In the 1971 hit song Changes, David Bowie famously croons, "Turn and face the strange." That advice is oddly appropriate as we adjust to life at home in the effort to stay healthy amid a global pandemic. It's strange to see an empty strip-mall parking lot on a Saturday afternoon, and it's strange to realize you haven't put gas in your car for 10 days or more.
Even stranger, COVID-19 has produced the most volatile stock market period in U.S. history. And we may soon experience the country's worst-ever unemployment rate. Those kinds of extremes naturally influence how we handle our money going forward.
Here are four pandemic-related insights that affect your household budget today and will in the future.
1. Early retirement is off the table for many
The early retirement movement known as FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) was born out of a 10-year bull market. At a time when index fund investing practically guaranteed healthy returns, it was easy to see the path to early retirement. You saved, you invested, and you accumulated enough wealth to support you indefinitely.
That indefinite timeline works when you can live off the portfolio's earnings alone. But when the market dives 20% in five short weeks and investment gains dry up, withdrawals for living expenses dip into your already depleted principal. That reduces your portfolio's earnings power going forward and locks in investment losses. If the trend continues for too long, only a new source of income -- like a job -- or a major lifestyle downgrade can right the ship.
If you've been working toward early retirement, it's wise to rethink what your budget looks like after retirement. You could whittle your expenses down to the bare minimum as a cushion against market volatility. But you could also diversify your retirement income beyond your portfolio. That could involve other types of investments, like rental property. The most conservative approach, though, is to find a way to keep your paycheck, while getting rid of the aspects of work you don't like. Perhaps you could turn a profit from your favorite hobby, or transition into a career that's more satisfying than what you're doing today.
2. The emergency fund isn't optional
Emergency funds aren't built overnight. If you save 5% of your paycheck each month in a cash savings account, it takes a full five years to amass three months' worth of income. That's why it's so important to prioritize your emergency fund saving well before something bad happens.
This likely won't be the last economic crisis of your lifetime, either. Do the work now to make the next emergency easier to handle. Start setting aside money in your cash savings every month to build the habit, even if it's only $1. Once your income and job outlook stabilize, increase that deposit to 5% of your pay.
3. Your definition of what's necessary has evolved
Three months ago, you might have been reluctant to cut the weekly date night out of your budget. Or you might have argued that the annual beach vacation was a necessary improvement to your quality of life. And you wouldn't be wrong -- budgeted indulgences can support your overall well-being.
After a few weeks on lockdown, though, your priorities may have changed. Now, you might crave casual dinners at home with friends or a stroll through a nearby museum. If you can hold on to that deeper appreciation for the simpler things, you stand to free up a lot of cash in your budget going forward.
Try keeping a journal on your changing priorities. Reflect on what's truly necessary in your life and how that affects your spending decisions.
4. Gas and food spending has changed
Some analysts predict that the remote working trend prompted by COVID-19 will continue even after the disease has been contained. And that, too, has sweeping implications for household budgets.
At a minimum, you'll spend less on gas and public transportation. And how about those weekday lunches? They won't be showing up on your credit card statement anymore, either. You might also spend less on child care and even clothes.
If you're already experiencing some of these savings, quantify how much. Set that money aside in your emergency fund for now. And later this year, when we've conquered this pandemic, consider increasing your retirement plan contributions by that amount.
Hang on to those lessons learned
When there's no other bright spot to focus on, embrace the strange but positive ways the coronavirus outbreak has affected your outlook on what's really necessary and what it means to prepare for the future. Right now, in response to a crisis, you may be motivated to build a back-up plan into your retirement budget, put more focus on your emergency fund savings, and be more disciplined about identifying funds to send to your retirement account. But hold on to those budgeting lessons learned today, because they'll benefit you for years to come.