How long could you survive a financial shutdown if coronavirus closures keep you from working? A recent MoneyGeek survey suggests that most adults in the U.S. don't believe their finances will hold out as long as the virus does. If you're one of many Americans struggling during this time, a clear strategy can help you weather the coronavirus financial crisis and emerge ready to rebuild your life and return to normalcy.
8 Weeks of Shutdown or More
Survey respondents indicated that they anticipate it will take a median eight weeks for coronavirus-related social and economic disarray to subside. Most answered that they expected the disruption to continue for four-to-twelve weeks.
Are their jitters unfounded? Probably not. Most states and communities have issued stay-at-home orders. All these states have closed schools for at least some interval, and most have curtailed businesses deemed "non-essential." Many of these emergency measures will be in force until April, May or "further notice."
While just over half of Americans say they can work from home, many don’t expect to remain employed. Over 55% of those surveyed believed that they were at least moderately likely to lose their jobs in the next 12 weeks. And about the same percentage expects their income to fall during the next 12 weeks.
Sadly, over 40% say they have upcoming bills that they don't believe they can pay because of coronavirus-related shutdowns, quarantines and child care problems. If you're worried about meeting expenses in the next few weeks, here's your plan.
Your first step is to take a deep breath and look at what you do have. This is not just a gratitude exercise — it's a financial one. Consider every asset you have that can help get you through the coronavirus financial crunch:
What do you have that you can use in the coming weeks? The number of non-perishables stuffed into the back of your cupboards and the bottom of your freezer might reassure you. Next, make a list of what you require (epidemiologists recommend that families have enough food to avoid the markets for a month) and what it will cost. You can estimate the costs by making your list on an online grocery shopping site, even if you plan to go to the store yourself.
Your Bank and Brokerage
Your emergency savings (or lack of) may be painful to consider. However, you must check your statements or pull up your accounts online and note exactly what you have available. Check your 401(k), IRA, investment accounts and other balances, because new legislation (the CARES Act) could give you access to these funds via withdrawals or loans. Understanding where you stand financially can help you decide how long you can survive before borrowing money or gaining additional income.
Did you purchase tickets for travel, concerts, sporting events or other future delights that probably won't happen? Can you cancel expensive prepaid activities and get your money back? Many items or events that would normally be non-refundable, like discounted airfares, are refundable today because of COVID-19. Contact the provider or check their website and work your way through the forms to get your money back.
If you have relatives who are in a position to help, see if they might be willing to lend a hand. They might buy your groceries, co-sign for a loan or add you as an authorized user to a credit card. You might be able to work more if close family members or friends can watch your children. You might be able to save money by trading services (using recommended procedures to prevent disease transmission, of course).
Your Access to Credit
Look up the limits on your credit cards and lines of credit. Check your home value and equity, and determine how much you could tap if necessary. If you're lucky enough to be working, now may be the time to apply for a line of credit, emergency credit card or personal loan. You can also request an increase for the accounts you already have, or consolidate or transfer your balance to lower your payments.
Your Tax Refund
If you have not done your taxes yet, consider doing them if there is any chance of a refund in your future. Also, if you earned less in 2019 than in 2018, file your 2019 taxes ASAP. A lower income might make you eligible for a larger coronavirus stimulus check.
Your Eligibility for Help
The recently passed CARES Act contains many provisions for those who suffer coronavirus financial effects or test positive for COVID-19. Almost everyone could become eligible as the disease makes its way through the country. You're considered "affected" if you or your spouse lost income due to the virus, tested positive for the virus, increased expenses because of the virus or had to care for someone else with coronavirus.
These benefits include:
- One-time payments of up to $1,200 per eligible adult (payments decrease for those with higher incomes). You don’t even have to be coronavirus-affected to get these stimulus package checks.
- Extended unemployment insurance coverage (adding 13 weeks to your remaining coverage time) if you are unemployed or become unemployed before December 31, 2020.
- Additional payments of $600 per week for those collecting unemployment benefits for four months.
- Unemployment insurance benefits for self-employed people. While there is no such thing as a coronavirus loan, you may be able to borrow against your 401(k) or make a penalty-free withdrawal from your retirement savings.
You may find that the CARES Act provisions combined with your own assets can safely see you through the next few weeks. However, don't get complacent. No one really knows how long the virus will shut down the U.S. economy. You'll want to stretch your budget until the nation is healthy again, and your income is secure.
Go through your house room by room, including the garage, attic and basement. Find at least ten things you could sell if you had to, and look online or check apps like letgo to see what you'd realistically be able to get for them. Items such as used textbooks and baby gear can net you hundreds of dollars.
Put Your Spending on Lockdown
If you're among the majority of people who are staying home for all but essential work or errands, you're probably spending less already. Dinners out, drinks with friends, sporting events and concerts are not options right now. But you can also save proactively by making decisive cuts to your budget.
Examine Your Automatic Payments
Look for automatic payments that you can suspend. You might be surprised at the memberships, software and other items you're paying for that you barely use. Turn them off if you can. Erase all payment information stored on your devices (including eBay and Amazon) to head off retail therapy temptations. Removing your saved credit card information from specific accounts or online shopping websites can also help you resist the urge to shop with a single click. Strip down your cable and satellite packages or even disconnect them. Channel your inner millennial and cut the cord.
Consider Your Cars
Look for opportunities to save on your most significant expenses. No one ever got rich by giving up coffee. But maybe you don't need two cars if one or more of you are out of work. At least consider taking an extra auto out of action and changing your car insurance policy to reflect that it's not being driven. Or take your teen drivers off your policy since they can't and shouldn't go anywhere right now.
Find Cheaper Thrills
Find things to do with your time that don't cost money. While you may be working your way through a list of home projects that have piled up, making time for fun can be even more beneficial:
- Play cards or board games with your family. You can even combine games with "those" projects (loser has to clean out a closet or organize a drawer, for instance).
- Download free library books (even the online bookstores have free or cheap books) and read them on your phone or tablet.
- Have Amazon Prime? Take advantage of all the free movies and series, but stay away from the “purchase or rent” category for now.
- Get creative in the kitchen. Challenge yourself to do more with cheaper ingredients.
- Have a bunch of craft or hobby supplies sitting around? Now's the time to use them.
- Find a dance class or online workout you can do. There are plenty of free options online, or you could support a local business or professional who is offering online classes.
You can probably identify many more savings opportunities than those on this list. But what if you are really struggling and cuts like these won't fix the problem?
Serious Financial Problems
Not everyone will be able to make do with their savings, their creativity and a little government help. If your financial problems are severe, be proactive. Contact a reputable credit counselor online or by phone for help dealing with your creditors and assistance with your budget. Reach out to your mortgage lender or landlord if you won't be able to afford your payment. Do the same for all other creditors and get some breathing room. You are not alone, and most companies have policies for dealing with COVID-19.
Gina Pogol is an acknowledged personal finance expert specializing in topics that affect consumers. A 25-year veteran in tax, mortgage, bankruptcy and investments, Gina enjoys breaking down complex financial topics to give consumers more confidence in their financial decisions.
Aljazeera. “Lockdowns, closures: How is each US state handling coronavirus?” Accessed March 31, 2020
Business Insider. “More than 80% of all Americans have been ordered to stay at home. This map shows which cities and states are under lockdown.” Accessed April 1, 2020.