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2020 is one for the record books. The U.S. has experienced a global pandemic, slipped into an economic recession, been through the most dramatic elections in recent memory, and withstood a record number of hurricanes. It's a year with drama of biblical proportions, even without frogs, boils, and locusts.
2020 has also been a year in which neighbors checked on the welfare of neighbors. We've seen distilleries make hand sanitizer instead of booze, drive-in theaters become cool again, restaurants share their favorite recipes so we can try at home, and watched a 103-year-old grandmother beat COVID-19 and celebrate by drinking a Bud Light.
No matter the bad, the good, and the in-between, we have soaked up knowledge. Here are six of the most important lessons we have learned about money this year.
1. Emergencies happen
What 2020 has chiefly taught us is that life can turn on a dime. As well-laid as plans may be, there are things we cannot control. When we lose a job, are hit with unexpected medical bills, or are otherwise buffeted by harsh realities, an emergency fund becomes invaluable.
While the rule of thumb is to put enough into a savings account to cover three to six months' worth of expenses, some of us are now thinking we need more. After all, an emergency fund can deplete quickly, and the more we put away, the easier it will be to rest at night.
Millions of Americans woke up in March and April to find their jobs put on hold or eliminated. And to date, nearly eight million people have tested positive for COVID-19, with no way of knowing whether they'd be asymptomatic, slightly ill, or wind up fighting for their lives. These folks woke up one morning believing everything was OK, but by bedtime, faced life-changing circumstances.
An emergency fund helps pay for necessities so we can focus on getting back on our feet, no matter what befalls us.
2. Debt handcuffs us
The pandemic did not spur Americans to pay down debt, but it may have accelerated the desire. According to Northwest Mutual's 2020 Planning & Progress Study, conducted in mid-February, the average debt (excluding mortgages) was $26,621. That average was down nearly 8% from 2019 and down a full 30% from 2018.
COVID-19 served as a reminder of how debt can rob us of options when life goes off the rails. Although it appears to be a lesson we were learning when the pandemic arrived, COVID-19 cemented our ambition to free ourselves of debt.
3. Hoarding is unnecessary and expensive
A few short months ago, shoppers fought over toilet paper and antibacterial wipes. Some people stocked up. They also stocked up on soup, cereal, protein bars, and most anything else they could get their hands on.
Most of us learned that panic buying is rarely necessary. Not only do we still have paper towels to use, but food does not last forever. If we don't plan to consume food in the near future, there's a good chance it will expire. Buying a product and failing to use it is like burning money.
4. Investing is for the long term
Investors were terrified that COVID-19 would send the stock market on a downhill tumble. But it didn't happen. Just as it does during "ordinary" times, the market responded in mini-gasps when things seemed especially scary, but quickly regained its composure. David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, says, "Stocks go down faster than they go up, but go up more than they go down."
What we've learned throughout this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is that the only way to make our investments work for us is to keep emotions out of decisions. That means making well-informed investments, then allowing the market to do what it's going to do. It absolutely will go up, and it absolutely will go down. Reacting to all those ups and downs emotionally is like refusing to get out of a roller coaster car. There is no reason to do that to ourselves.
5. Good health is a priority
Although we've read about the possibility of a pandemic for years, it seemed unlikely. The reality of COVID-19 is that we're face-to-face with how much our health (and the health of the people we love) means to us. That means prioritizing health insurance and healthy lifestyle choices. When all of this is over, it may lead to more long walks, meals of healthy food, and time with the people who make us happiest.
Illness is expensive in this country. It's impossible to plan for a healthy financial future without considering our physical well-being.
6. Generosity enriches us
Something that's remarkable about 2020 is the generosity we've watched unfold. Despite their own financial concerns, thousands who've never given to a food bank before donated to help strangers have a warm meal. Front-line workers donned masks and took on jobs no one would blame them for quitting, all in service to others, knowing what they risked by doing so.
In this year of outbreak, we are reminded that generosity serves us all -- those who receive it, those who witness it, and those who serve it up. Studies have shown that generous people have more friends, are happier with their careers, enjoy better physical and mental health, and have higher self-esteem and satisfaction with life.
Yes, 2020 has been one for the record books, but like all historically significant periods, it has shown us what we're made of, and taught us lessons we will carry on.