By Sara Aridi
Several months into the coronavirus crisis, millions of Americans are still suffering from the economic fallout. Younger people are in an especially tough spot.
Millennials, or those in their mid-20s to late-30s, have accumulated considerably less wealth than previous generations had at similar stages in life, and many older millennials suffered during the Great Recession only to face the current crisis a decade later. “They already had entered into the job market at somewhat of a disadvantage,” said Kimberly Palmer, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet. “This is like a double whammy.”
Younger Americans also experienced significant losses this year. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in April — a month after the pandemic struck the country in earnest — showed that voters age 18 to 34 were most likely to suffer an economic blow, like losing health insurance or getting a pay cut, because of the crisis.
Whether or not you fall into that category, the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic may leave you worried about your financial stability. Here are some tips to help you manage your finances.
Reconsider Your Spending Priorities
If you recently lost significant income, find out if you are eligible for unemployment benefits and, if so, apply, said Tripp Kelly, a financial adviser and principal of Socium Advisors of Northwestern Mutual, a financial services company.
Then, consider where you can save most. That may be housing: About 2.7 million adults across the country moved in with a parent or grandparent in the early days of the pandemic, according to an analysis of population data from the Census Bureau by the real estate company Zillow. If you can no longer afford rent, talk to your landlord. You may be able to negotiate your rent, start a repayment plan or even break your lease early. If you rent through a management company, find out whether it reports to credit agencies before making any big decisions that might affect your credit score.
If you can’t cut on rent or mortgage costs, revise your budget so that you prioritize those payments and other essentials like groceries and utilities, Palmer said. If you are still working, she recommends the 50/30/20 budget rule: Allocate 50% of your after-tax income toward needs (like rent or mortgage payments), 30 to wants (takeout, entertainment) and 20 for savings or debt payments.
Contact Your Lenders
Many companies and institutions have hardship programs to help debtors during difficult times. If you are struggling to pay off student loans, your mortgage or credit card debt, call your lenders and discuss your payment options. “Financial accommodations are generally readily available right now,” said Amy Thomann, the head of consumer credit education at TransUnion, a credit reporting agency. “Lenders, just like consumers, understand the hardships that are going on in the economy.”
If your lender agrees to defer your payments or lower your interest rates, Kelly recommends putting the amount you would have owed into an emergency fund.
Speaking of interest rates — they are extremely low right now, so read up on incentives and find out whether this is a good time to refinance your mortgage or private student loan, said Taha Choukhmane, an assistant professor of finance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Whatever you do, don’t allow your debt to pile up. “The worst thing you can do in a tough financial situation is just to let it accumulate and not face it up front,” Choukhmane said.
Start an Emergency Fund
If you are still working but don’t have an emergency fund, start one. The economy remains precarious, so it’s best to plan ahead as much as possible.
“We always talk about saving for a rainy day,” Palmer said. “This is the rainy day.”
In an ideal world, you should put away three months worth of expenses, she added. If that’s not feasible, save at least $1,000 in the event that you need something to fall back on down the line.
If you are facing dire circumstances and have a retirement account, one option is to make an early withdrawal. Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, individuals affected by the coronavirus may qualify to withdraw up to $100,000 from their plans through Dec. 30 without the 10% penalty that typically applies to those under 59 1/2. You would have to pay income taxes on the amount, but the payments can be spread out over the next three years. You could also pay back the distribution anytime during that period and claim a tax refund on the taxes you’ve already paid.
Normally you should avoid dipping into your savings, but “now we’re in a situation where maybe that’s not clear,” said Choukhmane.
Build a New Skill Set
Struggling to find work? Try to learn new skills or gain qualifications that will help you in your job search. You can sign up for online courses through websites like edX or Coursera. Some are free; others cost a few hundred dollars.
The most expensive option would be to apply for a graduate degree. If you have been unemployed for some time, you might have less to lose and more to gain by going back to school, Palmer said. And because of those low interest rates, this is a better time than usual to take out student loans. The investment may be worth it if you previously worked in an industry that has been drastically disrupted by the pandemic and are looking to shift to a career with more promise.
Or you can gain new skills by taking on part-time work through platforms like Upwork or TaskRabbit. “Rather than pay for traditional education, go pound the pavement and get the experience that way,” Kelly said. No matter what jobs you take on, having that experience will show prospective employers that you remained productive during the crisis and expanded your resume, Choukhmane said.
When in Doubt, Ask for Help
Managing your money can be stressful, especially when the world is reeling from a global health crisis. It may be tempting to ignore your bank statements or credit score when you are in a financial rut — but fight that urge.
“Monitoring your credit is an important foundational principle of managing your financial and credit well-being,” said Thomann. In response to the pandemic, all three of the credit agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — are offering free weekly access to credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com.
Not sure how to navigate these decisions? Reach out to a financial counselor or a knowledgeable relative who can help you get your ducks in a row. If you need career advice, search your network for a potential mentor and build that relationship. Millions of Americans are dealing with extreme circumstances, so people may be more likely to empathize and lend a hand.