US Economy

Unemployment Benefits. Stimulus Checks. How to Best Spend the Aid That's on the Way

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  • Americans struggling during the pandemic will soon have access to a myriad of relief programs thanks to the recent stimulus package that passed.
  • Here's what they can expect and some recommendations from experts on how best to use the aid.
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Many people's budgets look a lot different during Covid.

Unemployment benefits and direct payments have replaced paychecks in the income ledger.

For many, that aid is still not enough, and food and rental assistance as well as protections against eviction have also been necessary to keep families afloat.

Fortunately, more of that relief is now on the way. President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion stimulus package on Thursday.

Here's the aid you can expect to soon see and how experts recommend that you best put it to use.

1. Unemployment benefits

Jobless benefits will be extended until Sept. 6, with a $300 federal boost on top of any state benefits. The average weekly state check is around $324.

Between the state benefit and the boost, the average laid-off worker will see around 75% of their wages replaced from when they were working.

Experts recommend that you draft a budget with your new income amount. You may have to cut expenses to make sure that you're able to continue paying your bills.

If you have any cash left over once your basics are covered, direct it toward a savings account, said Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet.

"Many Americans depleted their emergency funds during the pandemic, and now can start to think about replenishing them," Palmer said.

You'll be grateful to have done so if you're still unemployed when benefits end or if an unexpected expense comes up.

To get the best return on your cash, keep your money in a high-yield savings account. Also make sure the account is FDIC-insured, meaning up to $250,000 of your deposit is protected from loss.

Once you have a savings cushion, use additional money (if there is any) to pay down any high-interest credit card debt, said Kristen Holt, president and CEO of Greenpath Financial Wellness. You don't want to be losing your money to interest payments when your budget is already tight.

Yet as daunting as credit card debt can be, make sure paying it off doesn't leave you without any savings.

"We would not recommend using cash resources that you need to cover medicine and groceries and opt to pay a credit card, particularly when many lenders continue to provide pandemic assistance," Holt said. "Contact your bank [or] credit union to determine what assistance is still available, and make sure the terms are suitable."

Experts also say it's risky to depend on your credit cards for emergencies because banks can reduce your limit at any time.

2. Stimulus checks

Full $1,400 payments will go to those with adjusted gross income of up to $75,000 for individuals, $112,500 for heads of household and $150,000 for married couples filing jointly.

As with previous stimulus checks, the payments are reduced for those with income above those thresholds and phase out entirely for individuals earning $80,000 in income, heads of household with $120,000 and married couples with $160,000.

"Stimulus funds are a one-time cash infusion," Holt said.

As such, she recommends immediately directing this cash to any essential needs that have been put on the back burner, including medications, groceries or a car repair. Some people may see the payments as soon as this weekend.

3. Rental assistance

There's now more than $45 billion in rental assistance available, thanks to the stimulus packages passed in December and this month.

You want to apply for these funds as soon as possible.

That way you can use other aid, such as stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, for other bills. People can get financial assistance for up to 18 months of rent.

Another reason to move quickly: The stimulus package didn't extend the national eviction moratorium that's slated to expire at the end of March. Some states, however, have issued their own eviction bans.

Many areas already had existing rental assistance funds, and it will be through one of these that you apply for the new aid. In other cases, new programs will be created to disburse the money.

Renters should contact local housing groups or their representatives or dial their local 211/311 lines to identify programs and learn how to apply, said Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition also has a database of rental assistance programs.

4. Mortgage assistance

Included in the most recent stimulus package is also a $10 billion pot of money for homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgages during the pandemic.

Some of the things you can use the money on: Your mortgage, utilities, homeowner's insurance or homeowners' association fees.

"The legislation also includes a provision by which the Treasury Department can determine other acceptable uses," said Bob Broeksmit, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The Treasury Department is required to distribute funds to state governments within 45 days. "Each state will then determine its process for borrower applications and distribution of funds," Broeksmit said.

As with the rental assistance, you should contact local housing groups or your representatives or dial your local 211/311 lines to identify programs and learn how to apply for the money.

5. Food benefits

Benefits under SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, can help you with your grocery bills and allow you to use other stimulus aid for other pressing expenses.

The benefits have been increased by 15% for all recipients until Sept. 30.

Under the new rules, an individual could get up to $234 a month. A family of four could get as much as $782 through September. In some states, the maximum benefit is even higher. For example, a family of four in Hawaii may receive a monthly benefit of $1,440.

The money will be sent to you each month on an EBT card, which acts like a debit card. People typically get the money in less than 30 days, but those with little to no income could get their benefits within a week.

Eligibility rules can be wonky, but it doesn't hurt to apply.

Many people miss out on the benefit because they wrongly assume they're ineligible or worry about the stigma, Carrie R. Welton, the director of policy at advocacy group The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, told CNBC last year.

"People will bring their own shame into this, but these are taxpayer resources," Welton said. "This pandemic is not anyone's fault."

Have you recently applied for rental assistance? If you're willing to discuss your experience for a story, please email me at annie.nova@nbcuni.com

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