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A COVID-19 Stimulus Check Planning Tool for Credit Union Members

UPDATE (January 7, 2021):The second round of stimulus checks are already going out through direct deposit and in the mail. It is unclear what level of support these $600 checks will provide to those still struggling through a pandemic that has continued for almost a year now, but credit unions have a second opportunity to help their members in need.

From Short-Term Savings to Sustainable Financial Security

We understood that many people would be financially affected by COVID-19, but the month-end transition and reporting made clear both the severity and scope of that impact. For millions of Americans, the stimulus checks represent a necessary financial windfall for households to replace lost income and to address immediate needs.

Credit unions can offer the free COVID-19 Stimulus Check Planning Tool to engage with their members on planning ahead for how to use their stimulus checks.

Although most people started March confident and “cautiously optimistic” about the U.S. economy, we ended the month in a much different place. An unprecedented number of people filed for unemployment just in the last two weeks of the month. Millions more struggled to make ends meet while working fewer hours. Small businesses in communities across the country wondered if they would survive; many shuttered their doors for good. We understood that many people – particularly hourly, lower-income, and gig workers – would be financially affected by COVID-19, but the month-end transition and reporting made clear both the severity and scope of that impact.

The Guardian, Almost 80% of US workers live from paycheck to paycheck. Here's why.

In reality, COVID-19 exacerbated pre-existing conditions. The balance sheets of a majority of American households were already profoundly fragile. A majority of people live paycheck-to-paycheck, often struggling just to cover regular bills and living expenses. For just about half of all households, an unexpected expense of even a few hundred dollars represents a financial emergency. Insurance around the country is sorely lacking, and inequalities in income and wealth put disproportionate burdens on people of color, young people, and other groups.

As millions faced new income gaps and unanticipated expenditures, COVID-19 showed us just how important savings are to the financial health of U.S. households. Even relatively small amounts of savings—or getting a bit of liquidity at the right moment—can be extraordinarily meaningful. Research has shown that just $250 to $750 in liquid savings can help a family weather a financial shock, reducing their likelihood of paying bills late, missing rent, or turning to expensive alternative sources of credit. What’s more, it is increasingly clear that the short-term stability provided by small amounts savings can translate into longer-term financial security.

It was against this backdrop that Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides for economic hardship payments to be made directly to families. Around 60 million households will receive a check amounting to between one and several thousand dollars. While for many they will fall short of what is ultimately needed to stay afloat and make ends meet (and many more will receive them late or not at all), for many millions of Americans, these stimulus checks represent a necessary financial windfall for households to replace lost income and to address immediate needs.

Most people, however, are facing prolonged financial hardship that affects not only their ability to make it through today but also to make ends meet down the road. This is a much more difficult situation that requires making trade-offs and hard decisions. They must decide how to best use their check right now—but also how to make its impact last.

Navigating an immediate financial crisis while also making decisions about a complicated and uncertain future understandably feels overwhelming and stressful. Credit unions and community-based financial institutions thus have an opportunity to help their members in this time of need.

First, credit unions can leverage tools like automatic transfers to savings accounts to help people preserve and smooth their consumption of their stimulus. Encouraging people to partition their resources and “hide” some away for the future can help people to save and significantly smooth their consumption over time.

Second, credit unions can engage with their members directly and prompt them to plan ahead for how to use their stimulus checks. Members are much more likely to use that money in the way that best supports their financial health and well-being if they have thought ahead and prioritized how to use that money. As Filene’s recent “Pathways to Financial Well-being” research report shows, the capacity to make complex decisions and plan for the future is a necessary ingredient in fostering sustainable financial well-being.

To facilitate this kind of proactive planning engagement, the Common Cents Lab at Duke University has created a free COVID-19 Stimulus Check Planning Tool, which financial institutions can offer directly to their members.

This online tool takes the form of a short survey. After completing the survey, members are provided a summary of their plan through a website that is generated specifically for them.

All in all, it takes about 10 minutes to complete a simple plan that will help your members get the most from their stimulus check. The tool does not collect any private or sensitive data. The website summary members receive after completing the tool is temporary and does not contain private or sensitive data.

The tool is also easy to distribute to credit union members. Simply visit the Common Cents Lab to download the materials. Included in those materials is a link to the online tool, an FAQ, and an email template to use when distributing the link to your members.

Planning is critical to financial well-being. Planning makes people aware of beneficial financial behaviors, prompts them to set goals and strategize how to achieve those goals, encourages them to commit and follow through on those plans, and gives them the opportunity to think ahead and envision themselves in the future. In fact, the Common Cents Lab’s COVID-19 Stimulus Check Planning Tool can be easily repurposed to facilitate other kinds of planning, such as for tax refunds.

We hope you’ll offer this tool to your members. For questions related to the COVID-19 Stimulus Check Planning Tool, please reach out to the Common Cents Lab at

For more information about how credit unions can support their members as they receive economic impact payments, please see the following articles:

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Filene is here to help credit unions support their people and build their business resiliency during the COVID-19 crisis. Filene will be releasing resources in line with what credit unions need most.
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Filene stands at the ready to get you the support and resources that would help you best serve your members and employees right now. Tell us what would be most helpful.