How to Bank When You Can’t Go to the Bank

It’s a tough time to do your banking if you prefer going to a branch. Hours have been cut at many locations, and social distancing guidelines mean bank lobbies are limiting traffic — assuming they are open at all.

For customers who absolutely need to visit branches, banks are taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sean Potter of Minneapolis, who blogs at My Money Wizard, saw these precautions during a recent meeting at his local bank. “It was awkward because I had an appointment with the relationship manager, and we still had to maintain 6 feet of distance even though we had to review the same documents together,” he says.

Potter appreciates that the branch was trying to ensure his safety, but says he’s now considering other ways to bank. “From now on, it’s online or on the phone,” he says.

Here are some ways you can bank without leaving home, along with safety tips if you do need to venture out to a brick-and-mortar branch.

Explore online options

“A lot of banking can be done with the click of a button,” says Brian Milton, head of retail banking at Union Bank. Union and most other banks and credit unions have robust websites and apps you can use for many banking tasks.

Deposit checks. With mobile check deposit, you can snap a photo of a paper check and submit it online, via app or your bank’s secure website.

Pay bills. With online bill pay, you can log in to your bank’s webpage and enter the name of the recipient and their contact information. Your bank handles the rest by making an electronic funds transfer or mailing a paper check.

Apply for an account. Opening a new checking or savings account can be as easy as going to a bank’s website and submitting an online application. To apply, have your driver’s license and Social Security number handy to prove your identity.

Sign documents. Some institutions use digital services such as DocuSign to prepare documents, including loan and account opening paperwork. They can be securely emailed to you, and you can sign them electronically by clicking highlighted prompts.

Request payment assistance. Need some leeway with loan payments? Some banks are allowing customers to request arrangements online, including delaying due dates for bills, temporarily reducing monthly payments or asking for fee waivers.

Or pick up the phone

Keep your bank’s customer service number nearby. You can use it to speak to a real person about account questions or issues.

For example, some banks have announced that customers can call and request to waive non-sufficient funds fees, overdraft fees and monthly service charges.

But keep this in mind: If you’re faced with steep fees, it may be better to simply switch to a cheaper bank. Online-only institutions, for example, tend to have low or no monthly service fees, and some offer toll-free customer service numbers staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To learn more, read our primer on online banks.

Bank safely at a branch

If you still need to visit a bank branch, here are some ways to protect yourself.

Get it on the calendar. “Before you visit your local branch, it’s a good idea to call ahead and schedule an appointment,” Milton says. He adds that doing so helps branches manage occupancy and social distancing requirements.

Calling ahead can also help the bank make sure it has a staffer on hand who can help you with a specialized transaction or request, he says.

Consider drive-up services. Some banks have drive-up lanes where customers can receive the same services offered inside a branch, such as making cash deposits and withdrawals, and getting money orders, all at a safe distance from other people. You could also withdraw cash from an on-site ATM without the need to interact with a teller.

Bring your protective gear.  Since you’ll be touching screens, door handles and other public surfaces, consider bringing hand sanitizer or wearing gloves. If you do need to step inside a lobby, you may also be asked to wear a mask for everyone’s protection.

Accept the changes. Steve Turner, a publicist in Chesterfield, Missouri, says he visits his local branch a few times a month to make business deposits. “There are signs on the floor showing where people should stand to keep their distance,” he says. Turner has also noticed there’s less small talk with the tellers, and reasons it’s because everyone is wearing a mask. He believes these changes will remain for a while. “It was odd at first, but now it seems like a new normal,” he says.

Margarette Burnette is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @Margarette.

The article How to Bank When You Can’t Go to the Bank originally appeared on NerdWallet.

6 Do’s and Don’ts When Saving Money During a Crisis

Probably the last thing you want to think about during a crisis is working on healthy financial habits like saving money. But if you’re able to save, you can make your eventual recovery easier.

“Every time you put some [money] away, you’re looking out for your future self,” says Saundra Davis, founder and executive director at Sage Financial Solutions, a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit that offers financial coach training and services to people across the wealth spectrum.

Whether or not your financial situation has changed since the start of 2020, you may benefit from these saving strategies now or down the road.

Do: Reduce costs, including bills if needed

Common advice to save money is to cut unnecessary costs. During an ongoing crisis such as a pandemic, you might need to redefine what is “unnecessary.”

