Imagine you’re fresh out of school. You’ve landed your first job and moved into an apartment of your own. After carefully crafting a budget (we recommend using Tiller) that accounts for every dollar of your salary, you can pay your bills and even put away a little bit into savings each week. All in all, you think you’re doing pretty well.
Then, without warning, you get laid off. All the income you’ve budgeted is gone. You can’t even collect unemployment because you haven’t been working long enough.
Though your income is gone, your expenses aren’t. You still have rent to pay, food to buy, electricity bills, phone payments — all coming due while you frantically search for work. Within a few months, those bills have eaten up your savings. For the first time in your life, you have to worry about how you’re going to manage to keep a roof over your head.
Even when you do everything right, it isn’t always possible to avoid a financial crisis. But there are ways to keep it from crushing you. There are plenty of programs out there — some run by the government, some by charities — that can help you keep the bills paid until you get back on your feet.
There are lots of programs to help low-income people with specific needs, such as food, housing, or utilities. However, finding and applying for all these different programs can be a hassle.
You can save time and energy by checking out a few general resources that can connect you with a wide variety of aid programs in your area. These websites and phone lines can help you find assistance programs and charities that meet your specific needs.
Finding Government Benefits
If you’re facing a financial crisis, the first place you should look is Benefits.gov. This site can connect you to a broad range of government assistance programs in your state. You can search the site to find different programs by state, by agency, or by categories such as health care or disaster relief.
You can also use the “Benefits Finder” tool to find programs you qualify for. This tool asks you a series of questions about your personal situation. It then provides a list of all the programs that could help you with your specific needs.
Chances are, not all the programs the site finds will be useful for you specifically. You can click on a link for each program to find more information about it. The site explains what the program does, what you need to qualify, and how to apply.
Community Action Agencies
Another way to find programs that can help you is to contact a Community Action Agency (CAA). These nonprofit organizations aim to help families living in poverty become self-sufficient. In a crisis, they can also offer short-term help with expenses such as energy bills, housing, and transportation.
CAAs get their funding from federal government grants, but most of the money gets passed down to local groups in cities and towns across the country. There are over 1,000 CAAs, covering all 50 U.S. states and 99% of the nation’s counties, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The Community Action network provides financial help to roughly 15 million individuals and 6 million families each year.
Each CAA provides different services to the people in its area. Nearly all CAAs provide information and referrals to other government programs. Most also provide emergency aid, such as food pantries and shelters. Some groups offer services related to education, job training, child care, food aid, and health care.
To find a CAA in your area, use the search feature run by the Community Action Partnership.
The 2-1-1 Program
The 2-1-1 program, run by United Way Worldwide, helps connect people to aid programs in their state. You can use it to find:
- Food and nutrition programs, such as food banks
- Shelter, housing aid, and utility assistance
- Emergency information and disaster relief
- Job training and education opportunities
- Services for veterans
- Health care, vaccinations, and information about health epidemics
- Support groups for people with mental illness or special needs
- Help for recovering from drug or alcohol addiction
- Programs for people released from prison seeking to re-enter society
- Help escaping from physical or emotional domestic abuse
To find programs like these in your area, just dial 2-1-1. A resource specialist will tell you about local programs that can help you. You can also enter your address at 211.org to find a website for your local 2-1-1 program. Once you find your local site, you can search for detailed information about programs in your area.
Often, a financial crisis happens because you’ve suddenly lost your income. This could happen because you’ve lost your job or had your work hours cut. A natural disaster could wipe out your business or an injury could leave you unable to work.
There are programs to help you recover from your loss. These include:
- Unemployment Insurance. If you’ve lost a job through no fault of your own, you can often file for unemployment benefits. This program pays you a portion of your lost wages each week for a limited period. Each state has rules about who is eligible for benefits, how much you can collect, and how long the benefits last. In most cases, you must be actively looking for another job to collect unemployment. Nolo.com provides detailed information about unemployment benefits, including links to the agency that handles them in each state.
- Job Training. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) runs several programs to help Americans find work or train for a better job. The main one is the American Job Centers (AJCs). There are nearly 2,400 centers across the nation where people can search for jobs, find training, and ask questions about employment. You can find an AJC in your area through the DOL’s CareerOneStop site. You can also use this site to find Job Corps Centers, which provide career training for young people between ages 16 and 24. Low-income, unemployed seniors (age 55 and older) can find work through the Senior Community Service Employment Program. This program helps connect older workers with part-time jobs in public and nonprofit facilities, such as schools, hospitals, and day care centers. The training received can serve as a springboard to work in the private sector.
