Who would've thought you'd spend your spring wearing sweatpants at home, and longing to see the inside of Applebee's? For many of us, the nationwide push to contain the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. has altered the entire dynamic of both work and play. 

Fortunately, some details remain constant. We still have Netflix to get us through boredom and Amazon to bring nearly anything to the front door. And, despite the economic turmoil happening all around the world, the basics of personal finance haven't changed much either. Here are four money rules you can rely on to ring true, no matter what unfolds in the coming weeks.

Bored woman holding pencil under her nose

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Budgeting is the key to spending less

When you need to spend less, creating a budget is the most reliable strategy. You can implement all kinds of specific cost-savings measures, like adjusting your thermostat, but you may not see results if you're not managing the overall spend, too. Here's what to do:

  1. Add up your total income, after taxes and retirement contributions. Target a retirement contribution that's 15% of your income.
  2. Set a monthly amount for debt repayment and emergency fund savings. For most people, these amounts should total about 5% of income.
  3. Add up your essential expenses. This is the tedious part. You'll have to look back through banking transactions for the past year to capture expenses that don't recur monthly -- things like your property taxes and homeowners association bills. Cumulatively, these expenses should be less than 60% of your income. If they're higher than that, look for ways to cut back. Ideas include shopping around for lower insurance rates, buying generic groceries, and, yes, adjusting that thermostat.
  4. Establish a spending limit for discretionary expenses. Whatever's left is yours to spend on non-essentials. In normal times, you'd use this cash for dining out, socializing, going to sports games, and shopping. Today, you're probably spending this on streaming services and other forms of at-home entertainment.

Once you set your limits, you have to live within them. That shouldn't be too hard in the current environment, unless you have a problem with impulse shopping online. If you do, visit your favorite online stores and change your passwords to a random string of letters and numbers. Then log out and clear your browser's cache. If you find yourself resetting passwords to log back in, that's your cue to redirect your attention elsewhere so you don't spend.

2. Social Security is not a retirement plan

Another constant truth of personal finance is that you can't rely on Social Security alone in retirement. For most people, Social Security replaces about 40% of working income. If you followed the budget exercise above, you already know that 40% of your income today doesn't even cover your essential expenses.

To avoid a major lifestyle downgrade in retirement, you have to save and invest those savings. Ideally, you'd tuck away 15% of your income over time in a 401(k). If you don't have access to a 401(k), make the maximum allowed contribution to a traditional or Roth IRA. In 2020, that contribution limit is $6,000, plus an additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions if you're 50 or older.

If you make more than $40,000 a year, you'll need to save more than the $6,000 you put in an IRA. Open up a taxable brokerage account, and put the rest of your retirement savings there.

3. Building wealth is easier when you start earlier

The earlier you start saving for retirement, the easier it is. The reason why is simple: Over longer periods of time, your earnings generate earnings of their own. And those earnings can far exceed the money that came out of your pocket.

Here's an example. Say you put $500 monthly in an IRA starting today. And you have those funds invested to earn 7% annually, which is roughly the long-term average of the stock market after inflation. In 40 years, you will have contributed $240,000 to that account. But your account balance will be $1,320,062. You will have made more than $1 million off your $240,000 investment.

Now compare that performance to what happens when you only save for 10 years. You'll put in $60,000 and make just $27,047 at the same rate of return.

4. An emergency fund helps you stay debt-free

Earlier this year, you may have assumed your job was rock-solid. Today, not so much. If you do lose your source of income, having cash savings on hand keeps you from reaching for your credit card right away to pay for food and utilities. Living off credit cards in a pinch is better than starving, but it can take years to recover. For example, a $2,000 credit card balance carrying a 17% interest rate will take two years to repay at $100 monthly.

Those cash savings may be the least interesting part of your balance sheet -- but they're also the most reliable. Prioritize your emergency fund deposits as a line item in your budget if you can.

Back to basics financially

Getting back to the basics financially can be one way to stay grounded as the economy remains in flux. Use this time to redefine what's truly essential in your life, and to make plans for a better, more financially stable future. Oh, and if you want to set aside a few dollars for a trip to Applebee's once this is all over, that's okay too.

 
This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.