Let’s be real. Even if you’re fortunate enough to not get sick, COVID-19 will likely affect your life. With all of this uncertainty, it’s best to start preparing now. Fortunately, if you’re one of the millions of Americans who have been urged to stay home, you likely have more time on your hands right now. In the United States, the average commute is around 27 minutes, which means if your company lets you work from home, you could save about an hour a day. (I save around two hours!)
This extra time is the perfect opportunity to make smart financial moves that can help protect yourself financially. Here’s how you can prepare:
Assess your situation
If you haven’t already, begin by taking stock of your financial situation — you can’t make a plan if you don’t know what you’re working with. This means:
- Check your bank accounts. Figure out how much you usually spend each month and how long your savings would last if you lost your job.
- Check your debt statements. Check your credit cards, student loans, auto loans — everything you owe — and note how much debt you have in total.
- Check your credit. If you end up needing to apply for more credit, it’s important to know your chances of being approved. A review of your credit score and credit report can help you prepare.
Once you have a good idea of your situation, it’ll be easier to prepare for the future and decide whether you need to make any of the financial moves below. For example, if you have a ton of credit card debt but have good credit, you could consider applying for a personal loan, a credit card with an introductory 0% APR, or a balance transfer. Or, if you’ve calculated that you’ll run out of savings in a month, you can contact your lenders and ask for more time to make payments.
Note: the one type of account you shouldn’t check is your investments, including your 401(k) retirement account. As the stock market is fluctuating, checking your investment accounts may cause you some unneeded stress. If you’re not in desperate need of the money you’ve invested, just ride this wave out. Investing is a long-term game — don’t get distracted by any short-term setbacks.
Time estimate: It depends on how many accounts you have (and how good you are at memorizing the passwords you need to get into your accounts). In general, this shouldn’t take more than a few hours or a weekend afternoon.
Contact your lenders if you need help
Late payments can wreak havoc on your credit, which could subsequently affect your ability to borrow for years to come. If you can’t make a payment, though, don’t just accept the hit.
When disasters happen, the FDIC notes that “Your creditors will likely work with you on a solution, but it’s important to contact them as soon as possible and explain your situation.” In other words, don’t wait until you start missing payments.
Whether you need help from your phone company, mortgage servicer, credit card issuers, private student loan servicer, or insurance companies, simply contact them, let them know you’re having financial troubles due to COVID-19, and ask if they can be flexible. In many cases, they should be willing to help.
Many of the main credit card providers are offering temporary assistance, such as:
- Allowing you to defer, reduce, or skip payments
- Reducing or waiving interest charges
- Increasing your credit limit
- Waiving fees
If you have federal student loans, the CARES Act provides an automatic suspension of payments through September 30 — no need to contact your student loan servicer. If you have private student loans, get in touch with your servicer, and see what they can do to help.
If your mortgage is backed by the federal government, you may be able to suspend payments for up to a year if you’ve lost income because of COVID-19. Simply submit a request to your mortgage servicer and let them know you’re experiencing financial hardship.
If your mortgage isn’t backed by the federal government, reach out to your servicer anyway and see if they can offer relief. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Before you ask
Your lenders and servicers will likely ask questions about your situation to determine the best way to help you. Be ready to explain your situation and estimate how much you can pay and when you think you can resume full payments.
Time estimate: Varies. Unfortunately, many banks are experiencing very long wait times as they try to assist all of their customers. If you anticipate needing help, don’t wait until the day your bill is due — contact your provider as soon as possible in case you can’t get through to them the first time.
See where you can cut back on spending
In theory, it should be easier to spend less money these days. If your city or state is requiring you to shelter in place, not only are you probably not commuting, but you’re also probably not going shopping, going to the movie theater, going on vacation, or participating in other activities.
But don’t just assume you’re spending less money — instead, actively seek ways to cut back. Look at your financial statements and cancel or pause anything that’s not necessary while you’re at home. Think gyms, daycares, and more. If your company allows you to allocate some of your pay to your commute pre-tax, it may also be worth pausing that so you can get more money in each paycheck.
Once you’ve taken care of the obvious expenses, get creative. For example, if you anticipate sheltering for the foreseeable future, you could save money switching to pay-per-mile car insurance through Metromile. On average, our customers save $741 a year, according to a survey of new customers who saved in 2018.
Time estimate: If you log into each account separately, it could take hours. To save time, consider using a free or low-cost budgeting app to get a holistic look at your spending across different categories from restaurants to utilities and more.
Jenna Lee is a content marketer, Oxford comma enthusiast, and cat lover living in the Bay Area.