- Workers’ Compensation. If you can’t work because of an injury or illness you got on the job, this program can replace your lost income. It can also cover your medical bills and compensate you for a permanent injury, such as the loss of a limb. However, to get benefits, you must file a claim promptly. Nolo has information about how to do this.
- SSDI and SSI. If you have a permanent disability — one that leaves you unable to work for at least 12 months — you can qualify for disability insurance from the Social Security Administration (SSA). There are two different programs that provide benefits. First, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is available only to people who have worked for enough years to build up “work credits” with the SSA. However, you can collect it no matter what your income and other resources are. By contrast, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is for less-wealthy people who are elderly or disabled. You can only collect it if you have low income and limited resources, but it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve worked. The SSA website can help you figure out whether you qualify for SSDI or SSI and apply online.
- Tax Credits. If you’re still working, but you don’t earn very much, you can get tax credits to supplement your income. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) pays money to all working people with income below a certain level. What that level is, and how big the credit is, depends on how many children you support. The online EITC Assistant can tell you whether you qualify for the EITC. If you do, you can claim the credit when you file your income tax return. Tax preparation software from TurboTax or H&R Block will help you claim these credits properly.
- Disaster Relief. If you’ve lost your job due to a major disaster, you can receive unemployment benefits from the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program. You can apply through your state unemployment agency. There are also a variety of other federal aid programs to help victims of disasters. If there has been a disaster in your area, you can find and apply for aid through DisasterAssistance.gov. There are also separate programs available to help people who have lost a job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out our guide to pandemic unemployment benefits to learn about them.
If you don’t qualify for any form of government aid, there’s another program out there that can help you. Modest Needs is a charity that makes small grants to low-income workers to see them through a financial emergency. Modest Needs grants can cover emergency expenses, such as medical bills, or cover your regular bills when your savings have been exhausted by a one-time crisis, such as a car accident. Visit the Modest Needs website to learn more or to apply for a grant online.
Perhaps the scariest thing about being short on cash is the danger of being unable to pay your rent or mortgage. If you can’t pay your phone bill or your gas bill, at worst, you could have your service cut off. But failing to pay your rent could put you out on the street.
If you’re having trouble meeting your rent or mortgage payments, these programs can help:
- Housing Choice Vouchers. The Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8, is a federal program to help low-income households afford a home. When you join this program, your local Public Housing Agency (PHA) takes your household income and multiplies it by 30%. This is the amount it figures you can reasonably afford to pay for rent. Then it subtracts this number from the cost of an apartment in your area and pays the difference directly to your landlord. You still have to pay the remainder of the rent, but the voucher keeps your cost down to a manageable level. You can apply for this program through your local PHA.
- Low-Income Housing. The Section 8 program isn’t the only form of subsidized housing. HUD also provides aid to state agencies and private landlords to offer reduced rental rates to low-income tenants. If your income is low enough, you can apply for public housing through your local PHA. To search for a privately owned low-rent apartment in your area, click the “find rental assistance” link on the HUD website.
- Rural Housing Aid. If you live in a rural area, you can seek help with rent or mortgage payments through the Rural Development Program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). One part of the program helps rural homeowners avoid foreclosure. Another part provides rental assistance for low-income renters. You can apply for these programs through your local USDA Service Center. Elsewhere on the USDA site, you can search for affordable rentals in rural areas.
- Local Programs. In addition to these federal programs, there are many local programs that can help you meet your rent payments. Some are local government programs that provide housing subsidies. Others are nonprofit and charitable groups that offer emergency funds to meet your rent payments where you already live. You can find local rent assistance programs in your area through the 2-1-1 program or the Rent Assistance website.
- Volunteers of America. This religious nonprofit has separate programs for families, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, and anyone who is currently homeless. If you fall into any of these groups, you can search for affordable housing in your area through the Volunteers of America website.
Having a roof over your head isn’t much comfort if you have to spend all your time there shivering in the dark. If you’re having trouble paying your utility bills, here are several places to look for help:
- Your Utility Company. If you can’t handle your home heating and electric bills, your first step should be to contact the power company. It could be able to help you in several different ways. For instance, some companies have programs that spread out your annual utility costs evenly across the year to make them more manageable. That way, you don’t end up paying extra-high bills during the hottest and coldest months. The company may also be willing to let you put off paying your bill for a month. Also, many utility companies can refer you to local energy assistance programs run by the government or charities. Finally, the power company can offer you tips on saving energy to keep your bill down. In some cases, they can give you discounts on energy-saving products that will help you lower your home energy costs in the future.
