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Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: Suze Orman Explains How To Rescue Your Finances, Keep Your Health Insurance & Manage Debt With Zero Income

Deadline logo Deadline 4/2/2020 Antonia Blyth
Suze Orman wearing a red and black hair © Marc Royce

Editors’ NoteWith full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email mike@deadline.com.

Right now, it’s tough not to feel overwhelmed by fear. Not just fear of the virus itself, but fear of personal financial destitution. In the wake of devastating layoffs and shutdowns, with agencies and production companies laying off temporarily, furloughing and instituting pay cuts because their revenues have dried up and their mandate is to survive, how do we keep our health insurance and our homes? How do we pay our bills? What if we don’t even have cash to buy groceries? Even if you have solid savings, and (before the market crashed) a decent 401(k), you’re still likely worrying about how to protect your future, and how to pay for your family’s needs in the coming years. Fortunately, financial advisor and bestselling author Suze Orman has an arsenal of constructive advice on offer. “We’re fighting a health war, and we’re fighting an economic and financial war,” she says. But fear is not an option. “There’s only one way to conquer fear, and that’s through action.”

Check out Orman’s often-controversial, no-holds-barred coronavirus financial survival plan below, along with a free audio download of her new bestseller.

DEADLINE: For those people who were living paycheck-to-paycheck and now have no work, what’s the first thing you want to say to them?

SUZE ORMAN: First, they need to realize they’re not alone. The truth of the matter is 60% of the people in the United States on average have no more than $400 to their name that they can access. So that is majority of the people in the United States. The second thing you need to understand is action. You have got to go into action right now, and not tomorrow, but right now. Here’s what I want them to do. I want them to sit down and I want them to write down every single bill that has to be paid every single month. I don’t want to hear about they have to go out to eat because they can’t go out to eat. I don’t want to hear about the entertainment expenses. I want every single bill that you have got to pay every single month and I want them to write it down. Then they need to look at all that. Then they need to decide, which one of those bills can they do a financial triage on? For instance, they’re paying $150 a month for cable and they don’t have any money coming in? Goodbye cable. Decipher between, is this is an essential thing? Or is this not essential?

For the essential items—your rent, your utilities, your cell phone, your WiFi—you need to contact every single one of them. Ask them if they will allow you to not make payments for three or four months. Many of them will. Many mortgage companies will absolutely allow you to postpone for 90 days. Contact your renter’s insurance, your home insurance company, your life insurance, your automobile insurance and your health insurance.

DEADLINE: If you put your mortgage on hold for three months, are there any penalties or additional interest?

ORMAN: You don’t have to make the payment, but interest continues to accrue, and they just add it onto the back end of the loan. If you are working, or you have some money, I’d like to see you add those three months of mortgage payments to your emergency fund. If you have a federal student loan, you now don’t have to pay that until September 30th. I’d like you not to pay that student loan, and put it in an emergency fund for yourself. That is a far better thing to do with money that you don’t have to pay right now. And those are usually large sums of money. Your mortgage is a large amount. Your student loans may very well be a large amount. Why not take advantage when somebody is saying to you, “Oh, guess what? You don’t have to make these payments. It’s not going to be a big deal and it’s not going to hurt your FICO score.” Put it into an emergency fund and keep it in case you really need it.

DEADLINE: With insurance, if you put your premium payments on hold, are you still covered?

ORMAN: You have to call your insurance company. If they say you cannot go for two or three months, and if it’s life insurance, or it’s health insurance, then you don’t have a choice. So now, that’s where you will put your mortgage payment. That’s where you put your rent payment. That’s where you put your student loan payment. Because more important than anything else is this: do not let your insurance lapse.

DEADLINE: How does the stimulus package work?

ORMAN: If you have a Social Security number, as long as you’re a U.S. citizen or you have a green card, you will get $1,200 [in the stimulus package] if you fit the income qualifications. It’s based on an adjusted gross income of $75,000 for a single person, and $150,000 for a married couple. However, it does go up to $99,000 for a single person, or $198,000 for joint filers. And what happens is, after you’ve reached the $75,000 and the $150,000 mark, they will reduce it by $5 for each $100 that your income exceeded that threshold. And remember, each kid you have gets $500 if they’re under the age of 17.