Start with the cost of bare essentials to operate your household — rent or mortgage, utilities, food — and when you factor bills in, don’t treat them all the same. For example, paying your credit card bill in full every month is normally the best tactic, but in hard times, it’s OK not to follow this rule and just pay the minimum. For loan payments, see if your creditor can offer relief.

“Don’t have your lender deciding what you can pay,” Davis says. “Sketch out your own budget.” This might mean working with your lender to reduce payments or suspend them temporarily.

Do: Adjust your savings goals

Having a dollar amount to save up to is generally helpful. An emergency fund, for example, is a standard goal that involves building up three to six months’ worth of living expenses. But during an emergency, consider resetting expectations.

“If your income changes, you aren’t beholden to saving a fixed amount,” says LaKhaun McKinley, certified financial planner and owner of the firm MNM Vested in Katy, Texas.

The way you save might need to be tweaked, too. If you use automatic transfers from checking to savings accounts, see if that amount is still doable for you. If not, reduce the amount. Or, as a last resort, cancel the transfers for the time being and make one-off transfers when possible.

When saving money, “the habit is more important than the amount,” Davis says.

Do: Find a high savings rate

Opening a high-yield savings account at an online bank is a good strategy, regardless of the economic environment. The national average rate is 0.06%, but some online savings accounts are currently offering over 1% annual percentage yield. The account-opening process can take a few minutes.

Opening a high-yield account “can be such a simple way to earn more,” says Kelley Long. She’s a Chicago-based certified public accountant, financial planner and member of the American Institute of CPAs’ Consumer Financial Education Advocates.

Do: Get help from your community to save costs

If you’re experiencing financial hardship, call 2-1-1 or visit the website This is a free way to learn about resources in your community, including food banks, meal services for seniors and students, shelters, mental health services and more. If you’ve never asked for help like this before, it may feel uncomfortable. But accepting meals or other support can be an important lifeline as well as help you save money.

“We want to stay aware of what’s available in our community and give ourselves the emotional room to do things we’ve never done before,” Davis says.

Some relief is nationwide, including postponed federal student loan payments and coronavirus-specific unemployment programs, but your local community might have additional resources.

Don’t: Dip into savings without a plan

If you have an emergency fund and you need it now, use it. But estimate the amount you need before withdrawing, and keep tabs on how you spend it.

You’ll eventually need to save up again, and you want to make that process manageable. It might help to settle on a minimum amount you need to keep in a savings account to feel OK.

“Everyone has a different feeling [for] what would give them that security,” Long says. For some people, for example, “seeing a comma in your account can have a formative effect on your feeling of financial security.”

Don’t: Withdraw from savings too often

Keep an eye on the frequency with which you turn to your savings account. Banks can charge an excessive savings withdrawal fee if you go over six per month. During COVID-19, the Federal Reserve has paused this rule, but it’s up to each bank to choose whether to charge the fee. Watch out for other fees, too, such as for overdrawing if you dip past your checking account balance.

If you’re running into trouble with fees, examine why you needed more savings than expected.

“We might be overaggressive in savings goals. That’s usually due to failing to account for certain expenses in our spending plan,” Long says.

“In a crisis,” she adds, “we need to remember that there are times that we can’t be long-term in our thinking.”

Spencer Tierney is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SpencerNerd.

The article 6 Do’s and Don’ts When Saving Money During a Crisis originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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Don’t Fall for COVID-19 Student Loan Relief Scams

Student loan borrowers were targets for scams before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The longer people struggle, the more desperate they become, and that’s when scammers and fraudsters thrive.

“They’re using the same playbook, but more aggressively,” says Seth Frotman, executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

There’s no single scam related to coronavirus relief or specific company to pinpoint that is being prosecuted right now, says Leslie Tayne, a debt-relief attorney and founder of Tayne Law Group. But fraudsters are still out there.

There are two main types of scams, says Frotman. In one scam, a company will charge to enroll you in a benefit you could have accessed for free, such as a federal income-driven repayment plan.

Tayne says she most often sees scammers promising to get borrowers into a loan deferment program in exchange for payment.

In another scam, you’re promised something too good to be true — like forgiveness — in exchange for payment. Then they take your money and run.

“It used to be called the Obama Loan Forgiveness scam, and now there’s the CARES Act Forgiveness scam,” says Persis Yu, director of the nonprofit National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.

“Borrowers should always look upon advertising that is promising forgiveness with skepticism,” says Yu. No student loan forgiveness was included in the  March coronavirus relief package.

