How to Manage Your Budget During a Stay-at-Home Quarantine
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought life to a standstill. You may be quarantined in your home and trying to get used to a new routine. In this uncertain time, you can find an opportunity to evaluate your financial life and fix it if it’s broken. The efforts you make today will stable you through unpredictable events in the future.
What Can You Work On?
Companies that have been hit badly by the pandemic are making the difficult choice of laying off or furloughing employees. Furloughed workers may or may not get paid or receive a part of their salary during their mandatory leave of absence.
You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed with everything you now have to figure out and with a lot of time stuck at home. While you should also take time to rest to lower your stress levels, you can also be looking for easy ways to become productive and take charge of your situation.
Should you be furloughed, ask your employer whether you will receive your health benefits. Typically, companies continue to pay health benefits during the furlough. If you’re unable to retain your benefits, you have a few options:
- Affordable Care Act (ACA) Exchange: You can sign up for a medical insurance plan at your state’s ACA exchange within 60 days of losing your job. You may be eligible for premium subsidies and cost-sharing programs. Have a look at Healthcare.gov for more details.
- Medicaid: A large decrease in monthly income can entitle you to Medicaid coverage. So far, 37 states have expanded Medicaid coverage to benefit low-income individuals.
- Medicare Part B: If you’re 65 and above and you’ve delayed signing up for Medicare Part B, you can sign up for it after losing your employer coverage.
- Your Spouse’s Insurance: You qualify for a Special Enrollment Period after certain life events, including job loss, and can become covered by your spouse’s plan.
- Your Parent’s Insurance: If you’re a young adult (aged 25 years and under), you can join your parent’s health insurance plan.
Know Your Rights
While you’re furloughed, you shouldn’t have to work at all. If you’ve been furloughed part-time, you shouldn’t work on the days you’ve been asked not to. Hourly workers will be paid for the hours they work.
You have the right to look for a new job and may be able to take a second job during the furlough. Make sure you check your company’s rules on second jobs.
You’re entitled to unemployment benefits for your time without pay. It will be paid out by the state government. Have a look at state laws on receiving unemployment benefits, eligibility requirements, and the waiting period to collect benefits.
Depending on your employment terms, you may be able to cash out all or some of your unused paid time off.
When the possibility of a furlough or lay-off seems strong, start exploring your options. The sooner you start, the less stress you’ll have managing an unexpected financial situation.
Whether you’re working from home or you don’t have work, staying in offers the opportunity to upgrade your professional skills or study for a new qualification. This is also a good time to look at your LinkedIn profile and resume with a fresh pair of eyes. You may want to make some updates, add a better profile picture, build more connections, join a group, and work on improving your personal brand.
Take Care of Your Physical and Mental Health
Maintaining good health becomes even more important in the midst of a pandemic. Unfortunately, fears surrounding the global health crisis and its impact on the economy and livelihoods are taking a toll on people’s mental well-being.
Don’t let your daily routine get affected. Continue exercising at home, eat healthy meals, get adequate sleep and engage in the indoor recreational activities you enjoy. Go on your regular walks, taking care to maintain social distancing, or pick a time when very few people – or preferably, no one – in your neighborhood is out walking or jogging.
Meditation can help you enter a restful state and relax your mind. If meditation doesn’t work for you, helpful distractions – watching new or rerun episodes of TV shows, dancing to your favorite tunes, and playing board games with family or online – can be mentally stimulating.
If you live alone, stay in touch with family and/or friends over the phone or via messaging and video-conferencing apps.
Consider committing some of your time to an elderly neighbor or a friend who lives alone and doesn’t have a support system. A brief phone call inquiring after them and engaging them on friendly terms can make them feel they’re not alone. Avoid showing pity, as you can be viewed as condescending, even if you mean well.
Many of the coronavirus messages on social media and websites may not exactly be factual. Limit the amount of COVID-19 coverage you consume every day, and stick to no more than two to three official sources, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Take Stock of Your Expenses
A household budget has three components: fixed expenses, savings expenses, and variable costs. Consider all three when budgeting for your COVID-19 quarantine.
