As the COVID-19 pandemic ramps up, many of us are looking at potentially long stretches of unemployment or severely slashed wages — and rent is due next week. A 2018 study reported that 39 percent of Americans don’t have $400 on hand to cover an emergency expense, let alone enough money to sustain them over the long term.
The Post spoke to financial experts on how to best use that proposed $1,200 government check, stretch any savings you might have and mine for new opportunities.
Reach for relief
If you’ve lost your job, apply for unemployment insurance as soon as possible. Although it’s not a permanent solution, it does provide a bit of breathing room: “Unemployment is less than half of your previous earnings and it typically lasts four to six months,” says Haley Sacks, the founder of millennial-focused finance site Mrs. Dow Jones. Luckily, the government does provide a few safety nets. “New York has already put things in place to prevent utility shut-offs and put a 90-day freeze on evictions,” says Sacks.The tax filing date has moved from April 15 to July 15. But if you think the IRS or the state owes you money, file now to recoup your return.
Budget for lean times
Financial adviser Gretchen Meyer suggests creating a budget that reflects your new reality, which might eliminate pricey staples like commuting costs, dry cleaning, the gym and your daily lattes. “Now is a time to evaluate your spending,” Meyer tells The Post. “Look at the things you have on autopay that you might not need or haven’t used in five years and get rid of them.” Focus on such necessities as your rent or mortgage, car payment, Internet, utilities, phone and food.
The Senate has proposed the government send $1,200 to each adult in America, which Meyer says should go to food and medical necessities.
“It’s a generous cash flow, but it’s not enough to pay your rent. My instinct would be to use that to eat,” says Meyer, who also suggests checking your credit to understand what kind of liquidity you have.
Bill Smith, a New Jersey-based publicist who was unemployed for most of 2012 after leaving a job in politics, notes that these days, there’s a lot less to splurge on: “I don’t want to use the word ‘benefit,’ but with everything closed, there’s no temptation to spend your severance on a trip to Cancun or at the bar.”
Build on bargains
“There are a lot of ways to maximize lifestyle virtually and for zero cost,” says Sacks, 28. “This is a period where you have to self-govern and say, ‘I am going to lean things out.’ Be tough on yourself.”
That can include opting for free online workouts and at-home hair treatments. Instead of relying on takeout, Sacks recommends placing grocery orders with sites like Imperfect Foods, which delivers produce and pantry staples at 30 percent less than supermarket prices. Avoid recipes that require rare and exotic ingredients. “Now isn’t the time to be buying lemongrass,” Sacks says. “Stick with buying basic ingredients that are standards that you can stretch to many dishes.” If you need some alcohol to help keep you sane, she suggests buying in bulk or through a wine subscription box: ” It’s much cheaper than buying individual bottles.”
Hands off your 401(k)
“Don’t touch your face and don’t touch your stocks,” says Sacks, adding, “If you are taking money out of your 401(k), you are only cementing your losses.”
Meyer seconds that, especially if you have a long time before retirement. “If you pull money out, you’ll [pay] a 10 percent penalty and then you will have to pay your regular tax rate on top of that,” she says.
Instead, she suggests taking out a loan against your retirement fund. You can take up to 50 percent of up to $50,000 and you’ll have five years to pay it back. If you’re a small-business owner and don’t have a 401(k) but you do have an IRA, you can switch an IRA into a 401(k) and borrow against it. If you’re nearing retirement, you might want to ride it out if you can. “If you are really afraid, now might be the time to become more conservative with your asset allocations.”
Don’t be afraid to haggle
Negotiating with lenders can cut your monthly bills even more. “Ask if you can defer your student loans or ask for a lower interest rate on your credit cards,” says Smith. After all, he reasons, it’s in the lender’s best interest to keep you from going bankrupt, because ultimately they want you to keep paying.
“Make sure you know that you have leverage,” Sacks says. “Even if a creditor is calling you, don’t hang up. Keep a record of every conversation” — including the date and name of the rep with whom you spoke. “It can be very powerful,” she adds. “Also, find comparable rates or offers from other credit card companies, write down those hard facts, and use them to push their hand.”
Pursue a side hustle
If you’ve been nursing the dream of a small business or a big idea, now might be the moment to hit the gas on it. Meyer notes that through New York state’s Self-Employment Assistance Program, if you are eligible for unemployment benefits for at least 13 weeks, you can receive them while working on that dream. “If you can prove you have a business idea you’d like to pursue, you can make money while doing it, unlike regular unemployment where you aren’t allowed to earn additional income.” And who knows, says Meyer: “You might come out of this with a really cool business.”
Steer toward success
Now might not seem like the time to be networking, but Smith, who landed his past two jobs through friends and professional associates, disagrees. “Keep touching base with your contacts, especially right now,” he says. “You don’t know where the next opportunity is going to come from.”