The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a financial crisis across many economic sectors. About 6.6 million people filed for unemployment in the week ending March 28, double the number of claims from the previous week and far surpassing the peak of 665,000 during the Great Recession.
Whether you have lost your job, are waiting to go back to work, or feel worried about job security, you can still be proactive with your finances. Although the current circumstances are certainly extraordinary, an emergency may hit at any time.
“Budgeting during a pandemic or time of crisis is essential to ensure that you and your family are well-prepared while maintaining cash flow to stay afloat,” says Leslie Tayne, a financial attorney based in New York. “Focus on priorities, including groceries and household essentials.”
Having a financial game plan can help you feel more confident as you forge ahead in these unprecedented times. If you aren’t sure where to start, here are some tips on how to budget effectively during a pandemic:
- How To Cut Costs During the Coronavirus Pandemic
- How To Build an Emergency Fund During the Coronavirus Pandemic
- How To Get Government Aid During the Coronavirus Pandemic
- The Bottom Line
How To Cut Costs During the Coronavirus Pandemic
If you’ve lost income due to circumstances beyond your control, focus on what’s within your power to change — beginning with your expenditures. A great place to start is by reviewing your subscriptions, memberships, and credit card statements to identify what you need and what you can live without for the time being.
“If you think about a budget like a plate, usually we have a full plate and you ask ‘What can I take out?’ This is the usual approach,” says Dan Ariely, chief behavioral economist at Qapital, a personal finance mobile app. “Now, let’s assume we have an empty plate with nothing on it. Let’s just start piling it up and see what we can’t live without. In this real time crunch, it’s important for us to do this extreme exercise.”
1. Reevaluate your subscription services
As a result of the pandemic, Americans have been rushing to stock up on key supplies, leaving many stores with empty shelves. You may think that online shopping would be a solution to these shortages, but Amazon has been feeling the strain as well.
The online retailer is temporarily prioritizing high-demand products like household staples and medical supplies, which means nonessential items could take significantly longer to arrive — even for Prime members. Amazon’s delivery service for groceries and household products, Prime Pantry, was also temporarily closed in late March due to a surge in customer orders.
This is a good opportunity to reevaluate whether you’ll get enough use out of your Amazon Prime subscription to justify its monthly fee ($12.99) or annual membership cost ($119). Think of it this way: You’re paying for fast shipping and access to certain services, which might not be available when you need them.
It’s also a great time to take stock of your entertainment subscriptions since you’ll likely be spending a significant number of hours at home. As of April 7, at least 42 states have ordered their residents to stay at home unless they require necessities, according to The New York Times.
If you haven’t already cut the cord, it’s a quick way to trim your budget. The average monthly cost of cable TV (for basic service channels plus the most popular national networks) is $71.37, according to a 2018 report from the Federal Communications Commission. You can replace broadcast television with streaming services, as Netflix costs about $9-$16 per month and Hulu costs about $6-$12 per month without its live and on-demand channels.
Additionally, if you want to use multiple streaming services, there may be opportunities to package them for a lower cost. For example, Hulu offers a bundle with Disney+ and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month, which will save you 25% off the normal price of the three services.
2. Identify new areas where you’re saving
The restrictions set by local governments to contain the spread of COVID-19 have created unexpected savings for many Americans. If you live in a state under stay-at-home orders, you’re likely saving money that typically goes toward night and weekend activities at bars, restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters. You could also have some cash set aside for a trip that was ultimately postponed or canceled. And, if you’re now working from home, you’re saving money on transportation.
Consider reallocating these savings into your emergency fund. Of course, if you’re not strapped for cash, you could also look into supporting local businesses. Getting food delivered from your favorite restaurants or purchasing gift cards may help those businesses survive.
3. Buy only what you need now
You don’t have to make room in your weekly budget for a month’s worth of supplies. While the coronavirus outbreak has driven many people to panic-buy at grocery stores, there isn’t a nationwide shortage of food, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Skyrocketing demand, not a lack of supply, is the main reason why certain food items are temporarily out of stock.
The retail food industry recommends buying enough food for one or two weeks at a time. As for what to buy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a combination of fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable foods, like pasta and canned goods.
How To Build an Emergency Fund During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Under normal circumstances, it’s a great idea to contribute to your savings each time you get paid, even if it’s a small amount. If you’re consistent about it, your savings will grow — and every bit of that cushion can help in an emergency.