You may already be budgeting for fixed expenses, but financial challenges can disrupt how you plan for the predictable outgoing costs you’re accustomed to. Make a list of all fixed expenses, some of which are common to virtually all households:
- Property taxes (monthly)
- Car loan
- Vehicle insurance (monthly)
- Utility bills
- Debt payments
- Life/health/disability insurance
Variable or Savings Expenses
These are irregular expenses that you plan for throughout the year. You need to plan for these outgoing costs in advance, or you may have to put them on your credit card:
- Property taxes (annual or quarterly)
- Vehicle insurance (annual or quarterly)
- Home insurance (annual)
- Pet food and insurance
- Vehicle and HVAC maintenance
- Clothing and shoes (one to two times a year)
These expenses are within you control – you can decide how much you want to spend on these items or even forego buying them:
- Clothing and shoes
- Personal care items
- Eating out
- Children’s lessons and activities
- Recreation and sports
- Transportation costs
Managing Your Expenses During COVID-19
Many economic forecasts had predicted that 2020 would be a year of steady growth. The coronavirus pandemic played spoilsport and may plunge the global economy into recession. This is not the kind of news you might want to hear, but it is a realistic possibility that you can prepare for. What you can start doing immediately is hit the brake on spending and avoid unnecessary expenses.
Managing Fixed Expenses
During emergencies, the government expects companies to take a lenient approach towards customers and debtors. You may be able to postpone repayments or be excused from making monthly payments.
Debt and Utility Payments
Making debt and utility payments after a lay-off is impossible for many. Without an income source, you have no option but to fall back on your savings and reach into your emergency fund to manage expenses and debt payments. But you can pause most of your debts when money is tight. Many credit card companies have financial hardship assistance programs during natural disasters like hurricanes.
Bank of America, Apple Card, Barclays, CenterPoint Energy, Minnesota Power, and Xcel Energy have allowed customers to skip monthly payments. Many credit card companies have waived late fees, offered an increase in credit lines, and will refrain from negative credit bureau reporting. Call your credit card issuer requesting for more time, an interest waiver, or a lower annual percentage rate (APR) on your card.
Check your utility companies’ website for announcements on policy changes. Many are not disconnecting internet service or charging late fees for customers who’re unable to pay their bills. Comcast, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., AT&T, Verizon, Atlantic Broadband, Green Mountain Power, and T-Mobile are some that have revised their policies in the wake of the coronavirus emergency.
Automotive and car rental companies are also providing customers relief. Ford Motor is letting new car buyers delay their first payment by 90 days, while Hertz has waived its young renter fee.
If you’ve been furloughed with a pay cut, think about pausing some of your debt to ensure you can purchase essentials and avoid depleting your emergency fund. You can still pay down high-interest debt, but rethink ambitious repayment goals, as we discuss later.
You can also request your landlord for leniency – a ‘rent break’ for a month or partial rent payment. Your landlord may be open to the idea, so don’t miss the opportunity. The government has announced measures for tenants who live in a building whose owner has a federally-backed mortgage. You cannot be evicted for failing to pay rent for 120 days and cannot be charged fees or penalty for non-payment.
Suspend Your Mortgage Payment
A 60-day forbearance on mortgage payments is applicable to Americans who have a federally-backed mortgage and have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Your lender cannot charge fees or penalties during this time. Make sure you contact your lender to discuss your situation.
Student Loan Relief
The government has waived interest on federal student loans to reduce economic hardship affected by the disease outbreak. If you’re paying back a student loan, you’re eligible for a forbearance through the end of September, with 0% interest during that period. The policy applies only to federally-held student loan payments and not private student loans.
Lower Your Auto Premium
One of the factors that determine your auto insurance premium is the number of miles you drive. Longer commutes are correlated to a larger risk of accidents and higher premiums. When you’re working remotely and your car isn’t being driven, insurance companies’ cost to insure falls, and in this low-risk environment, there is no reason for insurers to continue collecting premium payments.
American Family Insurance and Allstate have announced that they would refund premiums, while Liberty Mutual, Geico, and State Farm will partially refund premiums. Visit your insurance company’s website to see if you can make adjustments to premiums yourself or call their customer support to request the change. After you start resuming work from office, you can revert to your original premium.
Managing Irregular Expenses
You may have set aside money for a few or all variable expenses recurring in 2020. This should put you in a more comfortable position to allocate money to your emergency fund while also being able to pay for monthly prescriptions and make inexpensive purchases, such as kids’ clothes and birthday gifts.