DEADLINE: Those figures will be based on last year’s tax returns, right? So, people must make sure they filed taxes to qualify?

ORMAN: Yes, absolutely. So let’s say you made a lot of money in 2018, but in 2019 you did not, and you still haven’t filed 2019. You’ve got to file right away, because you might qualify. Maybe you had a movie in the year 2018, and you made good money, but you didn’t land anything in 2019. You could be below the threshold now.

DEADLINE: What do we need to know about claiming unemployment?

ORMAN: This unemployment is different than any other unemployment that’s ever been offered, because this unemployment allows you to apply even if you are a gig worker, if you are a part-time worker, or if you were self-employed. This is the first time that you can apply for unemployment if you are self-employed, if you are gig worker, so how fabulous is that? It’s a game changer. Now, on average you could get $400 a week. I think the maximum right now is $1,200 a week, but you could get $400, $500, from unemployment. Normally unemployment, depending on your state, goes for 13-26 weeks. Now, the government has extended it to 39 weeks. In addition, the federal government will give you $600 a week as well.

If you’re going to apply for unemployment and you don’t know where to start, go to careeronestop.org. You will put your state in and they will tell you [what number to call]. Now this is where you need to be a warrior, because you’re going to call, the lines are going to be busy, and you just have to be persistent. You have to call like it’s the greatest part of your life. You have to go for it. For people who were already on unemployment, their unemployment is going to expire. When it expires, they need to apply again.

DEADLINE: What about those people with zero income and zero savings cushion? What can they do right now?

ORMAN: What I would do is, hopefully you have credit cards and hopefully you haven’t maxed out your credit cards. Number one, call your credit cards and see if you can extend your credit limit. So, if you have a $3,000 limit, ask them, can they extend it to $5,000? Before you spend your cash, you spend money on credit cards until you’ve maxed them all out. And then you only pay the minimum payment due. When your bill comes, do not take any of your money and pay it off in full.

DEADLINE: I’ve never heard a financial advisor tell people to max out their credit cards and only make the minimum payment before!

ORMAN: For the first time in my lifetime I’m now telling you, until this is over, pay the minimum payments due. Why? Because if things get really out of hand, and really, who knows what happens in life? If you get to the point where you now are choosing whether to put food on your table for the kids, or pay the minimal payments due on your credit card, forget paying the credit card. And never forget that credit cards are unsecured debt. It’s not like they can come and take your car from you, or your home from you. Obviously if they were really upset, they could sue you, and garnish your wages. But if they know you’re not even working, and they know that’s your situation, they’re not going to do that. So that’s when you would then call them and say, “Listen, I don’t have any money. You have to work with me here.”

DEADLINE: How will that affect your credit if you can’t pay the minimum payment though?

ORMAN: It will hurt your credit score. But here’s the thing: there comes a time in life where you have to think about surviving more than your credit score. I mean, I’ve had people taking out payday loans at 300 percent to pay the minimum payment due on their credit card so they could keep their 700 FICO score. Are they crazy? They’re never going to get out of debt, but they have a good credit score.

There comes a point when we’re fighting a war, and that’s what we’re fighting now. The companies will survive, trust me. Your credit score will come back, trust me. Listen, pay the minimum payment due if you can manage to pay the minimum payment due. But if there comes a point when you can’t even pay that and you have to make a choice, if you have $50 to your bank and that is it, and you owe $50 for a credit card, or for $50 you could feed yourself and your two kids, you tell me what you’re going to do.

DEADLINE: What about people with a 401(k)? Should they pull money out of it just to have some cash short-term?

ORMAN: The first thing you have got to tell these people is, please never forget that money in a retirement account is protected against bankruptcy. I beg you not to forget that, because one of the biggest mistakes you will make is, if you take money out of your retirement account and say you have $5,000 in it, and took it out just to pay your bills, and now it’s gone. So now you have absolutely no money and now you claim bankruptcy. Well, guess what? You just blew your $5,000 [on bills that would have been written off in a bankruptcy]. I’d rather you claim bankruptcy before you take money out, if that’s all you have left.

