THE COVID -19 FINANCIAL PLANBy Mary Lynne Dahl, Certified Financial Planner ™
April 27, 2020
(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - The impact of Covid 19 on our jobs, our ability to work and earn income, has shocked a lot of people who never imagined that a virus could be so destructive. According to government statistics, there are about 157 million people in the US who work for a living in normal times and at the last count, approximately 25 million of them have now applied for unemployment benefits. The data on how many can work from home and are now doing so is varied, but according to the Brookings Institute, almost half of American workers are now working from home. That leaves a lot of people without work or unemployment benefits. Many are self-employed, contract workers or part-timers who may work more than one job. These are our neighbors, our friends, our families. They make up the communities we live in and they are struggling right now to see a way out of the financial hole that they find themselves in suddenly.
If you ask the question, “how did so many people suddenly become financially broke”, the answer you often get is “duh…I lost my job. I have no income. I have bills to pay and nothing in the bank to pay them with. Don’t you get it?”
I do get it. I understand the frustration and anger, too. I have gotten it for more than three decades as a certified financial planner, sitting with people in budgeting seminars, teaching classes on finance at the university, counseling clients across my desk and even teaching inmates in prison how to manage money when they get out of incarceration. I have heard of all of the problems that go with earning an income, keeping track of it and using it wisely. The solutions to those problems are the basic rules of ordinary, real life financial planning for ordinary real life people. I get it.
In giving financial advice for so many years, I know I have sounded like a broken record. I can hear myself now, saying “let’s get you started on a savings account before you invest your hard earned dollars”, and “how about setting your finances up with an emergency fund, in case something happens and you will really need some cash”? Many people, I am glad to say, followed that advice and did establish the habit of saving money in a cash account and sometimes also an investment account. They are the lucky ones now. Their emergency account has now saved the day for them.
But many people said “nope, I can‘t do that because I don’t have anything left over after I pay the bills. I just have too many bills. Maybe later after I pay off the credit cards.” Too often, however, later never comes and the credit card tab just keeps piling up. It becomes a trap, a lifestyle of living on debt that can never be paid off. It only works as long as there is income. When the income stops, someone with zero emergency cash is trapped in a hole too big to get out of easily. This is where a lot of people now find themselves today as a result of covid 19.
The lesson here is that everyone, and I stress that I do mean everyone; needs to learn how to save up for an emergency, in a cash account. This probably means to stop using credit cards entirely. OMG; is that possible?
Of course it is. Using credit to sustain a standard of living beyond your means, if that is your habit, is your choice. It is not a requirement. Making the commitment, to yourself, not others, to set limits on your spending, to save, even tiny amounts every month, is possible at all income levels. Being frugal in order to achieve the goal of having an emergency cash account is hard, but not impossible. I know this because I have been there.
There was a time when I was a young single mom with 2 kids, struggling to go to school and also work full time. There was a time later after remarriage when I was suddenly widowed, facing the bleak prospect of making big financial choices alone, wondering if I could pull it off. I obviously managed, but one reason why I did was that I took my own advice, which was actually not really mine. It had been given to me years before by my dad, which was “always make sure you save money, every month”. He expected me to work hard, be frugal if necessary, live within a budget that included saving every month and he showed me how to do it. So I did, and it got me through some tough times.
We are facing tough times again now. I believe that we will get though them, because most of us are capable and determined to survive the situation we are now in. Our victory gardens will get planted, in little savings account at the credit unions and local banks of our towns.
We may have to cut up our credit cards and learn to make a lot more meals at home. Perhaps our vacations will consist of going camping instead of to Disneyland. I know mine did, for several years, and my kids still tell me, 30 years later, how much fun those camping trips were, in spite of the ants in sleeping bags and sand in our beach burgers.
My point is that I know it can be done, at all income levels. I have seen countless clients save religiously for years in spite of very small incomes, and I did it myself in the early years of my professional life. It may be the most valuable financial planning tool in our tool boxes. Learning how to live within a real budget, one that has a category called “emergency savings account” in big bold letters, would be the solution to the financial dilemma facing too many people who are now broke because they lived paycheck to paycheck as a routine way to manage their money. You do not have to live this way.
If we learn nothing else, we have all been made very aware that we all need reserves, a cushion when we are at risk of falling into the deep hole of unemployment or loss of income. If you don’t know how to save money, you need to learn now. It is not rocket science, but it does take discipline. Get started at the very first opportunity you get, the very first check you receive, for work, unemployment or retirement income. This will be your Covid 19 Financial Plan and if you have been living paycheck to paycheck, with no reserves or savings, it will be a turning point in your life. Do not let anyone or anything derail your plan, because you now know how vitally important it is.
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