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Family Budget Tips for Uncertain Times

Practical financial steps to take during COVID-19-related financial crises.

As some families finally felt like they were stepping out of the financial shadow of the Great Recession, stay-at-home orders from COVID-19 brought about mass layoffs, furloughs, and threats to the viability of small businesses. Within days, families plunged right back into worry about their financial future.

There’s one thing experts want families to remember during these unstable financial times: It’s temporary. “We don’t know when it’s going to end, but this will end,” says Gideon Drucker, certified financial planner with Drucker Wealth Management in New York.“The things you do interim will set the stage for how you come out of it.”

With that in mind, here’s how financial experts suggest moving forward, both for people who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 response, as well as those who have not.

If your income has suddenly been reduced:

Take time to reevaluate your spending and budget first.

“Break [your expenses] down into categories,” recommends Drucker, who is also the author of How to Avoid H.E.N.R.Y. Syndrome: Financial Strategies to Own Your Future. “What do you need to pay? What are [bills] you could change if need be? What are your over-the-top expenses?”

For expenses you can change, look at your bank and credit card statements for unnecessary monthly subscriptions, like gym memberships, that come out automatically. “Call or go online immediately to suspend those,” suggests Kristi Sullivan, certified financial planner with Sullivan Financial Planning in Denver. She also suggests temporarily stopping any automatic payments for college savings or retirement accounts. “Focus on what you can control in the short term, and let the long term take a backseat for now,” she says. “Your layoff or furlough is not personal or a reflection of your work competence. We are in a tough time worldwide now.”

Melissa Edelman, registered financial advisor with MML Investors Services in Denver, recommends that families also review their cable/Wi-Fi, and cell phone bills to see if less expensive plans are offered. She cautions that families should not cut costs on important medications, doctor, or therapy appointments. “We can rebuild our financial selves, but not always our health. We never know when our lives can change…do not drop insurance plans during this time.”

See what your local financial institution can offer.

“Credit unions are doing a lot of great things for their members right now,” says Denette DeHerrera-Clift, employee development advocate for On Tap Credit Union, with branches in Golden and Arvada. For example, On Tap is allowing its members to skip one loan payment for home, car, or second mortgage without a fee. “We are also offering a five-month, zero interest loan, with no payment for 45 days,” DeHerrera-Clift says. Check in with your bank and lenders to explore COVID-19 related offers.

Consider state or federal financial help.

In addition to filing for unemployment benefits, many families were eligible to receive a stimulus check, simply by filing their taxes. “There are many other provisions of the CARES Act pertaining to both individuals and businesses that may be of help,” Edelman says.

However, the large number of citizens seeking relief has resulted in payment processing delays, according to a recent The Wall Street Journal article. For families who own small businesses, DeHerrera-Clift points to the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program, a loan offered to small businesses so they won’t have to lay off their employees. Depending on when you apply, expect delays, also due to the volume of business owners applying. For smaller loans, she suggests small business owners apply for Economic Injury Disaster Loans, for which small business owners can receive up to $10,000.

Another option, says Drucker, although it should be a last resort, is to take money out of your 401K. Depending on your 401K plan, some providers are allowing you to withdraw money early without the 10 percent penalty. You don’t have to pay taxes on it immediately—you can pay over three years—but be aware that this action will reduce your financial resources when you retire.

Tap into your skills and abilities.

Drucker encourages laid-off individuals to think about how they can “leverage their expertise” to make extra money. His friend, who works as a graphic design engineer, is teaching college students how to code through online classes; other parents report teaching online English classes to Chinese students through VIPKid. One Arvada hair stylist put together home hair color kits for her clients to purchase; other families have planted gardens and started canning food.

If you haven’t experienced income loss:

Build up your savings.

Staying home means less spending, and that can mean some families might have a little extra. “Families should have a minimum of three to six months living expenses…If you do not have this, begin to save toward this immediately,” advises Edelman. “We do not know when the economy will be back to normal and we could see more layoffs and furloughs happen. Be prepared.”

Invest more in the stock market, 401K and IRAs.

“From an investment standpoint, right now is a huge opportunity to buy into the stock market at a discount,” Drucker advises. “You’ll buy more shares, because everything costs less.”

Purchase protection plans.

Companies are making it easier than before to get protection plans like life insurance, says Drucker. “For some, there is no medical exam required, and most have not raised their expenses yet.” He urges young families to have the conversation about getting extra life insurance now: “In six months, companies will have to raise their rates to stay afloat.”

Drucker hopes that the coronavirus economy is “a wake-up call” to plan for the future. “For everybody, I hope [this situation] provides the motivation [for families] to know where they stand financially and come out strong.”

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