One thing is clear about the COVID-19 financial storm: Survival will require more than just cutting back on lattes.
“It’s really an unprecedented time,” says Jason Andrade, director of financial services for Compass Working Capital, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps low- and moderate-income people build financial assets. “The world has stopped and I can’t really think of another time that’s like this.”
For starters, this storm came on suddenly, more tornado than hurricane, cutting a deep swath across the economy. The World Health Organization officially declared the pandemic on March 11. By late May, the New England Public Policy Center, part of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, estimated that 33 percent of renters and 11 percent of New England homeowners were at risk of not being able to make a housing payment. By mid-August, stimulus funds, including the $600 weekly unemployment bonus that had kept many people afloat, had expired, and Congress and the White House were at odds over what to do next. (Governor Charlie Baker said Massachusetts would apply for a $300 additional weekly benefit ordered by President Trump, but it was unclear when those funds would reach the jobless.) The unemployment rate, while lower than April, remained just over 10 percent, three times what it was in February.
The effects are especially cruel because the economic stall has disproportionately hit low- and moderate-income workers, particularly women and people of color, says Geoff Sanzenbacher, an associate professor of economics at Boston College. Sanzenbacher divided workers into five income levels and says that, as of June, those in the lowest category were more than three times as likely to have lost jobs than those in the highest category (20 percent versus 6 percent). During the Great Recession of 2008, he says, unemployment levels were lower and more equitable, ranging from 9 percent among the lowest earners to 6 percent among the highest.
Kimberly Zimmerman Rand, owner of Dragonfly Financial Solutions, a financial coaching firm in Jamaica Plain, describes it as a “tale of two cities” based on her experience working with her own clients and developing financial training and coaching for nonprofits. But even her own clients, whom she describes as working young professionals, are nervous about what’s coming this winter.
“They are being very cautious and deliberate,” she says. “They have their eyes to the news and want to make sure they are making the right choices for themselves that are going to serve them both short term and long term. So we are doing a lot of work around intentional planning, not just just floating through life.”
Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t lost a job, been furloughed, or faced eviction, this is no time to bury your head in your pillow and hope for the best. Financial experts ranging from high-end advisers to coaches working with low-income clients have the same advice: Get back to financial basics. Understand where and why you spend. Take control. And if you are confused, overwhelmed, or suffering, get help.
Here’s how to get started.
1. Accept that money is emotional. This might not seem like the moment to get touchy-feely, but we need to understand what drives our financial decisions in order to control them, experts say. “Money is integrated into every area of our life and it affects us emotionally, physically . . . [in] every area,” says Reeta Wolfsohn, founder of the Center for Financial Social Work in Charlotte, North Carolina. Wolfsohn, who has a master’s in social work, founded the center in 2004 to train and certify social workers and financial coaches in how to talk to clients about financial stress. “I talk about changing your relationship with money and with yourself. Because if you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re not going to put in the time and effort to change your behavior.”
Wolfsohn’s “financial self-care” includes strategies such as keeping a financial worry journal, sharing money strategies or woes with a friend, and forgiving yourself for earlier financial mistakes. “We’re not going to tell people they need an emergency fund, but we’re going to help them figure out that maybe it would be a good idea if I had an emergency fund. How would that reduce my stress?”
2. Track spending. Set goals. Create a budget. These are basic strategies, but every expert says budgeting and goal setting are key to feeling as if you have financial control, no matter how much you earn.
Alan Gentle, manager of the Roxbury Center for Financial Empowerment, a city-supported financial opportunity center that works with low- and moderate-income clients, says it’s a light bulb moment when people start tracking expenses. “That’s almost the sweet spot, where we say, ‘OK, let’s now start to talk about how we can streamline some of this spending and redirect it toward the financial goal,’” he says.
Use your budget to set priorities but keep it fluid, changing as your income or expenses change. Accept that it’s not a perfect document and that it will take time to get it right, says Paula Canaday-Daeke, a daily money manager based in Atlanta who works with clients either too busy or otherwise unable to handle regular financial tasks. “Because we have this thing called life, I like to build little buffers in my budget,” she says. “I like to usually budget on the higher end of what I think the electricity bill is going to be. On the higher end of what I think our grocery budget will be, on the higher end of everything, and ideally on the lower end of income. So that way, worst-case scenario, there’s a little bit of ebb and flow.”
