What started out as a public health crisis has quickly become an economic crisis as well. Thousands of Americans have lost their jobs over the past couple of weeks in the wake of social distancing, and thousands more jobs are at risk if COVID-19 continues to spread. The worst part is, we still don't know how long this will go on or how bad it's going to get.
In light of all of this uncertainty, we're all having to make some financial changes to ensure that we can survive the next few months, whatever they may bring. The federal government is talking about possible financial aid, but there are steps you can take right now to increase your financial security over the coming weeks. Here are three to consider.
1. Build an emergency fund
Those without an emergency fund who are still able to work should begin saving every dollar they can in case their company is forced to close due to the pandemic. The typical guideline is to have enough cash on hand to cover at least three months' worth of living expenses, but in the current climate, saving six months of living expenses is best if you're able to do so because it's possible the economic repercussions of COVID-19 will outlive the disease itself.
Saving might not be as difficult as it normally would be. With restaurants, sports arenas, movie theaters, and virtually every other form of group entertainment currently closed, canceled, or banned for safety reasons, there isn't as much to spend your money on right now. But if you're channeling cash you'd normally spend on entertainment into extra food and cleaning supplies, you may still not have a lot of spare money.
If you're expecting a tax refund, you can use this to jump-start your emergency savings. Work on filing your taxes as soon as possible. The deadline has been extended to July 15, so you have until then to submit your return. But the sooner you do so, the sooner you can get your refund. Place all of this money in a checking or savings account so you have easy access to it when you need it.
Many banks and credit card companies are now offering financial hardship assistance to those affected by COVID-19, including deferred payments, waived fees, and in some cases, no credit card interest accrual for a short time. Check to see what your bank's policies are, and consider taking advantage of any support programs it offers. This might enable you to divert some of the funds you'd otherwise put toward debt repayment into emergency savings.
2. Redo your budget
Trim your budget back for the next few months. Of course, you'll still need to pay for food, housing, insurance, utilities, and possibly transportation to and from work if you're not working from home or ordered to self-isolate. You may also want to indulge in one or two extras, such as streaming services, to give yourself some means of entertainment while you're at home over these next few weeks. But if there are any extra costs in your usual budget besides this, consider cutting them out until life gets back to normal. Put any extra money toward your emergency fund.
Those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 can apply for unemployment so they don't need to draw down their savings as quickly. Check with your state government to learn how to apply and how much you can expect from the program.
You may also need to prepare for expenses you didn't have before, like child care while you're at work. Make a new list of your expenses, and compare this against your new income or emergency savings. Tweak your budget as needed until you find a workable solution to get you through the next couple of weeks or months. If you're really struggling, you may have to take out a personal loan to hold you over. Avoid credit card debt and payday loans whenever possible, as this could create a longer-term financial crisis due to the high interest rates on these types of credit.
3. Consider refinancing loans
The Federal Reserve has slashed its rates to near zero, and that means interest rates on loans are very low. Refinancing your loans right now could save you money over the long term, and it could possibly reduce your payments in the short term, especially if you extend the term of the loan. This could also help make your monthly bills a little easier to pay during this crisis.
Of course, refinancing a loan brings new closing costs, so it might not save you money in every situation. Crunch the numbers to decide whether it's worth it for you before you go through with it. You might also find it more difficult to refinance a loan if you've already lost your primary source of income, because this is something lenders look at when you borrow money. In that case, you should reach out to your bank to discuss hardship assistance options, as discussed above, and consider refinancing once you've gotten your job back if interest rates are still below the rate on your current loan.
We're all still trying to figure out how to navigate the current situation and how this unforgettable chapter of our lives is going to end. The best we can do right now is try to prepare for it by getting our finances in order as best as we can and taking things day by day. If you haven't done the above three things already, now's the time.