Between mid-March and the end of April, more than 30 million Americans filed for unemployment. That's nearly 30 times the number of jobless claims that were filed in the six weeks prior to mid-March. A spike of that magnitude represents a massive blow to American households, but it's also presenting a unique challenge for state unemployment departments.
New York's unemployment website "collapsed" in April due to the volume of claims; the state responded by staffing 1,000 employees to answer incoming phone calls. Wisconsin's unemployment office transferred in 100 employees from other departments to process claims, and they're interviewing people to fill another 200 open positions. In Hawaii, state leaders are hoping to recruit 1,000 volunteers to help work through 200,000 pending claims.
In normal times, it might take three weeks or so to receive your first unemployment check. In today's world, you could wait twice that long, especially if there's a problem with your application. As of April 27, for example, the state of Hawaii had paid on fewer than one-third of the jobless claims it had received since March 1. That's bad news for you and others who need cash now to cover the bills.
If you're stuck in the unemployment waiting game, here are four steps you can take to get by until those unemployment checks start showing up.
1. Ask for payment deferrals
Contact your creditors today and explain your situation. Ask for payment deferrals or at least a break on late-payment fees. You won't be the first to call in and request help, either. Several credit card issuers and financial institutions already have assistance protocols in place for borrowers who've been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
For the lenders that are willing to work with you, ask specifically about how and when late fees will be incurred, when payments will become due again, how interest will accrue, and how the deferral will affect your standing overall. Then, make a calendar to keep your due dates organized going forward.
2. Cancel all discretionary subscriptions
Review your bank statements for the last three months and look for recurring charges that you can cancel. Or use an app like Truebill to help you identify these subscriptions. You can live without streaming services, access to online newspapers, gaming apps, gym memberships, and productivity apps for the next 30 or 60 days.
3. Grocery shop your pantry
Take stock of what's in your pantry and use the internet to find simple recipes that fit the ingredients you already have. You can either search for two-ingredient or three-ingredient meal recipes, or you can visit sites like MyFridgeFood.com to search for recipes by ingredient. It's not ideal to live on toasted peanut butter sandwiches and pasta tossed with a drizzle of oil, but those modest meals will help conserve your cash.
4. Inventory and prioritize your cash
To figure out how long you can hang on while you're waiting for the unemployment check, you'll have to do two things. First, estimate the cash you need for must-pay bills and groceries over the next six weeks. Then, inventory and prioritize cash and accounts that can be converted to cash.
The sources you'll tap first are your checking and savings balances, of course, but also things like old gift cards, unused credit balances, the money in your change jar, the quarters in your car's center console, and even loyalty points that have purchasing power. Take a peek into your Venmo and PayPal accounts, too, for any usable funds.
If those sources don't turn up enough cash to cover the essentials, you can take more drastic measures. Here are three, in order of priority:
- Cash out any CDs if you have them. You might incur penalties, but that's preferable to racking up late charges on your bills.
- Use a credit card to cover a small shortfall. This is only viable if you don't already have high debt balances and you think repayment will be manageable once you start receiving regular unemployment checks.
- Raise funds by tapping your long-term savings. If you have no other option, you can leverage your life insurance, IRA balance, or 401(k) balance to raise funds. A small life insurance loan might be the simplest option if you plan to keep paying your premiums. If you let the policy lapse, though, your loan may become taxable. You could also withdraw contributions from a Roth IRA without penalty. And thanks to the CARES Act, passed in March, you can take money from your traditional IRA or 401(k) without penalty for this year only. All of these options affect your retirement timeline, so only take what you need to get by.
This, too, shall pass
Unemployment is challenging enough on its own. Add in an extended waiting period to receive your benefits and your situation can easily go from challenging to downright desperate. Ask for help from your creditors and then lower your ongoing expenses as much as possible. Get creative in how you use your cash and, hopefully, your state will come through with a check before you have to tap your retirement accounts.