The economic downturn spurred by shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus has been swift. The U.S. economy shrank at a 4.8% annual rate last quarter amid the spread of the virus, and the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that GDP will drop at a 40% annual rate this upcoming quarter.
The Labor Department announced Thursday that nearly 3.2 million Americans applied for unemployment last week, bringing the total number of jobless claims filed in the last six weeks to roughly 33 million. And in the latest poll PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, 50 percent of American adults said they or someone else in their household had been let go or lost work hours due to the coronavirus.
Facing a recession that the International Monetary Fund said will be far worse than the 2008 economic collapse, many Americans are feeling overwhelmed by the stress of managing their everyday expenses and considering any future investments. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in the last week of March found that more than half of Americans were worried they would be laid off or lose their job, and 59 percent were worried that their investments would be negatively affected for a long time. 54 percent of Americans who had already lost their job or income said that worry or stress related to the virus had a negative impact on their mental health.
“It’s so stressful for so many people,” NerdWallet personal finance expert Kimberly Palmer said of the current moment in a recent live Q&A with the NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz. “Across the board people have a lot of anxiety.”
President Donald Trump at the end of March signed into law a $2 trillion economic stimulus bill that aimed to provide some relief for Americans who have lost their jobs or are experiencing financial distress due to the virus outbreak. But this money only went so far: The Paycheck Protection Program, which was created to provide loans to small businesses, ran out of money in just 13 days after congressional Democrats refused to allow a general extension of the funding.
Lawmakers delivered an additional $500 billion in coronavirus relief aid, including $335 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, and another $60 billion for small business disaster loans, at the end of April.
Despite the high number of jobless claims filed during the coronavirus outbreak, 71 percent of unemployed Americans did not receive those benefits during the month of March, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.
And while a number of Americans received a $1200 check thanks to the initial stimulus bill there were several issues with the roll-out of payments to some individuals.
This limbo period has caused stress and uncertainty for many Americans. But there are other measures people can take now to manage their personal finances during this difficult time.
File for unemployment
The coronavirus stimulus bill expands unemployment insurance to more workers and offers an additional $600 a week to individuals who qualify, in addition to any available state benefits, through July.
With so many Americans out of work, though, many state websites have been overwhelmed by the number of unemployment applications, leading them to crash or freeze. That’s why if you do lose your job, it’s best to start the process of applying for unemployment right away.
Erin Lowry, who runs the blog Broke Millennial and is the author of the book “Broke Millennial Takes on Investing,” didn’t sugarcoat the situation: It may take hours to get your application through the system, and weeks for a check to come through.
“Make sure you file ASAP so you start that process for yourself,” Lowry said, who added that this money, combined with the $1,200 one-time payment from the government, could provide some temporary relief for those worried about paying their bills in the coming months.
“If you lost income, file for unemployment right away even if you think you couldn’t qualify for it,” said Matt Frankel, a certified financial planner with The Ascent, a Motley Fool company. He noted that the stimulus bill has extended benefits to apply to gig, freelance and contract workers — so while you may not have previously qualified for unemployment as, say, an Uber driver, that could change with this new legislation.
“Our unemployment system is not meant to handle 6 million claims a week,” Frankel added of the backlog. “It’s a unique time and the sooner you get in, the better.”
Call your creditors
If you’re worried about paying your bills on time, the best thing you can do is call your creditors, said Bankrate chief financial analyst Greg McBride.
“For those who have been laid off, furloughed or expect to be, contact your creditors first and explain your situation,” McBride said, citing mortgage lenders, credit card companies and the institutions that handle your car loan as examples of those you should contact first. “There are a variety of programs around forbearance and payment flexibility.”
“If you can get payment relief on a mortgage or car loan, those are two of the biggest items you have in your budget to begin with,” McBride said, adding that holding off on these payments will allow you to focus on day-to-day essentials such as groceries.
Lowry cautioned against assuming that creditors will automatically waive late fees at this time. “This is not a situation in which it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. It’s quite the opposite,” she said. “You need to be proactive about reaching out first and having that conversation before that missed bill happens.”