How to figure out what is legit

As you’re assessing what is real and what is not, take a beat to independently verify a company on third-party sites like the Better Business Bureau’s. Here’s what else you can do:

See if there are news stories about scams alongside a business’s name in an online search. Remember: Anyone can pay for a domain name and start a website. Logos, addresses and mailers are easy to replicate, too.

Be wary of solicitations that arrive in your inbox or that you see on social media ads. Even if you’re contacted by a party that has your personal information, it doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate organization, says Tayne.

If you get a robocall regarding student loan repayment during the coronavirus pandemic, don’t call back. The Federal Communications Commission has seen these and is warning consumers not to fall for these scams.

Real relief measures available for borrowers

The coronavirus relief package did include provisions for most federal student loan borrowers, but not private loan borrowers. Individual private lenders are offering benefits such as short-term emergency deferment or waived late fees.

Federal loan borrowers are in the midst of a six-month automatic forbearance — with no interest — retroactive to March 13 and lasting through Sept. 30, 2020. Borrowers with loans in default also get relief from collection activities like wage garnishment.

However, the implementation of these benefits hasn’t been smooth, says Yu. The National Consumer Law Center and another nonprofit, Student Defense, sued the U.S. Department of Education over allegations that the department continued garnishing wages despite the provision in the law that prohibits it.

Implementation mistakes have left borrowers more vulnerable to getting scammed, says Yu.

“They’re desperate, and they might be entitled to relief and they’re not getting it,” she says. “Our policymakers and the Department of Education need to step up to get this right so borrowers are not driven to companies leeching off their desperation.”

You should be receiving all relief automatically for federal loans. If you’re not, contact your servicer and make a complaint in writing.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

If you’ve been scammed, the first thing you need to do is get control of your accounts.

“One common iteration of these scams is the company will take over the FSA ID or servicer account and redirect any communications to that company,” says Yu. (The FSA ID is the unique username and password used to log into the federal student aid online system.)

• If you’ve given a scam company your password, change your password. You may need to change the email address your account is linked to.

• Make sure to report the scam to authorities as well, says Tayne, and hold onto copies of those reports.

• The Federal Trade Commission, your state attorney general and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are options for reporting scams. Each one actively pursues student loan scammers, but they rely on borrowers to self-report.

• If you’re looking to take legal action, contact a legal services organization (if you’re income-eligible) or hire a lawyer.

Frotman, Yu and Tayne each said that borrowers sometimes get their money back, but it takes effort.

Anna Helhoski is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @AnnaHelhoski.

The article Don’t Fall for COVID-19 Student Loan Relief Scams originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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Can’t Make Money Right Now? Free Up Cash in Your Budget

You’re not the only one with a tight budget. Millions of Americans are currently struggling with unemployment, lost hours and lowered wages.

There’s little comfort in knowing that others are feeling strapped. But you may be relieved to hear there are ways to make things easier — even if you’re out of work or can’t make more money.

We talked to financial experts for advice about getting more mileage out of the money you have available right now. Here are their tips for finding extra money in your monthly budget.

Go line by line

Depending on where you live, you’re probably spending a lot of time at home these days. Devote at least some of the free time to analyzing your finances.

Go over every single transaction in your checking account, savings account, credit card bills and so forth, says Robinson Crawford, certified financial planner and founder of the adviser firm Montebello Avenue in Phoenix.

Crawford says you can use a budgeting system to make this step easier. Try an app, Excel file or some other tool.

Once you see all of the dollars going in and out, you’ll be able to identify areas for savings. And you’ll be ready to start making some (or all) of the changes outlined below.

Pick up the phone

As you look at your line items, focus on the largest bills first, suggests Cady North, CFP, founder of North Financial Advisors LLC, with offices in San Diego and Washington, D.C.

Lowering substantial, recurring payments has the potential to reap the biggest savings. For example, even if you already received an automatic rebate from your auto insurance company, it doesn’t hurt to call up and see if you can negotiate additional savings. That’s particularly applicable if you’re not driving right now.

Another option? If you have student loans, your federal student loan payment has likely already been suspended, but you’ll want to take the extra step to ensure you’ve stopped your automatic payments. That is, if you don’t want to continue making payments right now.

If you choose to contact companies and service providers you do business with, be honest about how COVID-19 has affected you. Crawford recommends telling them about your situation and why you’re asking for help, especially if you’ve been laid off. They’re likely to empathize.

