If you’re one of the millions of people who have struggled financially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to know that help is available. Here is a brief overview of the assistance programs available to struggling Americans.

Key Takeaways

  • Numerous government assistance programs have been created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
  • Many lenders are offering help to their borrowers, but you have to ask for it.
  • You can also turn to yourself through a 401(k) hardship withdrawal and take advantage of a loosening of regulations under recent legislation.

Financial Help From the Government

Financial Assistance for Individuals

Congress passed several bills to address the financial fallout of the COVID-19 crisis. First was the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March 2020 and signed by President Donald Trump. The CARES Act included a direct $1,200 payment for qualifying individuals.

An additional direct stimulus payment of $600 was included in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, which was signed into law by President Trump in December 2020.

A third stimulus check of $1,400 to qualifying adults and each of their dependents was authorized through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021.

The act also includes an extension of unemployment benefits and a continuance of eviction and foreclosure moratoriums through March 31, 2021. President Biden also extended payment deferments on most federal student loans through at least Sept. 30, 2021.

Financial Assistance for Small Businesses

The U.S. government's initial stimulus package, the CARES Act, contained a provision called the Payment Protection Program (PPP). PPP was reopened on Jan. 11, 2021, and authorized to accept applications until May 31, 2021. The U.S. Small Business Administration explains the application process on its website.

The American Rescue Plan Act expands eligibility for PPP loans to several types of nonprofit organizations and adds $7.5 billion in funding to the PPP. President Biden's stimulus plan also established the Restaurant Revitalization Grant program, which is authorized to issue up to $28.6 billion in grants to eligible entities. An additional $15 billion was appropriated to continue financing Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). These programs will be active until funds are expended.

Financial Help From Your Lenders

Just about every lender—credit card companies, mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and others—has been offering some sort of assistance for their borrowers who have been affected by COVID-19. That may take the form of deferred payments, waived interest, and fees, or additional help in qualifying for personal or small business loans.

If you are struggling financially, it’s always better to reach out to your lenders as soon as possible, rather than fall behind on payments without contacting them.

Another option might be taking out a personal loan or small-business loan. These should be used primarily as a last resort and only if you have a realistic belief that your situation will be markedly better before too long. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting into even deeper debt.

Financial Help From Yourself

Instead of—or in addition to—financial help from the government or your lenders, you may have some do-it-yourself options.

One would be a 401(k) loan or hardship withdrawal if you have a significant balance in your account. In general, it's best to avoid touching your 401(k) before retirement, but in a serious financial crisis, it might be your only option. The CARES Act changed the rules for 401(k) loans and withdrawals to make them less punitive, such as by waiving early distribution penalties and allowing account holders to delay making loan repayments. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed into law on Dec. 22, 2020, allows Americans to withdrawal up to $100,000 from their 401(k) penalty-free until June 2021.

On a more everyday level, you might also take another look at your spending to see if there's anywhere you could still cut back or any major expense you might put off, at least for the time being.