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Are Your Finances Taking a COVID-19 Hit? Here’s How to Stay on Track

Expert advice on navigating through financial setbacks in the midst of a pandemic

If you’re experiencing a financial pinch (or wallop) right now, you’re not alone. Between layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, and general market uncertainty, just about everyone is looking for ways to stretch their savings and ride out the storm. Take a look at these tips for getting through the current crisis—and any future financial setback you may face.

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Before all else, take care of yourself

It’s the old “secure your oxygen mask first” advice from flight attendants everywhere (back when we used to travel). Financial strain can take a serious toll on your emotional well-being. So whether you’re working from home now, taking care of little ones, or on the hunt for a new job, don’t forget to mind your mental health.

Things like creating a routine, tapping into your social circle for support, exercising, and getting enough sleep all go a long way toward maintaining a healthy outlook on life. For example, many longtime work-from-home employees say getting dressed and ready for the day—instead of schlepping in last night’s sweats—helps them prepare to knock out a productive workday. And you already know fueling your body with nutritious food makes you feel better than a donut and a bag of chips. Take a breath, find what works for you, and make taking care of yourself a priority.

Get real about your finances

Even if you’ve already created a budget, now is the time to re-evaluate your financial wants and needs. Create an “emergency budget” and really pare it down to the bare bones. It can be as simple as creating two columns on a sheet of paper: one for liquid assets and income and another for expenses.

Then (reminding yourself that this situation is temporary), start slashing those unnecessary expenses. Suspend subscriptions, eliminate impulse buys, and squirrel away the gym, haircut, and gas money you may not be using right now. Things like housing costs, groceries, and other essentials should be all that’s left in your “expenses” column for now.

If you're completely new to this or need a quick refresher, check out our Ultimate Guide to Budgeting and ignited your saving superpowers.

Negotiate with your creditors

Many companies have options in place for those whose finances have been affected by COVID-19. With some effort and persistence, you might be able to lower your monthly payment amounts from mortgage providers, credit card companies, student loan providers, and more.  

Even utility companies and cell phone providers may be willing to work with you to come up with a temporary, lower-payment plan. If you can save even $10-20 per bill, it’ll start to add up. After all, the whole idea is to get your “must-pay” expenses down to a minimum.

A word of caution: Take care to re-evaluate and adjust your budget to fit your goals once you’re back on your feet. Paying minimum amounts for too long can result in major debt burdens and mountains of interest.

Check out potential government help

The federal government has created several types of assistance programs to help relieve the financial strain of the pandemic. Be sure to take advantage of any you qualify for; every little bit helps increase the dollar amount in the “income” column of your budget.

Besides the one-time payment of $1,200 (or $2,400 for qualified married couples), that’s gotten a lot of press, there are other federal and state assistance programs you should be aware of. For example, if you’re unemployed, be sure to apply for unemployment insurance. Even if you’ve done that and depleted your benefits, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program could give you another 13 weeks of needed cash. It’s worth noting that these benefits are extended to freelancers and furloughed employees, too.

And don’t forget about healthcare. If losing your job or cutting your hours means you’ll be without health insurance for any period of time, apply for COBRA benefits. COBRA is designed to give you temporary healthcare coverage while you’re between jobs.

Put major financial decisions on hold

If you were thinking of buying a house, car, or other big-ticket item, now’s probably not the time. Keep the money set aside for now in case you need to tap into it over the next several months to get by. The last thing you want to do is spend your stash only to end up going into debt for everyday living expenses. Once you’re in a more favorable financial position, you can start working toward those financial goals again.

Beef up your side hustle

If your traditional revenue stream has dried up, use the extra time to develop a side hustle. Many companies hire freelancers, contractors, and part-time workers, even in a struggling economy.

Take stock of your skillset and see if you can make a few extra bucks instead of just waiting for things to come back around. Who knows? One of your side gigs just might turn into a full-time opportunity, or you may find you’re ready to switch careers. In any case, learning to increase your value can be beneficial on many levels.

Note to all: Leave retirement accounts alone

When you’re short on cash, it’s tempting to see that retirement account balance as an easy remedy to your current hardship. But as plenty of financial experts will tell you, dipping into your retirement savings should be a last resort. That’s because of the power of compound interest. Consider this example:

If you put $10,000 into an account earning a 6% rate of return when you’re age 40, you’ll have $42,919 by the time you’re 65. If you wait another 10 years to invest that same $10,000, it’ll only be worth $23,966 by the time you’re 65.

That simply means you probably won’t ever make up in the long run what you’ve taken out in the short term. And you never know what you’ll face in retirement when your only paycheck is what you’ve set aside during your working years. Bottom line: hands off retirement funds. But, if you must make changes to your retirement plan, be sure to consult a professional to fully understand the consequences and tax implications of your choices.  

Laura Southwick
With 15+ years of experience writing for finance and tech, Laura specialises in simplifying complex topics for all audiences. Her work has appeared on Ally Bank, Inman, and Hyper Networks.

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