If you’ve yet to budget for variable expenses, you will need to cut costs in some areas. Postponing property tax payments may be tough, as they are levied by local governments and used to finance schools and local services. Only a few states have directed municipalities to allow property tax delays.
Medical expenses are non-negotiable. You need to take good care of your health and get those prescription refills.
You can, however, buy pet food in bulk for big savings. Also avoid taking your furry companion to the vet for minor ailments. An unnecessary vet appointment can save you money on vet’s fees and travel costs. You also don’t have to skip work, which is inadvisable during a time of mass layoffs and furloughs.
If your annual vehicle maintenance is due, you may want to put it off for a bit. There are fewer chances of your vehicle suffering wear and tear in the lockdown environment. Similarly, you can delay HVAC preventive maintenance and focus on increasing your cash savings.
Plumbing is an essential service that you should avoid using during this time of financial unpredictability. The shortage in toilet paper over panic buying has increased plumber repair calls. The somber fact is that you may end up paying hundreds of dollars in repair costs by using alternatives such as wipes or paper towels. Anything labelled as ‘flushable’ on the packaging may not go down the sewer properly, so be careful and avoid unnecessary home maintenance costs
Managing Variable Expenses
If your income is at risk, paying for essential items can no doubt be challenging down the line. Frugal living now can help you adjust to changes in lifestyle later, if such a need arises. You have the opportunity to save on groceries without impacting your health or eating boring food.
Try to cut your grocery list down to just your priority foods, which are items that provide healthy nourishment and are an essential part of your diet. Fresh foods, meats, breads, milk, and whole foods may feature on your priority foods list. If you eat big salads every day, salad dressings may be on the list. If you’re a vegan, soy products, fruits, and condiments may line your kitchen cabinet and fridge.
With health being an even bigger priority during the coronavirus contagion, planning meals using foods with high nutritional content is recommended. Cut out foods you’re used to buying along with priority items – new products or flavors, sauces, popcorn, dried fruit, and condiments that you’ve been meaning to avoid anyway.
See if you can buy the same or similar product for a cheaper price. For instance, rather than buying raw honey, you can opt for the less nutritionally-rich but more affordable regular honey. You may find a better deal on some items on an online grocery service.
If you’re aiming for big savings to allocate to your emergency fund, you may need to sacrifice one or more priority foods. Make a full list of all the grocery items you buy each month and determine what can remain and what can go to achieve the amount in savings you seek.
The pandemic has seen people stock up on two to four weeks’ worth of food, which means that fresh produce and pasta are disappearing from shelves quickly. While you may feel like you’re out of options, that may not necessarily be the case.
Buy vegetables that last a while. Cabbage, when properly stored, can last you a few weeks to up to two months. It may not be everyone’s favorite veggie, but you can add it to vegetable rolls and stir fry with meats to pack a nutritional punch and make meals more filling.
Frozen and canned vegetables and fruits are cheaper than fresh produce. You can add frozen/canned vegetables to soups, fried rice, noodles, chilled pasta salads, and frozen fruits to smoothies and cereal.
Consider grain alternatives that cost you less per serving, such as quinoa, polenta and bulgar. They can bulk up meals and don’t go bad in the freezer even if kept for 8-12 months.
Cancel Unneeded Automatic Memberships and Subscriptions
Recurring charges on your credit card can add up to a significant amount. Think about whether you need YouTube Premium or Amazon Prime during this time. Of course, video-streaming services can help you beat the boredom of staying indoors. But paying for multiple services is a waste of money – you can keep one or two that you use the most and cut the rest.
Gym and club memberships are also unnecessary now. If you’re on a monthly plan, pause payments and renew later. Review monthly and annual memberships you have at social clubs. Unless your attendance is more than 40% in a year, you may not benefit from keeping these memberships.
Also, inventory all the paid software on your phone and desktop. How often do you use them? If you haven’t used the premium solutions for over three months now, consider downgrading to a free version. You can also Google free alternatives online.