- LIHEAP. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, helps low-income households meet their home heating and home cooling costs. Funding comes from the federal government, but each state runs its own program. LIHEAP can provide extra cash to pay your home energy bills and make small repairs to your heating or cooling system. You can learn more and apply for the program through your state’s LIHEAP office, which you can find by doing an Internet search for LIHEAP plus the name of your state.
- Other State Programs. LIHEAP isn’t the only state-run program that helps with utility bills. Some states have other programs, run with state money, to help people who don’t qualify for LIHEAP. The California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) and the Universal Service Fund (USF) in New Jersey are two examples. Also, some states have additional programs to provide energy credits for elderly or disabled people. Your utility company and your state LIHEAP office can help you find programs like this in your state.
- Citizens Energy. Citizens Energy is a power company that runs several programs to make energy more affordable for people in need. Its JOE-4-SUN program provides discounted solar energy to low-income applicants in Massachusetts and New York.
- Lifeline. Phone bills can also be a problem during a cash crunch. In 1985, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started the Lifeline program to make sure low-income consumers could afford phone service. Since then, the program has expanded to cover mobile phones and broadband Internet service as well. Eligible low-income subscribers can get a credit of $9.25 or more per month for either phone or Internet service. To check your eligibility and apply for the program, visit the Lifeline Support site.
There’s nothing quite so nerve-wracking as wondering where your next meal is going to come from. Fortunately, there are many different aid programs that can help you answer that question. Federal government programs, state programs, and private charities are all in the business of making sure no one in America goes hungry.
Sources of food aid include:
- SNAP. Probably the best-known food aid program in the country is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as food stamps, the program now provides users with an electronic card they can use to buy food, just like a credit or debit card. To receive SNAP, you must have both low income and limited resources (such as money in the bank). You can check the current eligibility requirements on the USDA website. If you qualify, you can contact your local SNAP office to apply.
- WIC. The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program provides food aid for low-income pregnant women and young children. Aid comes in the form of a check or voucher to buy specific foods that provide needed nutrients for growing children. You can use the WIC PreScreening Tool to see if you’re eligible. If you are, you can apply through your state WIC agency.
- Child Nutrition Programs. The USDA works with states to provide food aid to children from low-income families in several ways. For example, the National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-price school lunches. You can apply for this program through your child’s school or school district. Other programs provide free school breakfasts, food for day care centers, and nutritious meals during the summer when school is out. You can learn more about these programs and how to apply for them on the USDA website.
- Food Pantries. All across the country, food pantries provide food at no cost to anyone who needs it. Many of them don’t even ask you what your income is — you just need to show you live in the area. You can find a local food pantry at AmpleHarvest.org.
- Soup Kitchens. Soup kitchens, also known as meal programs, are places that dish up hot meals for free to people in need. You can find local soup kitchens, as well as food pantries, through the Homeless Shelter Directory. You can also eat for free at many community cafes or work in the kitchen in exchange for a meal.
Medical expenses can pose a huge threat to a tight budget. You can plan for just about everything else, but illness and injury can strike out of nowhere, bringing huge bills in their wake. In fact, according to CNBC, two-thirds of Americans who file for bankruptcy cite medical bills as a major cause.
A variety of government and nonprofit programs can help provide health insurance and affordable medical care to those who need it. These include:
- Medicaid and CHIP. The poorest Americans can get health coverage through two federal programs. Medicaid covers both children and adults from low-income households. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) covers children up to age 19 whose parents don’t have insurance but aren’t poor enough to be covered by Medicaid. You can apply for these programs through the Health Insurance Marketplace on HealthCare.gov.
- Subsidized Plans. If your income is too high for Medicaid, you could still qualify for a subsidized insurance plan. The Affordable Care Act, widely known as “Obamacare,” provides subsidies for people with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty level. The lower your income is, the bigger the subsidy, and the less you will pay out of pocket for health insurance. However, these subsidies may not be around for too much longer. Several state attorneys general have challenged the ACA in court, and a federal judge in Texas struck the law down in December 2018. The law remains in effect pending an appeal and will likely end up before the Supreme Court. For now, you can find out whether you qualify for a subsidy when you apply for coverage at HealthCare.gov.
- Free Clinics. If you don’t have health insurance, or if your insurance doesn’t cover much, you can seek care through free clinics. The National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics (NAFC) is a network of roughly 1,400 clinics around the country that provide care to people who can’t afford it elsewhere. Some of them treat everyone for free, while others charge fees on a sliding scale based on the patient’s income. You can find NAFC clinics by searching the NAFC website. There are also directories of free and low-cost clinics for medical care and dental care at NeedyMeds and FreeClinics.com.
