6-part personal bailout plan

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It seems like there’s a bailout for everyone these days — except perhaps you.

Rather than wait for one to fall into your lap, why not create your own?

You can do it — there are enough resources out there that you can put together a bailout plan of your own.

Sometimes the solution can be as simple as pinpointing one or two areas where you’re having trouble. There are remedies if you know where to look and are not afraid to ask for help.

Here are a few common problem areas that you can concentrate your efforts:

6-point bailout plan
  1. Food and groceries
  2. Mortgages
  3. Health insurance
  4. Car payments
  5. Job loss
  6. Household bills

Food and groceries

When it comes to keeping food on the table, “a lot of people need help,” says Ross Fraser, media relations manager for Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest), which helps to supply most of the nation’s food banks.

So don’t feel embarrassed asking for help, he says. Instead, “Get back on your feet, and then you can pay it back in kind,” says Fraser.

Here’s how to find a local food pantry: visit FeedingAmerica.org or call the group toll-free at (800) 771-2303. Ask for the closest food bank (these are the large food collection groups located in your region or metro area). Call that food bank and ask for your local food pantries, which are the small local sites that actually distribute food to individuals. The staff at the food bank can also give you information about upcoming food giveaways, Fraser says.

While food bank donations are up slightly, the need for food is up dramatically, says Fraser. Call ahead because in some areas that could mean two-hour lines and food shortages. You might also want to inquire about food stamps, says Fraser. Income requirements vary from state to state, but the food bank or food pantry can brief you on qualification guidelines and tell you which state office you need to contact.


People having trouble making home payments should first call their lender, many of whom have pledged to help homeowners in financial trouble. Depending on your needs, you might ask to renegotiate your terms, or simply add a couple of payments to the end of your loan.

Contact the company currently servicing your loan. The department you want will typically have a name like “loss mitigation,” “foreclosure avoidance,” or “home preservation,” and be a part of the company’s mortgage division, says Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy for the Consumer Federation of America.

Alternatively, you might have access to a nonprofit housing counselor who will negotiate for you. Many are funded by or work with local governments. Call your local city, county or state government for a referral, or contact NeighborWorksAmerica.org, says Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. You can also find a certified housing counselor through the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling at: HousingHelpNow.org. Or find a HUD-certified housing counselor on hud.gov or by calling (800) 569-4287.

Caveat: Go through a legitimate nonprofit, not a business masquerading as one. No one should charge you a dime for the services. Also, the solution has to work long-term, says Rheingold. If your payment has escalated beyond your means, a discount for a month or two won’t solve your problem. And, if the solutions offered don’t suit you, find another counselor and start over. Don’t let anyone push you into a move that isn’t right for you.

If you’re a veteran or have a VA loan, you can get some help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs which can negotiate with your loan servicers to set up a workable arrangement. For vets with non-VA loans, the department can’t negotiate directly but will coach homeowners in who to contact and what to say to get what they need, says Steve Westerfeld, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Call: (877) 827-3702. All services are free of charge.

Health insurance

  • For kids only: Investigate the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. Administered by the states, it’s a federal program that provides low-cost insurance for children. Find out more by contacting your state insurance department.
  • No insurance: Consider a high-deductible, “catastrophic” policy with a health savings account, or HSA. How it works: You purchase a plan with very high deductible but low premiums. It is paired with a savings account that allows you to bank pre-tax dollars to use for your deductible or other qualified health expenses. If you don’t use the money, it stays in your account for whenever you need it.

    Caveat: Not all high-deductible plans are equal. And not all low-premium plans offer the same coverage. Read the fine print and have the agent answer all of your questions before you buy. Browse some options at InsureMe.com (a Bankrate company).

  • Denied coverage: First, find out why you’ve been denied. If there was erroneous information on your medical records (or even correct information that only tells part of the story), getting the records amended could solve the problem. Discuss the problem with your doctor or the insurance administrator at your doctor’s office to identify any possible misinformation in your file. Georgetown University’s Center on Medical rights and Privacy maintains a Web site that will help you correct your records. You can also try a different carrier that may have more lenient underwriting regarding your condition. If you were denied because of serious health problems, consider buying coverage through a spouse’s group health plan. While you pay all or part of the premium, it’s usually cheaper and you can’t be denied coverage. Alternatively, investigate your state’s high-risk pool. Set up for people who can’t get conventional insurance (and in some areas subsidized by the insurance industry), this will allow you to get coverage without excluding your health problems or paying exorbitant premiums.

