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The pandemic of 2020 has strained household budgets like never before. Layoffs and furloughs have affected millions of Americans. A one-time stimulus payment helped temporarily, but a divided Congress still hasn’t been able to pass additional relief. If you’re out of work and staring down late rent or mortgage payments plus medical or utility bills—all while trying to feed your kids—you should think about what to do about debt when you’re unemployed and take these next steps.

Make a Budget and Prioritize Payments

Add up all your monthly income, and then list payments and expenses you must make, such as rent or mortgage payments, groceries, and health insurance. The latter can be very expensive if you’re on continuation coverage from your past employer under COBRA. Shop around on the for a cheaper plan that keeps you and your family covered.

Paying down debt when you’re in financial distress may be at the bottom of the list. But there are some things you can do about debt when you’re unemployed to preserve your credit rating while lowering your payments until you can get back to paying more than the minimum per month.

Try Not To Add to Your Debt

Maxing out your credit cards to pay for essentials can be tempting, but try to avoid it if you can. Adding to your debt just digs you deeper into the hole. Instead, cut back on all discretionary expenses, such as streaming services or paying someone else to do your yard. If you have two cars, see if you can live with one. Use your rainy-day savings to cover essentials until you’re back on your feet. If you don’t have any savings, you may have to turn to family.


If you can’t make rent, you might be able to make a deal with your landlord to exchange services for a reduced rent or forbearance for a while. If you’re deep in high-interest credit card debt, do your best to keep making the minimum payment. This will preserve your credit rating. If paying the minimum is a struggle after you pay your rent or mortgage and buy necessities, contact the issuers of your card and ask for help. Point out that you’ve been making regular payments on time and have demonstrated a history of reliability. The card issuer may agree to lower your interest rate or create a hardship payment plan for you.

Student loan programs may offer some type of modification program, but beware: there are scammers out there who will pitch “loan forgiveness” when what they actually mean is “loan consolidation,” and you could end up still making high monthly payments with added fees. Speak to your loan servicer directly, or look for deferment options on the Department of Education’s website. Locate information for your type of student loan program, and find out if a deferment program is available. Keep in mind that even if you defer your payments, you may still be accruing interest on these loans, so when you find another job, your payments could go up. But a deferment might get you through a period of unemployment by freeing up money to pay for essentials.

Seek Counseling

Several nonprofit credit counseling organizations help distressed borrowers work out plans to pay their creditors. These services can help you create a realistic budget, prioritize expenses, figure out where you can cut expenses, and direct you to government assistance programs. They can also direct you to a selection of reliable companies that offer debt settlement programs and negotiate directly with creditors for you for a fee.

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.