“Part of the reasoning should be, ‘Listen I’m trying to do everything to keep all of my bills paid. I want your service. I want to keep you. I want to stay as a customer.’”

Unplug and unsubscribe

After the big expenses, seal smaller holes in your spending. Try looking around your house, recommends Shehara L. Wooten, CFP, founder of investment advisor Your Story Financial LLC.

Unplug electronics when they’re not in use. Stop buying disposable paper towels and paper plates — switch to reusable towels and plates instead. Monitor the thermostat and lights as you spend increased amounts of time at home.

You can also pull the plug on unnecessary subscriptions. Crawford says now might be the right time to cancel those streaming services and online shopping memberships, especially ones you haven’t found use for even while you’ve been cooped up at home.

“If you’re not watching one of your streaming subscriptions during COVID, news flash: You’re never going to watch it.”

If you still like (and use) your subscriptions and aren’t willing to give them up completely, cut them out temporarily. Some companies allow you to go online and pause your account for a period of time.

“That’s a way to get $15, $20 here and there extra in your budget,” North says.

Get money back

Finally, while you may not be able to find a new job right now, there could still be methods to expand your budget that you hadn’t considered.

One way is to sign up for cash-back shopping sites or apps to earn money back when you purchase groceries and other essentials, Wooten points out. With some apps, you scan your receipt after a transaction for post-purchase savings.

As you free up money, make sure you’re devoting those newfound funds to absolute necessities first, like food and shelter.

Every change you can make — no matter how major or minor — can make a difference.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Courtney Jespersen is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @CourtneyNerd.

The article Can’t Make Money Right Now? Free Up Cash in Your Budget originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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How to stand out in this tough job market

Dear Class of 2020: You are graduating into one of the worst economies in history. But this isn’t news to you. Many of you have already felt the impact, with summer internships and full-time job offers pulled out from under you as the depth and duration of the coronavirus pandemic truly sets in.

As a product of the last recession, I’m here to tell you that all is not lost. You will eventually land a job. It might not be in your field, but if you’re scrappy and creative, you will get there.

My path looked like this: A call center job (to pay the bills), plus a freelance writing gig (to build my resume), then graduate school (to expand my network) followed by a temporary job with a textbook company (again, to pay the bills). Then, finally, a reporting internship that turned into my first full-time journalism job.

Your path may not look like mine or your parents’ or your classmates’, and it will likely look different from what you planned. These tips from career coaches can help you stand out from the other newly minted associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree holders — not to mention the over 40 million newly unemployed workers.

Beef up your LinkedIn profile

“You don’t have as much face-to-face opportunity, so it’s important to optimize online visibility,” says Debra Rodenbaugh-Schaub, a career services consultant at the Alumni Association of Kansas State University.

The place to do that: LinkedIn.

The professional networking platform is heavily trafficked by recruiters and hiring managers, making it crucial to put your best foot forward.

Amp up your profile with links to websites you’ve created, articles you’ve written or presentations you’ve given. You can even upload recordings to highlight public-speaking skills.

Look at profiles of people who are leaders in the industry you’re targeting to get inspiration for what to highlight and how to present yourself in your own profile.

Network virtually

Social distancing hasn’t killed networking; it’s just made it virtual.

The usual players — trade organizations, alumni groups and professional organizations — are all still meeting via webinars and video conferencing.

Moving online can make networking less intimidating for newbies. You can ease into building connections, absorbing information and building the confidence to eventually become a more active participant.

You can, and should, also make meaningful one-on-one connections. Not doing so will put you at a distinct disadvantage, since jobs are often filled via an employee referral.

Lisa Kastor, director of career planning at the College of Wooster in Ohio, recommends building a “mentor map” with at least three mentors who can help guide you and make introductions.

“I coach students to identify a person who has at least 10 years of experience, one that knows them well academically and one who knows them well professionally,” Kastor says. “Start with who [you] know, articulate what [you] want and always ask for the recommendation of two more people to reach out to.”

Tailor your resume

Understand what a company is looking for in a candidate. Then, customize your resume and cover letter to that specific job posting. This is an important step under normal circumstances but it is critical now, as the economic upheaval of the pandemic has increased competition for available jobs.

“Don’t be self-defeating and copy and paste the same thing into 100 job applications. That is not the right approach.” Rodenbaugh-Schaub says.

