If you’d asked people this time last year what they thought 2020 would bring, few would have imagined we’d be facing the worst recession since World War II. Or, that 84 percent of U.S. adults would be left doubting their ability to achieve long-term financial security.
Being financially resilient means being prepared – and most importantly protected – during hard times. Yet most Americans don’t have sufficient savings to cover an unexpected $1,000 bill. Many more people struggle to overcome bad financial habits, and others say that the rising cost of living and stagnated wages are the main reason they can’t save up.
Not being financially resilient is a serious risk to your livelihood: it means potentially losing your home, having to sell assets, or even going bankrupt. Right now, everyone is more vulnerable, but there are ways to shield you and your family. Educating yourself and acknowledging that solutions are available, are key first steps. Here are a few simple and effective ways to build your financial resilience now and for the future:
Plan a budget
To devise a realistic budget to follow, specify what your financial goals are. These should be divided into short-term (less than a year) and long-term (multiple years) statements. For example, saving for a phone is a short-term goal, whereas paying off your student loan is a long-term one.
Next, use a spreadsheet to calculate your net income: the money you have coming in minus deductions like taxes, social security, and other obligatory payments. After, subtract the costs of things that you deem ‘nice-to-have’. If you don’t know what these are, ask colleagues and friends what their monthly expenses are. Then subtract the purchases that are unique to you (such as a weekly cinema night) from your income total.
As you remove expenses, pay attention to the final number – this will be your monthly budget. Although hard, be honest with yourself about what you really need and what you’re willing to compromise; maybe you need WiFi, but do you need the fastest, most expensive version?
You Need a Budget is a particularly great tool as it encourages customers to live on last month’s income, and has reports and graphs that let you check your progress and stay on the right path.
Track your cash flow
Spending money is such a routine part of life that we often don’t realize we’re doing it or how much we’re paying in accumulation. In fact, one survey found that 65 percent of Americans don’t even know how much they spent last month. But monitoring what goes out of your accounts (or pocket) is crucial to be financially resilient, as it’s the first step to understanding your financial habits and identifying expenditures to reduce.
Start by making a conscious effort to review your bank account statement weekly. If you prefer paying in cash, whenever you buy something, write down what it was and how much it cost. Then group your payments by category: for example, food and drink, travel, bills, entertainment, and so on; also note if the amounts are one-off or recurring payments like a subscription fee. Having this kind of inventory will give you a complete overview of where your biggest and unnecessary purchases are and will empower you to make decisions around what to keep or cut.
There are various apps and online tools that can automatically track and categorize your cash flow. PocketGuard, Simple, and Mint can link to multiple bank accounts at one time and offer tips about responsible spending behaviors.
Reduce your spending
You may know where to reduce your spending, but actually doing so can be difficult. Begin by clearly defining what your priorities are; rent, bills, food, and clothing are necessities, but there may also be other things that are genuinely important to you. With these, ask yourself the following questions: ‘how often do I use it?’, ‘does it improve my life?’, and ‘can I afford it right now?’. If the answers are negative, take it off the list.
On other occasions when you’re out and about, aim to cut back by converting the prices of things into working hours. For example, the coffee and muffin you normally buy in the morning could be the equivalent of one hour’s work, are they worth it? Another way to look at it is by working out what the price is relative to your savings goals. If you want to put aside $100 per month, your morning snack could take a 10 percent chunk out of that.
Being disciplined is a big part of reducing your spending, and if you really struggle, most banks have an option to place limits on your daily transactions. That said, keep in mind that lowering your credit limit could affect your credit score. Alternatively, you could also leave your credit and debit cards at home when you go out or assign yourself weekly ‘zero expense’ days, where you’re not allowed to buy anything.
Ask for a credit break
A credit break is essentially pausing repayments on your credit card, mortgage, or car finance. This is normally done for cash-flow purposes, as it allows you to focus your money elsewhere for a short period.
Credit breaks have to be arranged and approved with the lender directly, and the lender will normally issue the terms for the break. In the COVID-19 crisis, many banks and lending institutions are being more flexible with credit break offerings, as more people cannot afford to make repayments on time.
Taking an agreed credit break should not impact your credit score, however, it is crucial to note that interest can (and probably will) still accrue on your debt. If you don’t pay for three months, you’ll still have three months’ worth of interest on top of what you owe – which may make the repayments more expensive when you resume.
For more suggestions on achieving financial resilience, resources like the NFCC, Disaster Financial Advice, and Money Management International offer free access to guidance tailored to your situation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a harsh lesson in the importance of having financial security. Just as you take care of your physical health, your financial health also needs nurturing. Saving money in a regular and responsible manner is key to ensuring that your household has control over finances now and in the (un)foreseeable future. And like every habit, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.