s Consolidate Loans The Biden Administration extended the deadline for applying to consolidate loans to April 30, 2024.

For a more comprehensive breakdown of your options for managing student loan payments, visit the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance website or the Student Borrower Protection Center’s Cancel My Student Debt website. The State of Illinois also has a series of webinars online about managing student loan payments – learn more at go.uillinois.edu/repay.

Automatic, Recurring Payments

Many people pay their bills through automatic, recurring payments (e.g., subscriptions, gym memberships, loans, credit cards). We recommend canceling unnecessary subscriptions and re-subscribing when your financial situation improves.

If canceling is not the best option, contact the companies that deduct money through autopay to explain your situation. They may be willing to temporarily freeze your account. If that’s not an option, you have the right to stop automatic, recurring payments and to revoke your authorization for the company to deduct money. This will not relieve you of your obligation to pay the company, 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 assistance programs or list recommended go-to resources for borrowers experiencing financial difficulty. For example, American Express offers flexible payment plans while Capital One lists steps they recommend customers take to address financial hardship. Make sure you understand the benefits and drawbacks of any relief program before you opt in.

Visit your credit card company’s website to learn more. If you cannot find info online, call the customer service number on your card to ask about your options.

Medical Bills

Contact your medical provider/biller and explain that you are unable to pay the bill due to financial 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. You could also call back at a different time or a different day in the hopes of speaking to a different representative. 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. For more information, 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 at 312-796-3070. Illinois Legal Aid Online has an online guide to help you with paperwork.

Accounts in Collections

The worst thing you can do is to do nothing. 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. Even if your income is too high to qualify for legal aid, they can refer you to someone else.

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 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).

Man getting advice

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.

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, Rob Mayo, Amy Eisenstein, Vanessa Rangel, Gordon Mayer, Meegan Dugan Adell, Winston Berkman-Breen at Student Borrower Protection Center, and Bob Palmer at Housing Action Illinois for their work on this project.

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