Avoid simply listing skills or tasks. Instead, give them context. Highlight how your experience and actions delivered measurable outcomes.

Tailoring your resume also means including keywords or phrases from the job posting, since companies use software to sift through the initial barrage of applicants.

Consider alternative career paths

“COVID-19 is unlike anything we have seen, so you have to be flexible,” says Glenn Hellenga, director of career and employability resources at Tri-County Technical College in South Carolina.

That might mean working in a short-term contract role in your field or accepting a job that is completely outside your career path. After all, you’ve got bills to pay.

Taking a detour doesn’t mean abandoning your goals entirely. Instead, find opportunities to develop the tools you’ll need for your dream job. Pick up freelancing gigs, find volunteer opportunities and proactively seek out projects wherever you land.

“You can show that you’ve been actively pursuing, enhancing and honing your skills,” Rodenbaugh-Schaub says. “Employers love that.”

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Kelsey Sheehy is a writer at NerdWallet. Email:

The article How to stand out in this tough job market originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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Make Room on Credit Cards to Add Options in an Emergency

Maybe you’ve been working through credit card debt for a while now. Or maybe you racked it up recently as you prepared for the coronavirus lockdown. Regardless of how and when you got into debt, ridding yourself of this financial burden can free up cash — and relieve at least one stressor in an exceptionally anxious time.

If you’re in a good financial position right now, meaning you have savings in the bank and a steady income, it’s a good time to knock out some credit card debt. Here’s how to think about debt payoff now and what tactics you should consider.

Get your budget and savings in order

The economic and personal upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic has made sorting out your budget and savings top financial priorities — even before debt payoff.

Update your budget

Unless you were a grocery-hoarding hermit before the pandemic, chances are your spending habits have shifted. Revise your budget to reflect where your money is going now, accounting for things like expanded grocery expenses and less spending on entertainment, such as concerts and dining out.

Beef up your savings

Preparing financially by increasing your emergency fund is almost always a wise decision. Savings are a source of stability in uncertain times. Work to have at least a month or two of expenses in the bank. “Now is actually a good time to pay off your debt,” says Kate Welker, a certified financial planner in Rochester, New York. “But my advice is build the emergency fund first, because it can get you through a tough time and help you avoid building up new debt in the future.”

How to pay off credit card debt

Though it feels like the world has changed from top to bottom, tactics to pay off debt have largely stayed the same, says Billy Hensley, CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education, a nonprofit promoting informed financial decision-making.

“The traditional sort of boring vanilla strategies still seem to work well,” Hensley says. “Look at where you can cut expenses now, look at if you can lock in a lower interest rate that could save you a few dollars a month.”

The goal is to knock out your debt while you’re in a good place financially so you don’t have this burden if you lose your job or your income is reduced later on. Don’t close credit cards as you pay them off, though. You may need access to that credit if your situation changes.

Consider these tactics:

Ask your creditors for lower interest rates

You may not qualify for any hardship programs being offered by your credit card company, but you might be able to get your interest rate cut. That can make paying off your debt more affordable.

“It’s not a bad time to call a lender and see if they can reduce your rate right now,” Welker says.

Be sure you understand the terms of any agreement and get them in writing, including how long the benefit will last and any trade-offs, like having a lower credit limit.

Direct freed-up cash toward debt

With restaurants closed, travel a no-go and fewer events to buy new clothes for, you might have actually saved money throughout lockdown. Use that money to boost your debt payoff. And if you have federal student loans, which are on pause through September thanks to the coronavirus relief bill, consider putting what you would have paid on those loans toward credit card debt, which likely has a higher interest rate.

Try your luck with a 0% APR card

For those with good credit, balance transfer credit cards with 0% APR introductory periods are a go-to for making debt more affordable. Creditors aren’t handing these out as generously as before, but they’re still on the market. If you qualify, these cards can make your debt payoff faster and cheaper, because for a time your entire payment goes to your balance, not interest.

In addition to these tactics, try to find a debt payoff method that works for you and stick to it over the long haul. Take the debt snowball method, for example: You direct your cash toward your smallest debt first, maintaining minimum payments on the others. When the first debt is paid, focus your payoff efforts on the next-biggest debt. Picking off the smallest balances first can give you some quick wins that will help see you through your debt payoff journey.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Sean Pyles is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @SeanPyles.

