Facing financial hardship due to coronavirus? Here’s how to get free advice and help

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Given the circumstances, Americans are doing the best they can to stay afloat.

The U.S. economy lost more than 700,000 jobs in March as employers laid off workers and temporarily shut down businesses to stem the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, a record number of people — more than 16 million — have filed for unemployment in the past three weeks.

Concerns about the stock market and the country’s economic future have led more than half of respondents (52 percent) to cut back on spending, a recent Bankrate survey found. But if that’s not enough and you’re having trouble managing your finances, paying your bills, or figuring out how you’re going to use your government stimulus check, it could be a good time to ask for professional help.

If you know where to look, it’s possible to qualify for free financial advice. Many experts are offering pro bono support to families facing financial difficulty due to the coronavirus.

Where to get free financial advice

Banks, credit unions and their partners

A good place to begin if you need a financial expert to speak with is your existing bank or credit union. Find out if they offer free guidance or advice.

Many financial institutions offer free services or partner with organizations that provide them. For example, GreenPath Financial Wellness is a nonprofit that has partnerships with more than 500 credit unions throughout the United States. GreenPath offers free financial counseling over the phone and free services to members of its credit union partners. For members of the credit union partners, fees are also waived for certain services that are normally fee-based, like pre-purchase mortgage counseling and reverse mortgage counseling.

“Anyone with housing concerns (foreclosure), struggling with debt, or needs budgeting help can contact GreenPath for a free assessment to determine what type of help and options are available,” says Jeremy Lark, GreenPath’s director of client services. Sessions can be requested online or by calling (800-550-1961).

Financial advisers and planners

It’s also possible to find financial advisers offering free services to people impacted by COVID-19. That’s what more than 75 advisers are offering through the XY Planning Network, says CEO and co-founder Alan Moore. If you’re interested, you’ll need to go to the group’s website and type “coronavirus” into the adviser search portal.

“One advisor said they’d had over 10 meetings scheduled already with folks who were seeking some guidance,” Moore says.

Free, no-strings-attached financial guidance is also available to underserved populations impacted by the coronavirus through the Financial Planning Association (FPA). You can see a list of certified financial planner professionals who have signed up to offer free services or find out if your local FPA chapter is offering any special programs.

Financial counselors and coaches

Free financial counseling and resources are also available through other nonprofits and organizations.

Through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), for example, consumers can go online or call for a free initial budget counseling session. Within the organization is a network of more than 50 member agencies that have the capacity to serve up to two million people, says NFCC’s vice president of marketing, Bruce McClary. There are usually fees associated with some services, such as long-term debt repayment assistance, but for people facing extreme financial hardship, accommodations can be made, McClary says.

The Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education has hosted a webinar for consumers who need financial advice and tips for surviving a pandemic. Starting the week of April 13, it will offer free, virtual financial counseling and coaching sessions with a certified professional. Consumers who are interested can visit the website the week the program begins.

What to ask before the meeting

Once you’ve found someone willing to provide financial advice, make sure the person you’re meeting intends to put your needs first rather than their own.

“You just want to be sure you’re hiring an actual adviser and not just a salesperson,” says Moore from the XY Planning Network, who recommends being careful about who you choose to work with.

All advisers from the XY Planning Network have documents on their profiles proving they have signed a fiduciary oath and agreed to work in the best interest of their clients. Anyone working with an adviser outside of the network should print a fiduciary oath and have the adviser sign it, Moore says. If they refuse, that’s a red flag.

If you’re expecting services to be free, it’s important to find out at what point some form of payment might be required. The professional should be clear about what they’re offering and consumers should understand what the fee structure could potentially look like if additional support is needed.

Before the appointment, it’s also a good idea to make sure you and the financial adviser or counselor are on the same page as far as what they can offer and what you’re hoping to accomplish. Find out what documents you’ll need to reference during the meeting, too, like bills or account statements.

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