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Never really one to buy in bulk, Melodie Jones estimates she spent $350 to buy enough food and supplies for herself and her daughter, Meadow Rose, who turns 9 on Sunday, to make it through any quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 49-year-old Detroiter used what cash she had on hand — robbing Peter to pay Paul, as she says — to cover that extra expense.
“I packed my refrigerator — and I’m not a shopper like that,” Jones said, adding that she normally might spend $100 every two weeks or so on groceries because she doesn’t like to waste food.
She works as a human resources assistant at the Detroit Police Department headquarters and was laid off for a time but got called back part-time as an essential worker. She estimates that she’s making about 30% less than she did before the pandemic hit Detroit hard.
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And like many others, she’s wondering how to pay the rent and make her way through the double-whammy of a daunting economic crisis amid a historic public health crisis. Overall, 43% of U.S. adults now say that they or someone in their household has lost a job or taken a cut in pay due to the coronavirus outbreak, up from 33% in the latter half of March, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center.
Jones filed for unemployment when she was laid off but still hasn’t seen the money in light of the state’s backlog.
She sent her landlord $400 of the $600 that was due for rent in late March.
She eyed an expected stimulus check of $1,700 to cover the rent due next week.
But the money, which the Internal Revenue Service system shows was deposited in someone else’s bank account as of April 15, remained caught in a technical snag associated with tax refund advances and hasn’t shown up a week later. She talked to her tax preparer and has faith she’ll get the $1,700 eventually. She just doesn’t know when.
“It’s still stuck in limbo in that account — which isn’t mine,” Jones said Wednesday.
She faced a little financial challenge here or there — taking out a tax refund advance for the first time this year — but she says she’s never experienced this level of financial trauma.
“Everybody is working with you, but it’s high anxiety,” Jones said.
Surging numbers of consumers seeking to skip payments on their mortgages, rent and car loans offer a huge red flag of the financial stress many face as much of the economy is shut down to combat the coronavirus.
Detroit-based Ally Bank reported Monday that 25% of its car loan customers — or 1.1 million borrowers — had asked to defer making payments. What’s startling: Most of those customers have never faced serious financial challenges paying their car loan in the past, according to Ally.
For homeowners, the struggle to pay the mortgage began during the first month into the coronavirus-induced recession that drove more than 22 million people nationwide to file for unemployment.
The Mortgage Bankers Association reported Monday that 5.95% of home loans — or around 3 million — were in forbearance as of April 12. Borrowers took advantage of new offers of pandemic-related relief to work out arrangements with their lenders to delay making payments on their loans.
By comparison, 3.74% of home loans were in forbearance the prior week and only 0.25% in early March before much of the country closed shop to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Home loans in forbearance will continue to rise. Mortgage borrowers have the option under the coronavirus relief act, known as the CARES Act, to go into forbearance for up to six months, and then an additional six months if needed.
Renters may be even more financially challenged. One in four renters did not pay their full April rent, according to a survey by Apartment List. Half of those respondents made a partial payment to their lender or landlord; the other half made no payment at all. May and June are expected to be difficult months.
We weren’t exactly stockpiling our paychecks
Missing a couple of paychecks was never going to turn out well for many consumers, even before the pandemic. Some had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Others never really made enough money to set aside much savings and cover all their regular expenses.
“In all honesty, I believe that people were already a paycheck away from being homeless,” Jones said.
Just a year ago, 51% of working Americans indicated that missing more than one paycheck would mean they could not cover the necessities without accessing savings, according to a personal finance survey by NORC at the University of Chicago. Another 15% would experience hardship after missing two paychecks, according to the survey issued in May 2019.
“The majority of families were one, maybe two paychecks away from really struggling,” Angela Fontes, director of the Behavioral and Economic Analysis and Decision-making program at NORC at the University of Chicago, told the Detroit Free Press.
What’s worse: Almost half of people tend to fill those gaps by pulling out credit cards, according to the University of Chicago research.
The stay-at-home orders threw another bill on the pile as families spent an extra $300 or more to stockpile groceries and cleaning essentials to prepare for potential quarantines. Some took on extra debt to do it.
About 20% who stockpiled emergency items made those purchases by carrying balances on credit cards and 7% took out a short-term loan, such as a payday loan, according to an AmeriSpeak Spotlight on Personal Finance from NORC at the University of Chicago released in late March.
Too many now wonder how they’ll pay the bills
All the extra debt and stress drove many people to become hyperfocused on when they’re going to see stimulus money. Some emailed me at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. worried about when the check would arrive.
Direct deposit for nearly half of qualifying households took place during the week of April 13. But tens of millions of others continue to wait their turn.
No doubt, stimulus included in the coronavirus relief effort will help. Many households are receiving stimulus checks of up to $1,200 for a single person and up to $2,400 for a couple, as well as an extra $500 per qualifying child under age 17.
And jobless households will receive an enhanced jobless benefit of $600 a week on top of state unemployment benefits. The maximum weekly state benefit in Michigan is $362 and the minimum weekly benefit is $81.
But how will everyone’s finances shake out this spring and in the long run?
Kristen Holt, president and CEO of Farmington Hills-based GreenPath Financial Wellness, said she’s concerned that people will tap into options, such as delaying some credit card payments for 60 days, but they may not have a plan for how to resume payments or cover missed payments down the road.
“In 60 days,” she said, “people are going to have a lot of bills coming due.”
Many credit card issuers, for example, are working with consumers to let them skip minimum payments for two months, she said. But the interest keeps building — and some consumers may be tempted to keep borrowing to stay afloat during the economic crisis triggered by fighting the pandemic.
GreenPath saw a 60% spike in its call volume in mid-March for its free housing counseling services, as homeowners wondered how to seek a forbearance. The financial housing counseling hotline is 888-995-4673.
“People just lost their income really fast,” Holt said.
GreenPath continues to work with people who want to seek a forbearance and many times will be on the line as the borrower discusses options with a mortgage servicer, according to Jeremy Lark, senior manager for client services for GreenPath.
It’s important, Lark said, to understand the terms of any forbearance plan. Will the borrower need to repay the skipped payments all at once when the forbearance period is over? Will the loan be extended for a longer period of time? Will there be higher monthly payments for some time to recover missed payments?
What happens in June, July and August?
Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Cox Automotive, said many consumers may be able to avoid defaulting on their car loans — and seeing cars or truck repossessed — thanks to enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus payments and early efforts by lenders to offer forbearance agreements.
But much will depend on how long people remain unemployed or face pay cuts, how well they control their credit card debt now and how they prepare to pay the bills that they delayed paying now.
“The challenge is that many Americans, especially those with poorer credit, were already in a financially fragile condition before the crisis began,” Smoke said.
Forbearance may only delay real financial hardship for some.
Paul Traub, senior business economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago – Detroit Branch, warns that consumers should expect a gradual, not quick, rebound.
Michigan remains heavily dependent on the automotive industry, not only for jobs at the automakers but also for jobs elsewhere in the supply chain. When the auto industry comes back online largely depends on COVID-19.
Even if social distancing measures are relaxed in Michigan at the end of April, Traub said, “it could be months before the auto industry is back up to anything near where it was prior to the pandemic.”
“As Dr. Fauci keeps saying, the virus is calling all the shots right now and we need to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best,” Traub said.
Ultimately, if the economy starts opening up and the virus is contained, consumers may be able to recover more easily — but only if they take financial precautions along the way. And only if the spread of the virus doesn’t resume.
“I’m just doing what I can to keep up with all my payments,” Jones said. “Once things start to clear, I know everything is going to need to be paid.”