Temporarily Discontinue the Kids’ Extracurriculars
The pandemic has disrupted education, moving it entirely online or requiring parents to homeschool their children. Classes outside of the curriculum have also become nonviable for kids restricted to the confines of their home. In such a situation, it doesn’t make financial sense to continue paying for absent classes.
Have a conversation with your kids about halting classes until it’s safe to go out and visit places where people gather. Ask teachers if they can FaceTime or Skype piano and dance lessons and provide feedback on practice videos. If effective learning is possible online, you may want to continue with a few classes. But if no offer of online lessons has come from instructors or you anticipate a cash crunch in the near future, convince the kids to forego some of their after-school activities.
Say No to Non-Essential Purchases
In quarantine, there is no point in buying clothes, cellphone cases, cosmetics, and other products deemed non-essential. Ecommerce companies have limited shipments and deliveries of non-essential items. As you’re home, your sweats and leisure wear are all you need. New work and part clothes will assume importance once you’re able to step out and get back to routine life.
If you tend to be overly generous on shopping aisles and online shopping carts, now more than ever, you need to be frugal. It is also advisable to keep a check on non-essential purchases as lockdown eases and businesses reopen. This is because it will take a while for the economic shock of the pandemic to heal, and only when consumer spending picks up will things become normal again.
Assess your financial situation, stay on top of announcements by your company, and re-evaluate the life events you’ve been planning for. You can then determine what you really need to spend even after all retailers are open for business.
Cutback on Takeout Food
If you calculate how much you spend on takeout every month, you will realize that you can save considerably by avoiding restaurant food and delivery costs. A restaurant delivered meal is three times as expensive as a meal kit and five times as expensive as cooking at home.
Based on an assessment of 86 meals, the average price per serving for a restaurant meal is $20.37, $12.53 for a meal kit, and $4.31 for a home-cooked meal. However, some dishes may cost you less in takeout form; if you’re celebrating a birthday or anniversary during lockdown, ordering in one or more of these dishes may be the more financially astute option.
During this tough time, the altruist in you may want to continue ordering takeout to help local businesses and employees. You can always get back to ordering takeout once you’re on a solid financial footing.
Creating a Budget
A budget helps you plan your savings and expenses, allows you to make intelligent investment decisions, and offers visibility into spending habits. It may not seem like a big deal if you feel you’re a good money manager. But a budget can be vital during times of emergency when you have to make changes quickly and track spending meticulously.
If you aren’t used to budgeting, use the quarantine to create a budget personalized to your situation and needs. It will be useful in the future too, and you will be surprised at the different ways you can save money.
|Set goals||Determine the specific reasons for creating the budget. Obviously, you want to save money, but you can target other financial goals, such as to stop living from paycheck-to-paycheck, avoiding debt, and meeting important long-term financial aspirations.|
|Analyze current spending habits||To create a realistic budget, list all your expenses in a notebook or spreadsheet. Refer to your bank statements for inputs. You can also use an app like Mint or PocketGuard, which automatically categorize transactions from linked credit/debit cards and track them against your budget.|
|Track irregular expenses||Keeping a check on irregular expenses is important. Annual property taxes and medical exams are necessary, but you can save on birthday presents and gift-giving holidays. Your credit card statements and a calendar should help you take stock of all irregular expenses.|
|Calculate all the money you make||Add income from all sources. Wage income and income from investments will feature on your list. Also, add any income from side gigs, child support and/or your business venture. It’s a good idea to save the entire income from a source other than your wages. This can serve as your emergency nest egg, and you can withdraw as needed to fund meaningful purchases or more income-generating investments.|
|Determine your financial goals||The point of a budget is to not only to save money to make purchases comfortably and set aside money for emergencies. You can use it to improve your financial situation – such as becoming debt-free – or pursue a life goal – like a college education or make an exciting trip. Determine the specific money you should have saved and the number of months or years over which you will have accumulated this amount.|
|Decide the amount to save for each goal||Know how much you should have saved to meet your goals. For instance, you may need to save $170 a month to pay your auto loan early, or $10,000 annually for the next ten years to be able to retire a little earlier.|
|Choose the type of budget you want||Zero-based: Take the amount you earn each month and allocate it to different budget categories until you’re left with nothing.|
50/30/20: Spend 50% on needs, 30% on wants, and save 20%.