The article Make Room on Credit Cards to Add Options in an Emergency originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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Scaling Back Spending Yields Unexpected Benefits

When I originally set out to write this column, I wanted to share the unexpected benefits of cutting back on my online shopping habit.

At the beginning of the year, I set a personal challenge to reduce my online orders from several times a week (insert embarrassed emoji) to a few times a month. As time passed, I realized I had fewer deliveries to track and more money left in my bank account at the end of the month.

But then COVID-19 happened. And now eliminating online shopping is more than a fad or a New Year’s resolution. For millions, cutting things out of the budget is an absolute necessity.

If you’re having to scale back on discretionary spending — whether that’s shopping, travel or something else entirely — here’s how to give up that financial habit without feeling deprived.

See the silver lining

The news is filled with fear, worry and sadness. But it helps to see the silver lining, says Denise Downey, a certified financial planner and owner of Financial Trex LLC, based in Spokane, Washington.

Depending on where you live, you may be forced to stop some spending — on travel, sporting events, haircuts, entertainment and more. This involuntary saving can help you make changes you wouldn’t have otherwise made on your own.

“Those decisions are being made for us right now,” Downey says. “It’s not a matter of, ‘Do I cut the vacation this year or not?’ It’s cut. There’s no decision to be made with that.”

“If you want to put a positive spin on it, it’s making it easier for people to cut their expenses because they’re removing that decision-making hurdle.”

It’s all about perspective. So, if you can, focus on the benefits. For instance, you may find you’re feeling a positive boost as you watch your bank account grow and your credit card bill stop climbing.

So sure, my deliveries of clothing, makeup and the newest scented candles aren’t as frequent. But much like the thrill of getting a delivery, I’m finding that not spending is also appealing.

Get your power back

It’s probably obvious that placing fewer online orders equates to saving more money, as long as you don’t substitute an expensive activity in its place. The same goes for other types of spending. Cutting back any spending habit can lead to savings.

It can also give you a sense of empowerment, says Drew Harris, CFP, senior financial advisor at Greenway Wealth Advisors LLC, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“It’s a good way to gain back some control by taking ownership of our spending,” Harris says.

Cutting back means you’re giving something up. But you’re also gaining freedom from the financial stress that discretionary spending can cause, as well as the buyer’s remorse that so often accompanies spending.

This sense of empowerment can help you feel better. L. Kevin Chapman, a licensed clinical psychologist, says you may “adopt a sense of mastery when eliminating something that has led to financial strain.”

Basically, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, which allows you to feel positive (rather than negative) about the changes you’re making.

Learn a new habit

Don’t get discouraged. Your decreased spending won’t have to last forever.

But then again, you may find you don’t necessarily want to return to your pre-pandemic spending habits. And that’s OK, too.

Chapman says many people will become more accustomed to shopping less following the COVID-19 outbreak, especially if they’ve replaced their shopping habit with more cost-effective activities.

Take this time to learn some new habits in place of your old costly ones. Harris suggests going for a walk, talking with family and friends or finding some other inexpensive activity you enjoy doing.

Another example? Downey says her children were constantly busy with extracurricular activities — activities that cost money. But since the family has been home, she’s noticed they’re happy and entertained, even with a not-so-busy schedule. That has led her to rethink enrolling them in quite as many activities in the future.

Regardless of the specific substitutions you make, the changes you’re implementing during these unprecedented times will help boost your savings and emergency fund. Best case scenario, when life returns to some degree of normalcy one day, hopefully that fund is more than you ended up needing, Downey says.

In that case, you can reward yourself by buying something you’re putting off right now — and paying for it in cash.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Courtney Jespersen is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @CourtneyNerd.

The article Scaling Back Spending Yields Unexpected Benefits originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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Still Undecided About College This Fall? Know These 4 Options

If you’re waiting until the last minute to make a decision about college, you’re in good company — colleges are scrambling, too.

Here’s a sample of what some schools are considering:

  • Boston University plans in-person instruction.
  • The California State University system will go remote.
  • Columbia University will offer three semesters to “de-densify” its campus.
  • Kent State University is developing “multiple scenarios” including face-to-face, remote learning or a hybrid model.
  • University of Notre Dame will begin its fall semester in early August, forgo fall break and end before Thanksgiving.
  • University of Florida says it won’t announce plans until mid-July.

There are dozens of examples that all point to one conclusion: No one is sure what the college experience this fall will look like. But experts say it’s still the way to go in most cases.

