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Stimulus checks are arriving. But many Americans say the help isn't enough.

Americans standing by for stimulus checks
Stimulus checks begin hitting bank accounts as Biden team tours nation to sell COVID relief plan 01:52

As the U.S. marks a year since the coronavirus shuttered the economy, households are getting a fresh infusion of financial hope as the IRS begins distributing more than 100 million stimulus checks this week. Yet Americans who continue to struggle financially fear the additional cash may only tide them over for a month or two

The IRS will send a total of $422 billion in stimulus checks over the next several weeks, part of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law earlier this month. It comes as the American economic recovery diverges between upper-income households that have largely weathered the crisis intact because of their ability to work safely from home and lower-income families that are more likely to still be struggling with joblessness or reduced income in service jobs that require them to work directly with the public. 

Some middle- and upper-income households that received the checks will likely put the money into savings, investments or splurge on a new item, such as a video console or a bike. But adults who have been buffeted by the pandemic told CBS MoneyWatch they plan to immediately use the money for basic expenses, such as covering the mortgage, car payments and utilities.

"This is going to be the lifeline that is the only thing that will save my house," said Jamie Pontia, 44, who was laid off from her job as a hotel bar manager in Pittsburgh last year, of the stimulus check. "I do appreciate the $1,400 — without it I would be drowning. It'll just help me keep my head above water for a month."

She added, "Not everyone is going out and buying TVs."

Pontia is among the 4 in 10 Americans who are continuing to experience a loss of income compared with pre-pandemic times, according to research from financial services firm TransUnion. While that's an improvement from a year ago, when almost 6 in 10 adults saw a loss of income, it's still stubbornly high, said Charlie Wise, head of global research and consulting at TransUnion.

Households that have weathered the pandemic in better financial shape should consider a "thirds" approach toward their $1,400 checks, said Brittney Castro, a certified financial planner for Mint, a budgeting and personal finance app.

"One third goes to immediate bills or high-interest debt, one third goes to savings, and the remaining third goes to investments," Castro said. "The goal of this is to help individuals contribute these funds to various aspects of their financial profile."

To be sure, some people plan on using the money to invest in stocks — a pattern that anecdotally occurred with the second stimulus check in late December, which directed $600 toward each eligible adult, and which was cited as a major reason for the GameStop stock mania saga. Indeed, about 17% of people recently surveyed said they'd put some of their $1,400 stimulus check in the stock market, according to a new survey from Self Financial.

Yet socking away money or investing it in the record-high Dow isn't at the top of the priority list for most Americans, Self Financial found. The biggest priority was to pay off debt, with about one-third of respondents earmarking the money for that purpose, followed by paying for housing, utilities and food. For many households, in other words, the $1,400 will simply help them stay afloat. 

"Ultimately, through this troubling time, we need to do anything we can to make sure our needs are met," Mint's Castro added.

About 1 in 5 adults are "in limbo," which TransUnion defines as people who have lost income and are unsure how their finances will recover, if at all.

"We think there are a lot of people in that group that say, 'I really need the stimulus checks or need some sort of continued support'," Wise added. "We have seen that lower-income workers have been hit harder. A lot of them tend to work in service industries that have been harder impacted."

Applied for 225 jobs, and nothing

That's the case with Pontia, the bar manager from Pittsburgh, who said her finances are in turmoil both because of losing her job and suffering through a gap in unemployment benefits. In mid-March, she was told by Pennsylvania's unemployment office that its systems would be updating and she wouldn't be able to file an unemployment claim until the end of March. 

That break in payments means she'll need to use her stimulus check to cover her $850 mortgage and her $360 monthly car payment — and doesn't expect she'll be able to save anything.

Pontia said she'd like to get another job, but worries about the risks of getting COVID-19, especially as she helps out her 67-year-old mother, who she says has been unable to get a vaccination appointment. From Pontia's view point, not much has changed in a year.

"It's not getting any easier," she said.

Unemployment benefits have also been a point of frustration for Ginger Voisine, 39, of Fort Fairfield, Maine. She lost her job a year ago as an executive administrative assistant at Cary Medical Center when business dropped off due to the pandemic. She got the extra pandemic unemployment aid of $600 a week, but then found a temporary job that allowed her to work remotely — a benefit, given that her 10-year-old son is in remote school once a week. 

But when that job ended, she discovered she was no longer eligible for the extra pandemic-related unemployment pay. "My unemployment is no longer attached to COVID because I took that temporary job," Voisine said. "I'm kicking myself because I lost the extra COVID payments."

$1,400 stimulus payments, unemployment benefits among items in Biden's COVID-19 relief bill 03:12

She estimates the stimulus payment will stretch until mid-May, and she's hoping she finds a job before then. In the meantime, Voisine has spent her savings and cashed in her 401(k). She doesn't see how she can put money aside to rebuild her nest egg without finding another job. Since early March, she has applied for 225 jobs, but nothing has turned up yet.

Ongoing stimulus?

Clyde Bittner, a 62-year-old from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in January was laid off from his job in a factory making government supplies. Bittner, who is legally blind, said the stimulus checks will help him and his wife pay the bills for at least two months. His wife suffered a stroke after he lost his job, and he's concerned about finding work given his disability. 

He and his wife have reached out to their state lawmakers to advocate for more stimulus aid to struggling families through a nonprofit called WorkMoney, which has more than 1.5 million members belonging to various political parties. Bittner said he's hopeful that the Biden administration may continue with more direct stimulus aid. 

"Once you start something, it's like you have to continue it — it's a process until the job is done," he said. "They will probably do it a few more times."

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