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Will the COVID-19 Crisis Derail Your Retirement?

By Maurie Backman - Mar 22, 2020 at 8:58AM

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If you're careful, it won't have to.

COVID-19 has turned life upside down for millions of Americans, and with people being told to self-isolate, it means many won't have the option to go to work for the foreseeable future. And that could throw your retirement planning off-course.

After all, without an income, you won't have the option to keep funding a retirement savings plan. And if you rack up debt in the course of paying your bills, you'll have a harder time finding money to fund your long-term savings once you are back to work, as your income will suddenly be monopolized by debt payments.

All of this is a very scary notion to contemplate. But here's some good news: If you make the right decisions in the coming weeks or months, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 won't have to ruin your chances of retiring when you want to.

Man resting chin on hands with serious expression


Grappling with income loss and coming out unscathed

If you're not earning money for the time being because you're unable to work, then continuing to fund your retirement plan just won't be feasible. But if you ramp up your contributions once your paycheck is restored, you can easily make up for a few months, or even a year, of not contributing at all. The key, therefore, is to focus on not racking up too much debt in the coming weeks or months, because the more of it you accrue, the harder it will be to shake once this crisis wraps up. And if you're forced to spend a chunk of your earnings on debt payments, you'll have a harder time funding your retirement savings to make up for lost time.

So how do you keep your debt load manageable? First, consider whether you need to take on debt at all. If you're able to cut back on spending, collect unemployment benefits to replace some of your former paycheck, and withdraw from your emergency fund (assuming you have one), you might escape the next few months virtually or totally debt-free. Also, a lot of loan servicers and service providers are cutting customers some slack right now, so if you're without an income, reach out and see if deferring payments is possible. It very well may be, in which case your need to take on debt may be minimal.

Finally, you can help yourself by borrowing responsibly. Look to home equity or personal loans before resorting to charging expenses on a credit card, and once you do start working again, stick to a tight budget to pay that debt back quickly. In fact, if there's one silver lining to be gleaned from this crisis, it's the realization that the money many of us spend in the course of leaving our homes isn't essential, and that if we learn to be more content with hunkering down, we could all stand to save a lot. If you stick to that philosophy once you're back to work and use it to divert more of your earnings to your retirement savings, there's a good chance you'll get to exit the workforce on time, if not early.

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