80/20: Save a minimum of 20% and spend the rest. Can be customized to a 60/40 or 50/50 budget.
|Choose a budgeting tool||Some budgeting tools are free to use, while others bill you annually. An app that alerts you when you overspend and calculates how much you safely spend can help you stay on top of your budget easily.|
Managing Your Finances During Quarantine
The quarantine is an opportunity to finish any pending tasks related to your financial accounts, taxes, investments, and savings. Here are some tips on how you can wrap up unfinished business and manage financial risk effectively.
Organize Your Financial Accounts
Make a list of your various financial accounts, passwords, debts, and loans. Check if you have the necessary financial records, including titles to your car, warranty, and powers of attorney. Review automatic debits and transfers from your bank account.
Bring out insurance policies and see if you need to update beneficiaries. If you haven’t logged into a financial account for a long time, your password may have expired. Change the password and take a fresh look at information and notifications that you may have missed.
Have weak passwords or a single password for all your accounts? Create a strong password and set at least a few different passwords for various financial accounts.
Balance Your Investment Portfolio
Your short term and long term goals may change in the light of the pandemic, and you may need to adjust your investment plans in response to the disease outbreak.
For instance, staying cash-rich and limiting investments in other assets may be strategically sound during an uncertain time. If you’re on a systematic investment plan, you may want to pause your monthly investment amount and prioritize safe investments that guarantee an interest.
Stock portfolios have been affected by the financial shock of the pandemic. As the markets may be depressed for some time, consider rebalancing your stock allocations to minimize risk. Historical data suggests that stock markets have initially fallen sharply during disease outbreaks (Ebola, swine flu and Zika) and recovered six months after the first reports of the crisis.
Make Your Finances More Manageable
The quarantine is also a good time to simplify your finances. Here are some ideas:
- Put your retirement account on autopilot, investing at regular intervals and withdrawing on a monthly or quarterly basis or at your preferred frequency. An automatic investment plan allows you to leverage dollar-cost averaging to buy more shares when the market is down and less when the market is high.
- Combine your insurance for convenience’s sake. It is easier to review your home and car insurance policies from one provider and to pay bills and track claims. Bundling many policies can also entitle you to a competitive discount from your insurance company.
- Convert paper files to digital and shred sensitive files you no longer need. Request e-delivery of financial statements and other documents from your bank, brokerage and utility providers. Scan paper documents and keep in digital form. Create PDFs of documents and webpages to store on your computer or Google Drive/Dropbox. Back up your digital files on a flash drive for extra precaution.
Review Your Credit Report
Haven’t had a look at your credit reports? You can request one for free from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion every 12 months. Check for suspicious changes and activity, such as inquiries from lenders you don’t recognize, accounts that you never opened and wrong personal information.
If you’ve already reviewed your yearly credit reports, you can still view your credit score more often by creating an account at Equifax or using Experian’s free credit scores and TransUnion’s True Identity.
Eliminate Any Extra Fees
From bank accounts and wireless plans to investments and other financial accounts, fees are everywhere. Different fees can add up to a substantial amount, which you can now convert to savings.
Review your bank fees and compare against checking accounts from other banks. If there are other reputed institutions that offer a free checking account, consider making a switch. Also, look at your wireless bill to check if you’re continuing to pay for services you didn’t request. It is possible that your free trial has ended, and as you haven’t unsubscribed, the provider is charging you a monthly fee.
Try to Shore Up Your Emergency Fund
Have you been preparing for a rainy day? If you have built up a comfortable emergency fund, which can cover three to six months’ worth of living expenses, you have nothing to worry about. You can use your emergency funds to pay for essentials over this period. However, if you need to rely on your emergency fund for a longer time, strict budgeting will become necessary.
Building an Emergency Fund
Setting up an emergency fund requires good financial planning and is particularly challenging after you’ve been furloughed with a pay cut or lost your income. Here are some tips to put one together:
- The IRS has extended the date to file tax returns to July 15. If you’re getting a refund, you should consider filing your taxes right away. The money can help pay for some of your essential expenses for the next few months.
- Have a healthcare flexible spending account (FSA)? You may be able to roll-over up to $500 or get a grace period of up to two and a half months on your FSA plan where you can spend your 2019 funds in 2020. If it is possible to reimburse yourself for expenses you didn’t claim earlier, you can use the funds to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses.