“The question is: If not college, what is your alternative?” says Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “For many people, with the economy the way it is, the alternatives will be bad. Even though college may not be college the way you want it, it still beats the alternative of sitting around home doing nothing.”

Pay attention to your prospective school’s deadline for making a decision and adhere to it. Currently enrolled students have a longer window to send in a deposit — usually up to the first week of classes. If you change your mind, you will likely forfeit any deposit you make now.

This is a financial decision, too

A 2020 high school graduate at a traditional four-year school who depends on student loans for college could expect to borrow $37,200 in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, according to a NerdWallet analysis.

Commitments that big should never be taken lightly, especially now.

Experts say you should not expect your school to lower tuition for any online courses you take since you’ll still earn the same degree credits. But there are opportunities to cut costs in the fall — and lower the amount of debt you take on overall.

The real variables are the school you choose, the amount of financial aid available and your living expenses.

As you make a decision, think about how well your courses might translate to online learning and if you’re someone who learns well that way. Would a cheaper school, or one closer to home, make sense? Does your financial aid picture change if you attend remotely? Do you have a way to pay for food and shelter if you’re not on campus? Would taking a break harm your chances of finishing school?

Here are possible choices for fall 2020:

1. Attend college remotely

Your college may choose online-only instruction, or you might decide to attend classes remotely even if the campus opens.

Remote learning could be a good opportunity to continue your coursework at a fraction of the cost since you won’t pay for room and board. But an online-only model may not work for you if your degree requires in-person interaction, like lab or fieldwork.

Here’s what to consider if you switch to distance learning:

  • What resources or technology you’ll need to transition to successful online learning — and if you’ll need help paying for them.
  • What degree coursework you can more easily complete remotely, such as core classes.
  • If your financial aid award included work-study, which could limit your remote options.
  • Your confidence in the quality of online coursework at your school.

2. Live on campus

Schools may reopen, but with modifications you’re not used to or new requirements, like COVID-19 testing, distancing in classrooms and reduced occupancy in dorms, experts say.

Even if your college says it’s opening for in-person instruction, that can shift in a heartbeat.

“Be prepared that there could be a disruption — or there might not be. We just don’t know,” says Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors. “I think it’s important to mentally prepare yourself for that.”

Students may wait to put down a deposit until there’s more clarity, says Kristen Capezza, vice president of enrollment management and university communications at Adelphi University.

“I don’t think it’s for a lack of wanting [to attend], it’s a hesitancy because they want to know what it will look like, what they will be faced with and what they will be asked to comply with,” says Capezza. Adelphi has told students it’s planning to reopen with new distancing and safety precautions in place.

Here’s what to consider if you head back to campus:

  • Potential challenges of social distancing in a crowded campus environment.
  • Whether you’re prepared for a switch to remote or hybrid learning if there’s a shutdown in your area.
  • Whether your school will supply a prorated refund on room and board if it closes early.

3. Take a gap year

Taking a gap year essentially means putting off enrollment. Often, many colleges will offer official deferment to incoming and current students to postpone attendance for a year without losing their spot.

But students who choose to do it usually take a gap year to travel, intern or volunteer. Many of those options won’t be available this time around.

“I think a gap year this year means a very basic ‘I’m not going to enroll for a year.’ I don’t think it means there’s anything extraordinary happening for that student,” says MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance for the National College Attainment Network.

Here’s what to consider if you decide to take a semester or year off:

  • Your school’s deferred-enrollment policy and deadlines.
  • How you’ll spend the year if you don’t take classes.
  • Whether you already have student loans. If so, repayment will begin six months after leaving school. Contact your lender or servicer to find out your options to defer or lower payments.

4. Attend a community college, then transfer

An inexpensive option would be to attend a community college that’s functioning online or in person. This is a good option if you’re uncertain about your school opening its doors in the fall and you’re in your first two years of school.

You can usually knock out a few requisite courses for less money, then transfer in the spring or fall 2021 semesters.

Here’s what to consider if you attend a community college:

  • If credits will transfer to the school you plan to attend or if the credits you already earned are accepted by the community college.
  • Your enrollment status. If you’re not attending college at least half-time, it may be difficult to get a loan, since federal loans and most private lenders require at least half-time attendance. If you are not enrolled at least half-time and already have student loans, expect repayment to begin.

What you can be doing now

Make a decision as soon as you can. Keep a close eye on communications from your school.