Depending on your financial situation, you may have several savings accounts, but you should be focusing on your emergency fund at the moment.
If you already have an emergency savings account …
Now is the time to boost the rate at which you’re saving, according to Ariely. Automated services can help make it easier by sending a set portion of your income straight into your savings each time you get paid.
“Be more aggressive now when contributing to your emergency savings account so that you will have what you need for the next month,” he says. “During easier times, put aside a smaller amount towards your emergency savings goals.”
Ariely also recommends temporarily pausing your contributions to other savings accounts to bulk up your emergency fund. “Temporarily divert retirement or college savings contributions to an emergency savings account,” he says. “The same goes for any extra payments you may be making to decrease debt. Set a reminder to put the contribution rates back to their previous levels after the crisis has passed.”
If you don’t have an emergency savings account …
Not everyone has had the opportunity or time to build a rainy day fund, and that’s OK. The good news is that there are other ways you can create a financial cushion.
Annette Hammortree, a financial advisor based in Crystal Lake, Illinois, suggests keeping a line of credit with a zero balance to cover surprise expenses. She also recommends finding ways to cut your discretionary spending so you can start saving for emergencies.
“Possibly reduce your 401(k) to the point of no match, but remember to go back and increase it,” Hammortree says. “It’s important to not just spend this excess but truly save it!”
Another one of her tips is to stash cash in a high-yield savings or money market account as opposed to an account that doesn’t accrue much — or any — interest.
“You want to save somewhere that is accessible and earning something,” Hammortree says. “It should also not be in the same place where you pay current bills. It needs to be in a separate account.”
Keeping your emergency savings in an account that’s easily accessible can make it too easy to spend those funds, she adds.
How To Get Government Aid During the Coronavirus Pandemic
The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress in late March includes direct payments to Americans. Individuals will receive $1,200, and married couples will get $2,400, with an additional $500 for each child. But if you make more than $75,000 per year as an individual or more than $150,000 per year as a couple, you’ll receive a smaller sum or no payment at all, depending on your income.
Beyond the direct payments, there are other ways the government can help you get through these tough times financially.
1. Take the extra time to file and pay your taxes
This year, the IRS has automatically extended the deadline for filing your federal income taxes by three months, from April 15 to July 15. This means you can delay paying your 2019 federal income taxes until the new deadline without incurring penalties or added interest, which could help you catch up on some bills.
However, if you’re expecting a refund on your 2019 taxes, the IRS suggests filing as soon as you can. Despite the current circumstances, the IRS is still working to issue most refunds within 21 days of filing. So, if you’re expected to get money back, you should file your taxes sooner rather than later to take advantage of the extra cash. The IRS recommends filing electronically with direct deposit as the fastest way to receive your refund.
2. File for unemployment if you’ve been furloughed or lost your job
Unemployment benefits have been expanded due to the coronavirus pandemic — for example, self-employed people are now eligible — and the additional relief is set to remain in place until the end of July. While unemployment insurance still varies by state, you’ll be able to collect benefits if you’re out of work for reasons related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Unemployment insurance typically helps replace about 45% of lost wages, so to receive those benefits as soon as possible, you should follow your state’s guidelines for filing a claim.
It may be stressful and overwhelming when the bills begin to pile up, but there are strategies you can use to get by, like reaching out to creditors and prioritizing your bills by size and urgency.
“Go through and rework your budget to determine what priorities you have in terms of upcoming bills, and how long you expect your income to last to pay those bills,” Tayne says. “If you find you will get caught short, you can then contact your creditors and find ways to relieve the payment pressure.”
3. Pause your student loan payments
The U.S. Department of Education is waiving payments, collections, and interest on federal student loans until Sept. 30 due to the COVID-19 national emergency. Anyone with federally held student loans will automatically have their payments paused and interest rates set to 0% during this period.
While interest on federal loans will not continue accruing until the end of September, the same does not apply to private student loans. If you need relief for your private student loan payments, contact your servicer to see what assistance they can offer.
The Bottom Line
Whether it’s a global health crisis or a tanking economy — or both at the same time — there are many factors out of your control that may impact your finances. What you can do is prepare a financial cushion of emergency savings to fall back on when times get tough.
Even if you haven’t been able to set aside that emergency fund, you still have options. By prioritizing your expenses, being proactive with creditors, and taking advantage of government relief programs, you can increase your chances of weathering the storm without fully losing your footing.