Now obviously if you know your job is going to come back, if you know you’re going to survive everything, and you need some extra money so that you don’t ruin your FICO score, you don’t lose your home and all those things, alright, if you want to take money out of a retirement account, OK, fine, but please remember this: I think that between now and February of next year, the markets are going to go up and down, and up and down, and all over the place. Therefore, if you could just stick with it, in the long run, three years from now, five years from now, all the money that you lost [in your 401(k)] will be back. If you take the money out, you’re racking in a 20-some percent loss right now, and you’re going to pay income taxes on that money, which will be another 20 percent or so. Now I understand that you have three years to pay the taxes on that money. But I’m more worried that if you take that money out and spend it, if you’re not frugal, if you’re just still living your lifestyle on some level, you will miss the best opportunity and the best time to have your money in the market that there’s ever been in about 10 years.

Think back to 2008, 2007, 2006. The markets had been going up. Real estate was skyrocketing, right? Then 2007 happened, 2008, and by 2009, people were freaked and they were taking their money out. From 2009 to the beginning of 2020, if you had simply left your money where it was, assuming it was invested in index funds and just simple things like that, you would have averaged 14.3 percent on your money for all those 10 years. So if you take it out, what you have to understand is, you’re not just taking it out and losing the interest, you possibly could be losing two to three, or four times that amount of money, years from now, because you never put it back.

Do you have an eight-month emergency fund?

DEADLINE: Sort of.

ORMAN: Do you have any credit card debt?

DEADLINE: A bit.

ORMAN: Alright. Why do you have an emergency fund and credit card debt? What is the interest rate on your credit card?

DEADLINE: I don’t even know.

ORMAN: But you write these articles. That’s my point.

DEADLINE: Well, I don’t normally handle finance. I normally interview actors and directors.

ORMAN: Yes, but you’re smart enough to interview people. You’re maybe paying 15 percent interest on credit cards and making zero percent on your money in a bank account.

DEADLINE: Yes, you’re right.

ORMAN: Not now, but in normal times, I would have told you to take money from your emergency fund and pay off your credit card. Every amount of money you were putting on your credit card, put back into your accounts. Then at this point, you’d have a credit card that has whatever amount of limit on it. You could be charging things now, and still keeping your money safe and sound. But now that we’re here, just leave everything like it is, you’re fine. But if this pandemic had never happened, you would have been better off paying it off.

DEADLINE: How long is it going to be before people see their retirement funds recover from this crash?

ORMAN: Here’s the truth: they’re already better. We’re only down about 20 percent right now. We were down 35 percent a week or so ago. So really, it’s come up a little bit from where it just was. I think you will see it coming up, and going back down. Coming up, then going back down. I think the swing is going to be swinging till at least June, if not September. And like I said, I think in February, starting next year, I really think they’ll start to feel a whole lot better. But there’s no way for me to know, because nobody knows.

A stock’s value is based on what it’s earning. There’s no way for us to know what these stocks are going to earn, because nobody has ever faced America shutting down before. You know, at least in 2008, I had people who were making $200,000 a year, who became a driver, and then they were making $50,000 a year. But today you can’t get a job. You can’t go out. Business has been shut down everywhere. Productions aren’t going to be able to happen. Everything has stopped. And this has never happened before in our lifetimes. So, they have 200 million people almost, out of work with nothing functioning. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. I can tell you that the government did a stimulus package for $2 trillion. You just watch how many more of these we’re going to have to do.

DEADLINE: You predict they’ll create more stimulus packages?

ORMAN: They have to. How can they not? $1,200 isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. It should’ve been $9,000. They should’ve just done it. They should’ve just given every single person $9,000. Done. Bam. It would have alleviated people’s fear. $1,200 did not alleviate any fear, I can tell you that much. But there’s the $1,200, plus the $600 a week [unemployment, from the federal government]. So, forget the $1200. Most people will get around $4,000 a month [total unemployment].

