Finding a “New Normal:” How to Get Finances Back on Track After the COVID-19 Lockdown
The coronavirus has upended people’s personal finances and lives. During mandated shelter-in-place orders many of us put things on hold to deal with the pressing issues at hand: keeping ourselves, our families, and our communities safe.
If you got off track with your budgeting or financial goals in the last few months, that’s OK. We’re swimming in uncharted waters here and you’re not alone if you’ve let a few things slide.
But now, as states and communities lift shelter-in-place orders, the “new normal” may also mean something new for your money. Here’s how to get your finances back on track.
How to Get Your Finances Back on Track: First, Squirrel Away Extra Savings
If you’re still working, chances are you may be spending less money than usual. Shelter-in-place orders drastically cut many household’s commuting, childcare, travel, and entertainment expenses. And while you might have longer grocery store receipts, overall, you could have more money left over each week than before.
Increasing your spending as stores and restaurants open up isn’t bad—especially if you want to support your local community. However, unless you’ve banked three to six months of expenses, start or rebuild emergency funds, first.
Add a goal tracker to your budgeting app to watch your progress. Remember, even if you’re saving a little bit at a time, you’re still making progress.
Look Into Refinancing
For those with the means, lowering interest rates have also opened up new opportunities. Low mortgage rates could make this a good time to buy a home, or refinance your mortgage if you’re already a homeowner. Similarly, low rates could lead to savings if you refinance auto loans or consolidate credit card debt with a low-rate personal loan.
Refinancing student loans can even be a good idea. However, you’ll have to refinance with a private loan and will lose access to federal student loan protections, payment plans, and forgiveness programs.
List Your Bills Based on Priority
If you’re having trouble staying on top of bills, make a list of all your necessary monthly expenses. (If you already budget, this should be fairly easy to do.)
List your basic variable living expenses, such as food and utilities, and your fixed monthly bills (e.g., a rent or mortgage, loans, and subscriptions) and prioritize each from most important to least. For example, secured loans, such as an auto loan and mortgage, may be at the top of your list. Missing payments could lead to the lender repossessing your vehicle or foreclosing on your homes. Similarly, rent and utility payments may be priorities even if they’re not secured debts.
Once you have your priority bills paid, aim to pay as much as you can and at least the minimum amount due on less urgent bills like your credit cards. It will help keep your debt at bay and your credit score up while you sort through bigger priorities.
Stay up to Date on Federal, State, and Local Protections
Knowing what your creditors can and cannot due is also an important part of managing your finances.
For example, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act automatically stopped federal student loan payments and changed the interest rate to 0% through September 30, 2020. Borrowers could choose to keep making payments if they wanted, but you can also set that money aside for other bills or simply to build your savings.
The CARES Act also put special credit reporting rules into place. If you have an account that was current and your creditor gave you an “accommodation,” such as allowing you to miss a payment or lowering your monthly bill, the creditor can’t report you as late if you stick to your end of the agreement. The change will last until 120 days after the end of the COVID-19 national emergency.
Similarly, local, state, and federal laws may give homeowners and renters different levels of protection from foreclosure and eviction. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University has a database where you can search for policies that may help you stay in your home, even if you can’t afford your bills right now.
Continue to Plan for the Future
While you may want to be extra cautious of your financial situation and plan for the worst, don’t lose sight of your long-term goals. If you check your budget and find you’re able to meet your current needs, save “just in case,” and have money left over, you could still pay down high-rate debts, invest in a retirement account, or treat yourself to a safe vacation. Pandemic or not, personal finances are personal, and you’ll need to decide how to manage your money based on your situation and goals.
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