BETWEEN LOST JOBS AND shuttered businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be leaving economic ruin in its wake. However, there may be an upside to months spent at home.
“I think this is really an eye-opener for people,” says Dan Keady, chief financial planning strategist for financial services organization TIAA. “(It’s) an incredible wake-up call about how you’re using your time and your resources.”
You can use the pandemic and subsequent state shutdowns to your advantage by following these steps:
- Reevaluate spending priorities.
- Cut everything extra from your budget.
- Build savings.
- Invest if you can.
- Reconsider your employment.
- Learn from the experience.
Reevaluate Spending Priorities
American households spent an average of $61,224 during 2018, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The pandemic is providing the opportunity for families to determine how much of that money is going to discretionary expenses.
“Being sequestered is forcing people not to spend money, and that is an excellent way to learn what spending is essential,” says Ken Moraif, founder and senior retirement planner at Retirement Planners of America in Plano, Texas.
Beyond pinpointing which expenses are essential, families can also use this time to consider whether the items they typically buy represent their personal priorities. “Are we spending money on the things we value or just on things?” Keady asks.
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Cut Everything Extra From Your Budget
Once you understand what expenses are necessary and important, it’s time to begin eliminating anything that doesn’t fit in one of those categories.
“Most people are home and have time to review credit card statements,” says Joe Conroy, financial advisor and owner of Harford Retirement Planners in Bel Air, Maryland. Look for recurring expenses such as subscription services that may be duplicative or rarely used. For larger expenses, such as insurance premiums or vehicle payments, consider whether cheaper alternatives might be available to you.
“This is a really good crash diet from a financial standpoint,” Conroy says. People often intend to trim their budgets but never get around to it. Current circumstances are giving families no choice but to make these hard decisions right now.
Americans are already saving more as a result of the current recession. The personal savings rate in March 2020 was 13.1%, up from 8% in February, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Financial advisors have long recommended having enough cash in the bank to cover three to six months’ worth of expenses, and the pandemic is a stark reminder that you can’t always anticipate when and how an emergency will occur. “Not many people thought it would be a coronavirus,” Conroy says. “Usually, it’s the roof that leaks.”
For those who aren’t already making saving a priority, using some or all of a government stimulus check can be a smart way to begin building an emergency fund.
As of this writing, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down nearly 15% for 2020. That makes now a good time to put money in investments such as retirement accounts. Investing now, when prices are low, can maximize returns when the markets bounce back.
“We’re going to get back to where we were,” Conroy says, although exactly when that will happen is unknown.
However, people should be cautious about making any big money moves, according to Keady. Consult with a trusted financial professional before reallocating a significant amount of funds or pursuing a new investment strategy.
Reconsider Your Employment
If you’ve lost your job as a result of the pandemic, now is a good time to consider all your options. “There may be a lot of people who start businesses that they’ve wanted to do forever,” Moraif says.
For laid-off workers, a career change may be in order. Some jobs offer more security, even in the midst of uncertain times. Employees who have been unhappy in their current role may find this is a chance to exit one company or industry and enter another.
Meanwhile, employees who are happy in their current position may be able to leverage the COVID-19 crisis to negotiate more favorable hours or work conditions. Companies may be more willing to approve flex time or remote work in the post-pandemic world.
Learn From the Experience
Regardless of whether you entered this period on solid financial ground or were wholly unprepared, the crisis brings lessons that can be used to your advantage. For instance, people are now aware where their financial weaknesses lay and can formulate a plan to address them.
“I think this is a tremendous teachable moment for children and for us,” Keady says. Older teens might benefit from a discussion about how events affect the stock market, savings and personal wealth. Plus, parents and children alike are learning how to make due with less.
“Even though this might look like a total catastrophe, this might be a pivotal moment,” Conroy says. The key is to see the financial crisis not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to create a new and brighter future.