    Caveat: It’s not super cheap and, in some states, pools are closed or having waiting lists. Visit your state insurance department or call for details.

  • Don’t have insurance due to job loss: If a spouse’s plan is not an option, take another look at your former employer’s group plan. Thanks to the stimulus plan, this option just became 65 percent less expensive, and you may have a chance at enrolling.

How this works: the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, allows you to stay on your company insurance, generally for up to nine months, as long as you pay 35 percent of the premiums. Prior to the economic stimulus package, employees had to sign up to remain on the group health plan within roughly 60 days of leaving the company and shoulder the full cost of the premiums. Therefore, if you took advantage of COBRA, you should see your premium drop 65 percent starting in March. If you were dismissed after Sept. 1, 2008 and didn’t take COBRA coverage, you have another chance. Moreover, your premiums will reflect the new 65 percent discount. Government agencies are still ironing out just how long workers who initially passed on COBRA will have to apply, so to be safe, get your paperwork in place within 60 days of the stimulus bill’s Feb. 17 signing date.

Caveat: COBRA usually only applies to companies with 20 or more employees, plus the company still has to be operating and offering group insurance. Also, after nine months, you can continue COBRA for an additional nine months, but must pay the full premium. Contact your employer or the insurance company to get the forms. Your employer should provide them. If you get the runaround, call your state labor department.

Car payments

Getting behind on payments doesn’t have to mean losing the car.

First, decide if it’s a need or a want. If you already have one or two others in the garage, you might be able to manage without it, says Remar Sutton, president of the Consumer Task Force for Automotive Issues, and the founder of FoolProofMe.org. And that can free up money for other bills. If you need it, you still have options.

  • With a lease: Tally up the cost of getting out of the lease. Then call the leasing agency to learn if it’s willing to renegotiate, says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America and author of “The Car Book.” Realistically, it may or may not work, depending on the value of the car and how anxious the agency is to keep you in it, he says.
  • With a loan: Here you’re in a better position when it comes to renegotiating your loan, especially if you owe more than the car is worth, says Gillis. If the loan company takes back the car, they take a loss. So it’s to the company’s advantage to keep you in the car. However, if your credit is still decent — even if it’s slightly tarnished — it might be smarter to refinance the loan at a better rate. First try a few credit unions, says Sutton. Since most of the credit unions bypassed the subprime lending meltdown, “that means credit unions aggressively are looking for people to lend money to,” he says. The average person will save about $2,000 by refinancing a car loan, according to numbers from FoolProofMe.org.

If you just need help with one payment, you might be able to get an extension, says Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. How it works: You cover just the interest, instead of the whole payment, and the loan company tacks the difference onto the end of your loan. However, most companies limit this practice to once or twice annually, she says.

Job loss

If you were fired or laid off, you’re likely eligible for unemployment benefits. Get the details through your state employment office by using Bankrate’s state map. Many unemployment offices also have job leads, and information on training programs.

To polish your job seeking skills. visit the library or hit the Internet. Try KnockEmDead.com, where author and career management expert Martin Yate has made six of his best-selling job-hunting books available free to online readers, along with online job-search workshops twice a week.

Small bills

Sometimes being able to pay the little bills can make a big difference. If you need help with a power or water bill, there are usually a couple of resources you can tap.

  • Utilities: First, call the utility company. Sometimes you can arrange to pay the bill a month or so late. The company might also have a program for people who need help with bills. In addition, representatives may be able to direct you to community resources.
  • Utilities and other bills: In about 80 percent of the U.S., dialing 211 will connect you to a local agency that can put you in touch with resources in your community, says Linda Daily, director of 2-1-1 for United Way of America. The 211 service “will act as triage” to help locate other resources in the community that can help, says Daily. If your area doesn’t have 211 services or your phone carrier blocks it, go online to 211.org for local-dial numbers and information on options, she says. Or visit the United Way at LiveUnited.org.