Pay your bills as quickly as possible when they come in rather than waiting for due dates, she says, to cut the risk of late fees.
And beware of budget busters, warns Danielle Piskadlo, executive director of Budget Buddies, a Chelmsford-based nonprofit that provides financial coaching to low-income women throughout Eastern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. Go over your statements and credit card bills looking for bank fees, high interest rates, recurring expenses like streaming services, or apps that charge your credit card for downloads. Unsubscribe from your favorite store’s enticing e-mails and decide what you’re not going to spend money on.
3. Create time for your money. Getting control over your money requires a commitment, although apps and online systems make it easier. Consider Akeiva Thomas, a certified financial planner for a Boston wealth management firm who has a side gig: her own YouTube channel, The Bemused, in which she explains the mysteries of money and wealth building to young adults by being transparent about her own finances. Thomas and her fiancé admit in one video to spending $372.41 on takeout in June — about double their usual grocery budget. She knows this down to the penny because she keeps her budget in a spreadsheet and tracks each expenditure on a mobile app that takes about 30 seconds to input a receipt, she says. Once she realized how much they were spending, they reduced takeout to about $115 in July. Her current personal financial goal is to pay down her student loans, which total more than $80,000.
Thomas, who is particularly concerned about teaching young people of color to build wealth, believes the time she takes will have a big impact in the future.
“The changes I’m making now, and the improvements in life that I’m developing now, it’s not just for me,” she says. “My children and their children are going to be the beneficiaries . . . from the choices I’m making today.”
4. Pay into your emergency fund. At the Roxbury Center for Financial Empowerment, even the lowest income clients are encouraged to save something, no matter how small, to begin creating at least a three-month emergency fund, Gentle says. Once you have some savings, make it sacrosanct and reserve it for actual emergencies like a job loss, not for predictable things that you need to budget for, like school supplies, Canaday-Daeke says. If you want to set aside money for future expenses, like school, car maintenance, or gifts, and won’t ignore it sitting in your checking account, create a second short-term savings account. Split your paycheck and direct deposit some of it into savings. And don’t link your checking account or debit card to your savings account; make it inconvenient to move money out of it, Andrade says.
If you’re feeling too squeezed to save, Budget Buddies and others suggest some short-term solutions for creating more income, such as decreasing the tax withholding from your paycheck, using resources such as food banks and libraries, and negotiating with creditors to lower your payments. Thomas says she even has a few things in her apartment she could sell to raise a quick $500. While building an emergency fund of three to six months is the goal, the most important thing is getting into the habit of saving.
5. Get ahead of creditors. Don’t wait for creditors or the landlord to come after you. If you’re having trouble making payments, make the first move to negotiate.
“It’s always good to be proactive,” Andrade says. “Reach out to creditors, reach out to credit card companies, reach out to your lender, your mortgage company, your car note.” Creditors are open to negotiation now and many have specific plans in place, experts say. Explain your situation and suggest an alternative that delays or reduces your payment. You have nothing to lose by asking, and continuing to make minimum payments will help protect your credit score. Let companies know if your lifestyle has changed. If you’re no longer using your car to commute, for example, you might be able to trim your insurance bill.
Or consider a consolidation loan from a legitimate financial company, like a bank or credit union, Gentle says. Organizations like the Roxbury center help clients negotiate with creditors for free. But if it looks like you will save enough, it might be worth paying a financial coach or money manager to do it for you.
6. Know your rights and where to turn for help. It’s important to know where you stand. For example, as of mid-August, Governor Baker has extended the state’s eviction moratorium until October 17, but it might be extended again. Reliable sources of information include the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency created to empower consumers, and the COVID-19 portal created by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which provides information for consumers, tenants, and small businesses. The state’s 211 phone line also offers COVID-19 updates and resources. Philanthropy Massachusetts has a list of pandemic relief funds for categories that range from small business owners to singers. Community organizing and empowerment agencies, such as the Roxbury center, can connect you with resources and legal aid, too.
Susan Moeller is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.