- Retail Walk-In Clinics. Chain drugstores, such as Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid, often run small walk-in clinics that can provide basic care. These clinics can perform physicals, give vaccinations, write prescriptions, perform routine lab tests, treat minor wounds, and diagnose and treat some common illnesses. This care isn’t free, but it often costs less than it would at a doctor’s office.
- Urgent Care Centers. An urgent care center usually offers a cheaper and faster alternative to getting care in the emergency room. These centers can stitch up cuts, set bones, treat burns, and treat common diseases. You can find one near you by doing a search on UrgentCare.com.
- Hill-Burton Hospitals. There are also some full-fledged hospitals that provide low-cost care to people without health insurance. Hill-Burton facilities receive annual federal funding to provide a certain amount of free or low-cost care each year. There are about 130 of these hospitals across the country. Check the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to look for one near you.
- Drug Discount Plans. A prescription drug discount plan, such as the Discount Drug Network, can help people without insurance keep medication costs under control. These plans negotiate with pharmacy chains to provide reduced group rates to their cardholders. A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association found that patients who used these cards got a discount 78% of the time. However, it’s difficult to figure out ahead of time which card will give you the best deal on the drugs you use. Your best bet is to sign up for a couple of cards and then check their issuers’ websites to get an idea of what discounts they offer on specific drugs.
- Generic Discount Drugs. The Discount Drug Network site can also help you find pharmacies in your area that offer low, fixed prices on the generic versions of common drugs. Programs like these are often called “$4 generics,” but the actual price of the drugs most often ranges from $4 to $15 for a 30- to 90-day supply. Just enter your state and the name of the drug you need to see where it’s available at a discount.
Child Care and Education
A financial crisis is even worse if you have children. Worrying about whether you can afford to support yourself is bad enough, but worrying about whether you can afford to take care of your kids is heartbreaking.
Plus, if you’re dealing with a job loss, it’s hard to look after your kids and look for work at the same time. You can’t keep them with you while you’re job-hunting, but you can’t afford to pay for child care, either.
Many government aid programs are aimed specifically at families with children. These programs help with child care, education, and other bills so children don’t suffer when their parents are in trouble. There are also nonprofit groups to help parents find affordable child care.
Resources for parents include:
- TANF. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a program run by the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF). It helps cover child care and other child-rearing costs for families dealing with a financial crisis. It also provides tools to help out-of-work parents find a job. To see if you qualify for this program, use the ACF website to locate the TANF office for your state.
- Office of Child Care. The Office of Child Care is another ACF program. It gives low-income, working parents access to affordable child care and after-school programs. Parents can get help paying for the child care provider of their choice, as well as advice about how to find high-quality child care. Your state child care agency can tell you whether you qualify for this program and how to apply if you do. You can find the child care agency for your state on the ACF site.
- Reduced Payment Programs. Some day care centers offer scholarships for children from low-income families. Others charge fees on a sliding scale, so parents with lower incomes pay less than those with higher incomes. If you already have kids in day care, ask the center whether it offers any discounts like this. If you’re seeking child care for the first time, narrow down your choices and then ask your top five picks about their pricing options.
- CCR&R’s. Child care resource and referral centers, or CCR&Rs, are state-run programs that help parents find child care and financial aid resources in their area. You can search for a CCR&R in your area at Child Care Aware, a site run by the Office of Child Care.
- Head Start. Head Start is an ACF program that helps children from low-income families prepare for school. It promotes good health, early learning, and strong families for these at-risk children so they can keep up with their peers when they start school. Children can receive Head Start services in day care centers, dedicated Head Start centers, and their own homes. To find a Head Start program near you, enter your address into the Head Start locator. Then call the applicable program’s number to learn how to apply.
The best way to cope with a financial crisis is to avoid it before it hits. There are several things you can do to protect yourself against disasters. For instance, you can carry plenty of insurance to protect your assets in case of a house fire, car crash, or major health problem. Having a well-stocked emergency fund in a high-yield savings account with a bank like CIT Bank also gives you an extra cushion.
However, even these fail-safes aren’t foolproof. There’s always a chance you can be swept off your financial feet, at least temporarily. When that happens, aid programs like the ones listed here give you something to fall back on until you recover.
Are you prepared for a financial disaster? Can you suggest any other resources people could turn to in a financial crisis?