By KELSEY SHEEHY of NerdWallet
Scaling back streaming subscriptions is solid savings advice for some. But what if the choice you’re faced with is not whether to pay for Netflix or Hulu, but whether to pay for food or electricity?
Millions of Americans face food, housing and general financial insecurity every year, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Agriculture. And getting help often means navigating a maze of websites, automated telephone systems and confusing applications only to land on a yearslong waitlist or worse — find out you don’t qualify.
The good news: You don’t have to figure this out on your own. There are financial counselors, nonprofits and other local and national organizations that exist to help you find your financial footing.
If you’re currently facing eviction, can’t feed your family or are experiencing some other financial crisis, dial 211 now to talk with a local expert who can connect you to assistance programs for food, housing and utility expenses, medical bills and other emergencies.
Not in crisis mode yet but barely keeping your head above water? Take these steps to prioritize the money you do have coming in, then get help filling in the gaps.
GO BACK TO BASICS
Start with a budget — even if you don’t think you have enough money coming in to have a budget, says Amy Smith, a financial counselor in central Texas.
“It doesn’t matter how much you’re bringing in — any amount of money — because you’re at least telling that money where to go,” says Smith, who is also the membership engagement coordinator for the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education.
Your first budget won’t be pretty. Your third or fourth might not be either. That’s OK. Try to stick with it and play around with different budgeting methods to find one that works for you.
“When I started this journey, the end of my budget was red,” Smith says, indicating that she didn’t have the funds to cover all of her expenses. “At least I knew I needed extra money.”
You will also know how to reallocate your funds if you get some extra income or a few months of utility assistance.
PRIORITIZE THE ESSENTIALS
If there’s not enough money to cover all your expenses, tend to your basic needs first. These include housing, utilities, food, transportation and child care, among other things.
“If that means a credit card doesn’t get paid that month, that happens,” Smith says.
Bills you can’t cover shouldn’t be ignored, though. Call the creditor — whether it’s your landlord, mortgage company, utility provider or credit card issuer — and explain the situation. Then, ask if there’s any help available. Even a waived late fee can help.
TAKE HELP WHERE YOU CAN
Don’t let perceived social stigma keep you from getting the help you need. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking services like food banks or food stamps aren’t for you, or that things aren’t “that bad” yet.
It can take time to get from application to assistance, especially for federal programs. The waitlist for some federal housing vouchers can be years long, according to Erik Gartland, a research analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. On the flip side, SNAP benefits (often referred to as food stamps) can kick in within seven days of applying if you have no income, says Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow and director of federal SNAP policy at the CBPP.
Tracking down programs, forms, applications and eligibility requirements is tedious and time consuming, especially if you’re facing language barriers, don’t have reliable internet access or simply don’t have the time because you’re caring and providing for your family.
Lean on organizations with the sole focus of connecting people in need to the assistance available.
HOW TO FIND HELP
These organizations can help you navigate the network of local, regional and national programs administered by nonprofits, religious organizations and state and federal agencies.
211.org: You can call 211 or visit 211.org to find local experts who know what help is available where you live and can connect you with the benefits you need.
Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education: Financial counselors work with clients on the basics — managing expenses, building a budget, creating a long-term plan — and they’re tuned in to local resources and assistance programs. You can sign up for a free virtual session with a certified financial counselor at findanafc.org/pro-bono.
National Low Income Housing Coalition: This nonprofit organization maintains a database of Emergency Rental Assistance programs, searchable by the city, county, state territory or tribe. Crucially, the database also includes up-to-date information on each program’s status: accepting applications, on hold or permanently closed.
Legal Services Corporation: Legal aid organizations across the country offer free legal help to low-income individuals. Their services cover everything from evictions and foreclosure to wage disputes and disaster relief . Legal Services Corporation is an independent nonprofit that provides funding to more than 100 legal aid groups across the country and the U.S. territories. Visit their website ( lsc.gov ), select “Get legal help” and enter your address to find a local legal aid office.