October 23, 2020 – By Terri Williams
The pandemic has transformed our way of living, and while this fast-moving virus has caused major societal disruptions, it’s also resulted in personal changes as well. Many people have taken a deeper look at their finances, and have reevaluated their financial priorities.
“Many people went from planning for the future to planning for right now, as the pandemic brought on so many unexpected challenges,” says Andrea Williams, a wealth management advisor with Northwestern Mutual. According to a Northwestern Mutual consumer survey conducted in April, Williams notes, 64 percent of respondents said COVID-19 had a significant impact on their daily lives and 68 percent shared they were concerned about the U.S. economy.
Obviously, these changes may leave you feeling stressed, but several financial advisors offered up some tips to help weather this year (and the next) regardless of your financial situation.
Learn to Adapt
According to Williams, the past few months have revealed the importance of being able to adapt to life’s unexpected challenges. “While the best way to adapt during this time might look different for each person, anyone who’s trying to make this shift and figure out what’s next for their finances, should consider certain questions.”
She believes these are four questions to start with:
- What options do I have for quickly accessing cash?
- How can I protect my income during these uncertain times?
- What types of loans and financing am I eligible for?
- Looking ahead, how can I financially prepare for what’s next?
Don’t Make Emotionally Driven Decisions
The ability to make sound financial decisions requires both knowledge and thoughtful consideration. “However, people often make decisions that are dictated heavily by emotions, rather than finding the right balance between rational and emotional thought,” Williams says. If you’re stressing over a financial decision or the current state of your investments, she has this simple advice. “Step away and take a deep breath—I’ve seen how this can help you make more calculated choices and avoid reactionary decisions.”
If you’re thinking about yanking your money out of the market, it may not be wise to pull out just because of market volatility or a temporary setback. “History has shown that the markets and investments have typically bounced back over time,” Williams explains. “Of course, past performance is not a predictor of future success, but it is information that should be taken into account.”
Josh Simpson, a financial adviser with Lake Advisory Group in Lady Lake, Fla., says he’s seen a dramatic shift since the beginning of the year. “Prior to the pandemic, and mostly because we were experiencing the longest bull market in history, people were less concerned with risk and finding ways to limit the amount that they took on as they got older or even while they were still working.”
However, across all age groups, Simpson says the focus is now on creating safe, consistent income in retirement that isn’t solely dependent on the stock market. “The number of people that I have spoken with who want to move money into CDs and bonds has increased dramatically since February of this year.” But those options can also be problematic. “With rates so low, they are really limited in the safe options that exist and can keep up with inflation.”
And yet, Simpson notes that there are investment options that can remove the market risk from the equation. “That is where working with a financial advisor who is a fiduciary and is looking out for your best interest comes in handy.”
Focus on Your Budget
Financial uncertainty increases the need to know where your money is going—and making changes when you can. Simpson says this need isn’t as great for retirees because they’re on a fixed income and understand the importance of budgeting. “However, the pandemic has awakened a lot of people to the realization that they may not be getting a paycheck next month because something out of their control happens.”
And now more than ever, he recommends learning how to live within—or below—your means and saving as much money as you can. Even if your job appears to be relatively safe, it might not be untouchable. “You might not get laid off, but it is possible to get hours cut, salary reduced, or some other type of reduced income,” warns Brandon Renfro, a financial advisor and assistant professor of finance at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, Texas. “Including some margin of safety in your budget lets you react in a more subtle way.” Using a free budget spreadsheet, you might be surprised to see where your money is going.
Check in With Your Creditors
If your income has been reduced or eliminated and you’re on unemployment or living on your savings, prioritize what’s most important. According to Katie Ross, education and development manager at American Consumer Credit Counseling, the necessities are groceries, rent/mortgage payments, and medicine. “Credit card debt repayment may have to be put on the back burner until consumers who are out of work or have had their hours cut start making more money again,” she says.
However, if you can’t afford to make your minimum payments every month, she recommends calling your creditors immediately to work out a payment plan. “Creditors might temporarily lower interest rates or minimum payments as a form of relief.”
Storm-proof Your Credit
Did you know that your credit score can be negatively impacted even if you’re making timely payments? Ross says that some credit card companies are reducing consumer’s credit limits. And once that happens, your credit utilization ratio takes a hit. For example, if you have a $5,000 limit, and you’ve charged $2,000, your credit utilization ratio is 40 percent. However, if the credit company lowers your credit limit to $3,000, you’re utilizing two-thirds of your credit, and this will lower your credit score.
She recommends the following checklist to storm-proof your credit as much as possible:
- At least once a month, review all credit card, credit line, and consumer loan statements.
- Ask about credit limits and if your lender or credit card issuer plans to lower your limits.
- Use any extra cash left over each month (even small amounts) to pay down the largest balance or the debt with highest interest.
- Obtain your credit report (for free) and use free services to monitor your credit scores each month.
If you’re new to the workforce, saving for retirement might not be a priority, but according to our financial advisors, it should be. “Quite a few employers have cut their matching contributions to retirement plans.” And to make sure that you don’t derail your retirement savings, Renfro advises factoring the missed match in your budget, if you’re able to do so. “For example, if you had a 5 percent match but your employer cut it, that means you need to save an additional 5 percent to keep from falling behind.”
Don’t Forget About Life Insurance
COVID-19 has been a grim reminder to obtain life insurance. “Our study revealed that the pandemic has prompted Americans to reconsider their views of life insurance’s role as part of a holistic financial plan, with nearly four in 10 (or 37 percent) saying they now see an increased importance for owning it,” says Chantel Bonneau, a San Diego-based wealth management advisor for Northwestern Mutual.” In fact, she says that many advisers have observed an increase in discussions with clients regarding life and disability insurance.
Consider Refinancing Your Mortgage
Interest rates are still low, and depending on your current rate, you may benefit from refinancing your mortgage. “While it can take time to receive approval, refinancing can help lower your monthly payments for the long term,” Williams explains. However, be sure to weigh all of the pros and cons of refinancing, since this might not be the best option if you’re closing to paying off the mortgage, or if you don’t qualify for a really good rate.