“I know sometimes things happen that make it not possible to go, and I think schools understand that, but I think we’re all living in this world where we aren’t certain what the fall is going to look like,” says Stacey Kostell, chief executive officer of the Coalition for College, a group of member colleges aiming to make higher education affordable for historically underrepresented students. “You’re going to have to take a risk on that decision and hope for the best.”

Schools have some leeway. If enrollment is low at your school, you might receive more financial aid, says Kelchen.

For example, enrollment is slightly lower than expected for the fall at Middle Tennessee State University, but incoming freshmen will find expanded scholarship offerings, according to Tyler Henson, director of the MT One Stop, the enrollment and services department at the university.

If what’s holding you back from making a decision is the financial strain, especially if your family’s income has changed, there are options available to get more financial aid.

Contact your college aid office about how to file an appeal, suggests Kostell. You should also update the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to reflect your family’s current finances. And ask if any deferred payment options are available. For example, at Davidson College, students can now defer payments until August 2021.

While you’re in school, emergency aid help may be available to help you meet financial challenges. Ask what options exist at your school.

The article Still Undecided About College This Fall? Know These 4 Options originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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Pay off student loans faster (and save money) during coronavirus — 4 things you can do

In response to the spread of the coronavirus and its impact on the U.S. economy, the federal government took steps to help Americans get through the next several months on a lower income.

If you have federal student loans, you don’t have to make payments until September 30, 2020. The Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, approved the placement of all qualifying federal student loans into an administrative forbearance. Lenders automatically enrolled qualifying loans and all auto payments should have stopped. Additionally, if you’re already behind on your student loan payments, lenders cannot call or send letters to collect the debt through September 30.

Perkins Loans, Family Federal Education Loans, and private loans do not qualify for this forbearance.

If borrowers have private student loans, there are several ways they can lower their student loan debt faster.

1. Refinance student loans

In late March, the Federal Reserve dropped interest rates to zero percent to help encourage consumer spending during the spread of the coronavirus. Accordingly, you may qualify to refinance your federal student loans. If you have a loan that isn’t covered by the CARES Act, refinancing your loan could reduce your expenses immediately.

Don’t forget to visit Credible to research rates from different private student loan companies to ensure you save as much money as possible.

However, there is a caveat. Borrowers with loans covered under the CARES Act may want to wait to consider refinancing. It’s hard to beat a $0 monthly payment at a zero percent interest rate.

2. Keep paying anyway

You do not have to continue making monthly payments to your student loan lender, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. The current interest rate on all federal student loans is 0 percent. If you continue making your monthly payments, your entire payment will go directly towards reducing the principal balance.

If you want to continue making payments, you can make the payments on your lender’s website or call to ask them to reinstate your automatic payment agreement.

For example, if your monthly payment is $300 per month and you continue making the same payment at zero percent interest rate, you could significantly reduce your total loan balance by the end of September, without spending any extra money.

Remember, if your situation changes, you can stop making monthly paymentsand request forbearance again before the September deadline.

If you have a little extra money, now might be a good time to make additional payments as well. The extra money you sock towards your student loan payment will have a much bigger impact with a zero percent interest rate.

3. Save it in an account that can accrue interest to make a bigger payment

If you want to give your money even more power, consider depositing your monthly payment into an interest-bearing savings account. While you’re not likely to earn a lot of extra money, every little bit counts. You’ll want to shop around for accounts that offer the highest returns with little or no fees to maximize your savings.

Once your monthly payment is due again, you can make a large lump sum payment towards your student loan bill.

4. Get (some) of your money back

As part of the CARES Act, federal student loan lenders were supposed to stop taking any automatic withdrawals from your bank account. If your lender was a little late putting that into place, you could have any payments you made after March 13 returned to your bank account. You’ll need to call your lender directly to request the payment return. Again, this is for those borrowers with outstanding federal student loans – not private ones.

Student loan borrowers have a lot of flexibility when it comes to how they handle their payments until at least September 30. Whether you want to continue making monthly payments, pay extra, or make a partial payment, you can do so without late fees or penalties. Take some time to consider all your options, especially if the administrative forbearance program doesn’t cover your loan. And remember, if you are considering refinancing your student loans, do your research. Use a tool like Credible to make sure you’re saving as much money as possible.

The article “Pay off student loans faster (and save money) during coronavirus — 4 things you can do” originally appeared on

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