The COVID-19 pandemic is reminding us why saving is so important. The swift closure of businesses has placed many Americans' financial security in jeopardy, and no one knows yet when all of the measures that have been enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus will end. The U.S. government is doing its part by offering expanded unemployment compensation and temporary stimulus checks to millions, but that alone may not be enough to help everyone through this difficult time.
Individual actions matter a lot too. If you want to be a smart saver, consider doing the following three things to help your existing dollars stretch further and keep yourself financially secure until this crisis has passed:
1. Build an emergency fund
Your emergency fund is a stockpile of savings you have to fall back on when unexpected expenses arise. In normal times, the rule of thumb is to have three-to-six months of living expenses set aside in easily accessible cash holdings. But in the current climate, you definitely want to err on the longer side of this range, and it wouldn't hurt to have even more than six months of expenses set aside.
You can jump-start your emergency fund with your tax refund and your stimulus check if you don't need to use that cash to pay for essential expenses right now. If you're currently on unemployment but aren't using all of your government checks every week, you can put the extra cash in savings as well.
Consider opening a high-yield savings account to keep your emergency fund in if you don't already have one. Like all bank accounts, high-yield savings account interest rates are down right now, but they're still much higher than the national average savings account APY of 0.07%. This helps you earn a little on your savings while still keeping your funds easily accessible.
2. Cut back your expenses
No matter what your emergency fund looks like, it's smart to cut back on spending right now. We don't know how long the pandemic, or the recession it's very likely to cause, will last. Cutting back your spending can free up more cash to pad your emergency fund if you're still earning income, or it can help your existing savings last longer if you are relying entirely on those savings for support right now.
You probably aren't doing much discretionary spending because so many of the things we normally do for fun -- going to the movies and concerts, taking trips, dining out -- are off-limits right now. If you are still spending money on discretionary purchases, pare these back to the bare minimum. It's fine to leave one or two things, like a subscription to a streaming TV service, especially if you're using this a lot during the pandemic. But stop any other discretionary purchases until things go back to normal.
You can also call your creditors and service providers and try to negotiate a better deal for yourself. Many are being especially accommodating right now because they know a lot of people are struggling due to COVID-19. Some creditors may enable you to defer payments for a month or two. This is a nice option to have if you need it, but it's not going to change what you owe. You should keep paying your bills if you are able to do so to avoid a larger bill once the crisis has passed.
If you're trying to cut costs, focus on longer-term solutions like negotiating a lower interest rate with your credit card issuer. Or you can try refinancing your installment loans. More on that below.
3. Refinance your loans
Interest rates are very low right now, and while that's bad news for savings accounts, it's great news for people paying on loans. If you refinance your existing installment loans, like a mortgage or auto loan, you will probably pay less in interest over the lifetime of your loan. You may also be able to lower your monthly payment, especially if you extend the loan term. This is worth considering if you're worried about losing your home or car due to the pandemic.
You will have to pay closing costs to refinance your loan, so this is something to weigh, and you may struggle to get approved if you're not working due to COVID-19. Talk to your lender if you're unsure whether refinancing is an option for you.
If you didn't have an emergency fund before, now is the time to build one. Use the above tips to help you save more money and reduce the financial strain over the next few months.