The coronavirus crisis is already many weeks old, with no definite end in sight. Not surprisingly, many people are worried, to say the least, about their finances -- fully 60% of them, in fact, according to a survey conducted recently by TheAscent.com.
It's unavoidable that many of us will be financially strained during this period, but there are some things that we may be able to do to conserve cash and make a bad situation less bad. Here are some ideas.
1. Set priorities
First, get clear on your priorities -- your expenses are not all equal. Your chief concerns are likely to be your home, food, utilities, and transportation -- and possibly something else, depending on your situation. Thus, aim to keep up with payments related to your priorities: Pay your rent or mortgage bill, and your energy, water, and insurance bills. Be sure you're putting aside enough money for food and your bus fare or gas if you are not staying home most of the time.
2. Separate mandatory versus optional spending
Next, think about all the things you spend your money on. You'd do well to make a list, too, perhaps aided by a review of your checkbook register and your bank and credit card statements. Notice which expenses are for needs versus wants. It won't all be apparent until you drill down a bit, too. For instance, supermarket spending isn't optional, but what you spend your money on at the supermarket is. If money is tight, reduce or suspend your spending on costly items such as meats, seafood, and fancy cheeses. Find recipes online for inexpensive yet nutritious meals you can make at home, with beans, rice, pasta, veggies, eggs, and so on. Consider growing some of your own fruits and veggies, too, if you can. There are lots of relatively painless ways to spend less money.
3. Rein in recurring expenses
Think about which expenses are recurring, and which ones you can trim or cut out -- at least for now. For example, a $40-per-month gym membership can save you almost $500 annually if you cut it out. If your cable bill is $175 per month, look into how you can shrink that -- perhaps swapping your cable TV for a handful of inexpensive streaming options. If you don't take a look at recurring expenses, they may be taking a meaningful chunk of your income without your even noticing it. You may even find that you're still paying for something you stopped needing or using long ago.
4. See if you qualify for any paid leave
If you're having to be away from work for a while due to COVID-19 -- because you're sick with it, have been exposed to it, or are caring for someone with it -- look into whether you can take advantage of expanded paid leave benefits that are in effect for the rest of the year. You can get some details from the U.S. Department of Labor.
5. Look into unemployment benefits
If you've lost your job, look into filing for unemployment benefits, even if you don't think you'll get them. The recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has not only boosted benefits by $600 per week and extended unemployment eligibility by 13 weeks, but it has also expanded the range of people who qualify for unemployment benefits. So if you were familiar with the old rules and wouldn't qualify under them, take another look, because you may now qualify. For example, those who quit their jobs normally wouldn't qualify for unemployment benefits, but now, if you quit your job due to the COVID-19 crisis -- perhaps because you would be at too much risk staying in it -- you can qualify. Even self-employed folks such as freelancers can now qualify for benefits.
6. Learn about available financial relief
There have been many kinds of economic relief announced from all corners, with more announcements happening every now and then. For example, the IRS has given us all a three-month extension for filing and paying our taxes, until July 15, and your state may have followed suit. Many landlords are offering some flexibility with rent -- and a few have even waived some rent payments. Some local governments have also issued rules against evictions during the COVID-19 crisis. Some states have reopened health insurance exchanges for people who need coverage to sign up. Many health insurers are saying that they will not be charging their customers for COVID-19 testing and treatment, and relief has been announced for student loan borrowers, too. Many banks and credit unions are allowing borrowers to defer or skip some payments or will work with you to come up with a plan.
While many individuals are getting a one-time $1,200 economic impact payment, relief for small businesses is also available. Whatever your needs and concerns are, take some time to dig online and make some phone calls -- you may find more relief than you expected.
7. Build an emergency fund
If you're still working and still generating sufficient income on which to live, be sure you have an emergency fund stocked with three to nine months' worth of all mandatory living expenses -- which includes everything from food and mortgage to transportation, utilities, insurance, taxes, and so on. If you don't, this is a good time to get that account more flush with available money, in case you do lose your job in this COVID-19 crisis, or in case some other financial emergency materializes.
8. Avoid scams
There are always scammers out there, trying to get their hands on our money, and there are some fresh scams now, relating to COVID-19. Stay alert and be skeptical, at the very least, if anyone is trying to sell you a home COVID-19 test, or urging you to invest in a penny stock that will soon go through the roof with its cure for COVID-19, or asking for your personal information to send you your $1,200 check or to ensure that your Social Security benefits are not interrupted. They prey on the gullible and trusting, often by making us scared. If you're in doubt, contact the agency involved (such as the IRS or the Social Security Administration) on your own directly, not through some stranger who contacts you.
9. Avoid taking on debt
In financial tough times, it can be tempting to take on more debt -- and sometimes it's simply unavoidable. But avoid it if you can. Taking out a home equity loan will only add to your debt burden and will shrink the equity you have in your home. Borrowing from your 401(k) account will short-change your financial future -- and if you end up unable to pay the money back, you'll face early withdrawal penalties, too. Absolutely avoid super-predatory payday lenders, too, and be careful adding to any credit card debt. If you must take on debt, see if any loved one is in a position to give you a low-interest rate loan, or consider borrowing on a 0% credit card that gives you many months to pay off your debt.
10. Look for income-boosting opportunities
Whether you're suddenly out of work or just have less work and less income, you should look into what extra income you can generate. The usual ways to make more money are not all available in these strange times, but many are. A classic option, for example, is a part-time job, but many of us shouldn't be leaving our homes to work -- especially if we're older or have some health concerns. If you're younger, though, and especially if you've already had the virus, you may be able to take advantage of the many companies out there looking for workers to help them operate -- perhaps by delivering goods to customers. (It's not yet clear whether those who have had COVID-19 are immune to it, so look into that if you're in that situation. Scientists are likely to understand the disease more as the weeks go by.)
Some of the information in this article may be outdated by the time you read it -- or there may be new resources and tips that could help you. So keep up with COVID-19-related developments in order to be as fully informed as possible as to resources and benefits that could help you.