I just did this whole thing with this guy who wrote me. I answer almost all the emails from people who write into my Women and Money podcast. The full title of it is The Women and Money Podcast, and the Men Smart Enough to Listen. So, this guy wrote to me and his company’s keeping him on part-time, therefore he doesn’t qualify for unemployment. So, I went through this with him. He’s going to make more money on unemployment than what he’s going to be making part-time. I told him to call his employer, and ask them to lay him off, so he can keep his health insurance, and he’ll continue to work for them for free. And he comes out $400 a month ahead. Just call your employer, and say, “I’ll do you a favor, if you do me a favor. I’ll make it so you don’t pay me, but give me my health insurance, and let me go on unemployment. And I’ll still continue to work for you part-time [unpaid].”

DEADLINE: Do you feel like federal funds are in so much trouble already that it doesn’t matter to claim unemployment rather than be paid for part-time hours?

ORMAN: Well, here’s the truth: It’s not to game the system. The truth is, when you are used to making $5,000 a month, to go from $5,000 a month to $2,500 a month, you’re not going to make it. And while you should be appreciative that you’re getting at least $2,500 a month, you have to do what you have to do to make it.

The reason that all of this is so important, that everybody knows what to do, is because you all are going to have decisions to make. If you have what it takes to learn a part, and get on that stage, and be that part; if you have what it takes to do the makeup on somebody, and make them look a different way; if you have what it takes to be a performer, or if you’re doing anything in the entertainment industry; then you have what it takes to play the part and the role of an astute financial person.

What people need now is they just need a voice that they can listen to, that can guide them without being afraid to say, “Yeah, don’t pay your credit cards if you don’t have the money.” That’s very controversial. I mean, people are going to say, “Suze, when you say that, you’re bringing down America.” I am not bringing down America. I am giving people a way to survive when they have been stricken by the worst financial virus that they’re ever going to have in their life.

DEADLINE: Can you offer any advice on health insurance?

ORMAN: So what people need to understand is that, under law, as long as you apply for health insurance within 60 days of losing your job, you can now take over the payments that you were making and your company was making on your behalf, to the health insurance policy that you currently have. That’s called COBRA. That will last for 18 months. Now COBRA is expensive, but if you’re not insurable, you can’t get a new policy. Number two, what you really should do is to go to the marketplace. Go to healthcare.gov and that’s where the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is. Normally, the way you can only buy that kind of insurance is when they have open enrollment. Now, open enrollment is closed. However, there’s a caveat. When you’ve lost your job and something’s happened, you can still go there and get it. You could buy it anywhere else anytime you want. But if you don’t have any money, that’s when you want to be able to go and use Obamacare, because they’ll subsidize you.

And you know, with Obamacare, they have to accept you if you have preexisting conditions. That’s why this is so important that this never goes away, to tell you the truth. Right here and right now is the full… If [Donald] Trump had gotten his way, and if [John] McCain had not voted [repealing] it down, do you have any idea the trouble people would be in right now? They would be out of insurance and they probably wouldn’t be able to get any other health insurance at all… If you don’t have any income, they’ll give you a subsidy. They’ll help you. Do you think a regular health insurance company is going to help you get health insurance? I don’t think so.

DEADLINE: What would you like people to keep in mind through all of this?

ORMAN: Right now, your mantra needs to be, “Be strong.” If I was going to tell you all to do one thing, it would be, be strong. Stay strong physically, stay strong psychologically, stay strong emotionally, and stay as strong as you can financially.

DEADLINE: You’re also kindly offering Deadline readers a free audiobook download of your latest New York Times bestseller, The Ultimate Retirement Guide.

ORMAN: Yes. I don’t care if they download 10 million of them, at least people can listen to it. It’s 12 hours and 30 minutes. Even if they can’t do some of the stuff now, when all of this returns back, they can. It’s there. So, use this time to educate yourself, to learn a new skill. And the skill that I am begging you all to learn is a skill that makes you financially independent. Tell all your readers to tell everybody. Get 10 million people to download it. Just do it. Somebody is giving you something for free, don’t be an idiot.

To download the audiobook of Orman’s new book, The Ultimate Retirement Guide, click here.

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