- The IRS’ stimulus payments from the coronavirus relief package have started arriving into Americans’ bank accounts. An obvious use of the money is to pad your emergency fund. Not everyone will be getting the same amount, however, so use this calculator to see how much you might receive.
- The stimulus package includes unemployment provisions for gig workers, part-time employees, and self-employed individuals. In the event of a lay-off, you can get at least $600 a week. You’re also eligible to receive unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks.
- The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates, making refinancing an attractive option to lower your monthly payments. But refinancing your loan will saddle you with closing costs, so weigh potential savings before making your decision.
- If you’re left with no options and finding it hard to make ends meet, a personal loan may be apt for your situation. Although personal loans have a higher interest rate than auto loans and mortgages, they are far more affordable than credit card debt. In the current low interest rate climate, a personal loan may be a good option. You make a monthly payment to gradually eliminate your debt and don’t accumulate a large balance.
- You may be working to pay off a high-interest credit card debt or making bigger payments towards your student loan to become debt-free faster. These are wise actions, no doubt, but the more financially savvy decision would be to put some financial goals on hold to ensure you’re cash-rich in the middle of a crisis.
- Booked a flight recently that you had to cancel on account of the COVID-19 pandemic? Check if you can claim a partial or full refund of your ticket.
- Can you get a better interest rate on your savings account? If you’re still stuck in a savings account that offers you the national average of 0.07%, you’re making less than $5 a year on a savings balance of $5,000. Switching to a high-yield account offering 1.80% will net you $90. Although a better savings account isn’t a quick fix to save money, your interest will grow as your balance increases and will add up over time.
- If you’ve invested in dividend-yielding stocks, boost your emergency fund with dividend earnings. Again, this isn’t the quickest way to fund your emergency account, but it will do its bit to reach your target amount.
Try to Make Some Extra Cash on the Side
You can’t go out to work, but you can stay in and find paying jobs online. There are many if you think about it. Have a knack for writing? Sign up with a freelance writing portal and choose writing gigs. Check online for advertisements by market research firms requiring participants for focus groups, as well as telephone and online surveys. Focus Pointe Global pays survey participants, while Inspired Opinions by Schlesinger and Harris Poll Online offer reward points that you can redeem for gift cards.
If you haven’t saved enough, you can still get by until things start improving. Sell unwanted or broken gold and silver jewelry for scrap; you can expect to get up to 90% of the metal’s melt value. The melt value of a coin is what the metal of the coin is worth when the coin is melted down.
Pure gold currently pays $1,250 per ounce. 10 karat gold will fetch you a little over $16 per gram in scrap, while 14 karat gold will return $23.50 per gram.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. You may be able to overcome the financial turmoil of the pandemic by parting with your collectibles. Your sports and music memorabilia, collectible toys, video games, coins and stamps can sell for a good price on Ebay, Etsy, Bonanza, Craigslist, Artfire, Webstore, and Ruby Lane.
Practice Fiscal Discipline
You don’t need to be in a tough situation to understand the value in creating a budget and maintaining fiscal discipline. If you’re worried about the pandemic now, you may face a different difficult event in the future. The effects of global warming, globalization, a disruptive business landscape, and a growing divide among the haves and have-nots will continue being felt by ordinary families in various ways.
The good news is that you can hold down a job, protect your health, and leverage money-making opportunities to improve your finances and create a better life for yourself. For success, a smart and disciplined approach to money management is essential. A budget is the starting point to manage your finances effectively.
Set financial goals to supercharge your financial willpower to save, spend and invest wisely.
Use budgeting tools and auto debits and transfers to ensure that your savings account never runs dry.
Giving up or limiting the non-essential items or experiences you love can be tough. Reframing these sacrifices as a challenge can help you resist temptations more effectively.
Review your personal and work environments to identify the invisible triggers that create temptations to splurge on big-ticket items or make one too many non-essential purchases. Mindfulness about environmental triggers and your emotional responses to them can guide your behavior and enable you to stay committed to your financial goals.
Don’t hesitate to seek out support, whether in the form of free advice from a finance professional or encouragement from family and close friends. Ultimately, if you can discipline your mind, you can control your finances and attract wealth.