When it comes to paying rent, Lowry suggested being proactive about talking to your landlord, as well as knowing your rights as a tenant — a number of cities, for example, have temporarily halted evictions in light of the crisis.
“Go to the landlord with a solution,” Lowry said, adding that it helps to have an idea of what you could pay, even if it’s just 25 percent of the rent right now. “Even if you can pay a little bit, and that kind of [creates] a good faith experience between you and your landlord, that’s just something to consider.”
While there are certainly exceptions, “most landlords are more than willing to work with you when it comes to paying,” Matt Frankel said.
If you’re still getting a paycheck, re-prioritize your spending
Lowry suggested making a “bare essentials” budget detailing what you won’t be able to go without, which may include: shelter, food, utilities, medicine, or transportation, if you’re an essential worker.
With many businesses shut down or having their employees work from home, it’s likely that you can redirect some of your usual expenses to a savings account, if you are still receiving your usual paycheck. Consider putting money that you would have otherwise spent on public transportation, ride shares, entertainment or restaurants into padding your savings as much as possible to prepare for an emergency.
“Because everything is closed, a lot of that discretionary spending that we would normally do has been forced out of our budget,” McBride said. “Take a close look at your monthly budget. Identify the items that you can cut back or eliminate now, or at the point after your last paycheck has arrived.”
A Bankrate survey conducted in January, before the downturn, found that only 41 percent of Americans would be able to cover an unplanned expense of $1,000 if it came up. McBride said if there is any way you can save enough to cover yourself in a situation like that, you should. In unprecedented times like these, though, that may not always be possible.
Treat your long-term investments as you usually would
While you may be tempted to transfer money from your 401K elsewhere given the state of the stock market right now, financial experts say you should avoid doing so unless you need to, to cover short-term expenses.
“The best course is to stay the course,” McBride said of retirement funds and other long-term investments. “Continue to make the contributions, do not change your investment allocation, provided it was appropriate to begin with.”
If you have very lean emergency funds, you might consider dialing back your 401K contributions in order to boost those savings. “I almost never advocate for that — it’s like driving around without a seatbelt on. But at this point in time, you can’t be careful enough about emergency savings,” McBride added.
Frankel also cautioned, “Don’t take any money out of your 401K unless you absolutely have to, and whatever you do, don’t move your account to cash.”
“Historically, that’s been a very bad move,” said Frankel of moving investments out of a 401K to cash, noting that the stock market can tank quickly, but tends to correct itself in the long term. “Your retirement savings are meant to be a long-term investment. Keep that in mind.”
Look into your student loan payments
If you have federal student loans, be aware that the stimulus bill has suspended payments on them through September 30, meaning borrowers won’t be penalized for missing payments between now and then.
“You need to be proactive about reaching out to servicers,” Lowry said of speaking with representatives of companies handling your student loans. “Don’t assume that everybody you get on the phone with knows all the details.”
But the deferral in the stimulus bill does not apply to private loans, said Lowry, so if possible, you should prioritize paying those if you have a mix of the two.
She also added that if you have job stability and a healthy emergency savings fund during this time, there’s no reason you can’t continue to make payments on your student loans: “If you are that unicorn of a person, make your payments, because if you can get interest waived for a period of time, more money is going to your principal balance. That could work out as a great positive for you.”
Take it easy on yourself
You may feel pressure to take advantage of the time at home by learning a new skill or going into productivity overdrive, Lowry said. This is especially true in the U.S., where the arrival of the gig economy has made it easier for many Americans to work any time, anywhere. “It’s also okay to feel anxious and overwhelmed,” she said. “It is okay to be processing those feelings, and you don’t have to be at the peak of your productivity. Check in on your mood right now.”
If you’re seeking to let off steam amid all the stress, many boutique fitness studios are now live-streaming classes online for free.
“It’s not going to be forever,” said Frankel, who noted that this economic crisis is different than previous ones in that nothing happened to destroy consumer demand. “Take a deep breath and take care of your family is the most important thing.”