The economic decline caused by the novel coronavirus isn’t the first financial crisis that Americans have had to navigate. During the Great Recession, the unemployment rate in the United States rose from five percent to ten percent in two years. In early April, the unemployment rate was estimated to be about 13 percent, a four-fold increase in only two months, washing away ten years of improvement.
However, the unemployed are not the only ones questioning how to navigate their finances right now–young adults and college students are also seeking guidance, having fewer years of income and savings to cushion them during a financial fallout. We asked Kogod professor Jason Howell to explain how students or those new to the workforce should manage finances during a crisis.
“Most of the challenges that we have with money are behavioral. We all kind of know what to do, it’s just about following through. And now here comes this scary thing called a ‘pandemic’ that puts fear into our decisions. It’s normal to question if we are making the right choices,” says Howell, a certified financial planner and author of Joy of Financial Planning: 7 Strategies for Transforming Your Finances and Reclaiming Your American Dream.
The topic of finances can trigger stress even without being amid a global pandemic and a struggling economy. Parents, pundits, and well-meaning others often talk about the need for an emergency savings account to be used in times of crisis. But what do you do when you haven’t had time to save for one week, let alone six months?
“Do what you can, that’s the first really salient point,” says Howell. “These days, our brains will naturally spiral out of focus onto all of the things that we can’t do and can’t fix. Wake up each morning with a purpose and a reality check: take a shower, get dressed, check your online bank balances, and tell yourself that today is important.”
Then you can begin to work on productive methods to budget and save.
First off, reframe your focus from the money that isn’t in your account to a few quick things you can do right now to help you feel more in control of your finances. Cut back on spending where possible. “Eating out and transportation are two of the most common expenses that my clients and students can cut back on,” says Howell.
Odds are, you have already significantly reduced these expenses because restaurants are open only for takeout and delivery, and unless you’re an essential worker, you shouldn’t have many places to go at the moment. If these expenses have been a part of your budget, push that money into savings or toward paying off credit card debt.
If you don’t have a working budget, your financial situation might feel a bit abstract. It may also be difficult to figure out a budget when your monthly income varies or if you no longer have an income. But creating one can be simple.
“Start with creating a plan for what you want to save, then add up what you have to spend for necessities like food, shelter, transportation, etc.,” says Howell. When you account for fixed expenses and savings up front, you can do anything you want with what is leftover.
Several apps can also help you save automatically by rounding up each expense to the nearest dollar and depositing the change into a savings account. “Apps can make tracking your expenses a lot easier,” advises Howell.
But when you’re selecting a savings account, be sure to choose a high-yield account so that you can earn more money off of your deposits, even if you start by depositing $10 or $20 here and there. The number will continue to grow and compound over time. If you qualify, consider depositing your tax refund or your stimulus check.
Many of the high-yield savings accounts also automatically invest in the stock market for you. You select your risk level from one to ten and watch your money grow over time. Amid an economic crisis, every investment may seem risky. However, Howell reassures that investing is a long game.
“It’s very easy to watch the news and the stock market and get scared,” says Howell. “The people who say, ‘Just wait it out,’ are mostly right, but I know that’s a hard thing to hear when you’ve earned that money you’ve invested and are just watching the account drop. Remember that investing is never about the short term—that’s gambling. Investing is about beating inflation over the long term, like ten, twenty, or thirty years.”
While your account may fluctuate over the next few months or longer, the important thing to remember is to not drain your account as soon as you see the numbers drop. It’s likely that the numbers will rise again, over time.
For now, think about what Howell said from the start—“Do what you can.” Take ten dollars here and there and put it aside. Choose a hardworking account, something that is high yield, and if you do enter the long game with the stock market, remember that you are in it for exactly that–the long game.