The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our world in many ways. People who used to have to commute to the office are now dealing with working from home. While there have been challenges to this shift, there have also been advantages to being home more. People are enjoying cooking at home instead of splurging at restaurants and events. They are having ‘staycations’ instead of dream destinations. The last few months have been a reset in the mindset of people all over the world.
This time has also been an excellent opportunity to think about finances. People tend to spend money on is what they deem to be the highest priority. As the months go on there have been tough decisions that are reshaping those priorities. Keep reading for five personal finance lessons that COVID-19 has taught us all so far.
It’s Important to Save
Saving money can be challenging. Depending on what stage of your career or season of life you’re in, you might find that you don’t have much money after paying the bills. That’s completely understandable.
Pandemics rarely happen, but economies contract and job markets dry up. When one (or in this case all) of these situations occur, you need to have some money to fall back on. Unemployment is helpful, but you won’t always qualify, and it isn’t meant to replace your entire working income. You’re going to need an emergency fund.
The only way to start saving is to analyze your income and expenses to ensure that what you spend doesn’t exceed what you make. Create a budget. List out everything you earn and then estimate a reasonable amount to save. Some experts recommend being aggressive and saving 20% or more of your monthly income. Others say even setting aside $50 a month is better than nothing.
Both answers are useful. Your target should be an emergency fund with 6-12 months of expenses, depending on your profession and your current situation.
You may find this difficult to do if you wait until the end of the month to transfer money to your savings. The best thing you can do is pay yourself first. So either set the cash aside, or set up automatic transfers to your savings account. You’ll learn to live without that money, while building up your sense of security.
If your budget still seems tight, you may want to cut out some of your extra expenditures until you reach your savings goal. You never know when an emergency (like a global pandemic) might happen!
Commuting Is Expensive
Getting to and from work every day is expensive. For millions of Americans who now find themselves working from home, their cars are collecting dust in their driveway. If you’re working remotely, you’re probably finding that you’re spending far less money on gas, tolls, and maintenance. You might even feel like you’re throwing money away on car payments for vehicles you hardly use.
While many people deem car ownership a necessity, it is one of the highest expenses after the cost of housing. Cars depreciate rapidly, cost a lot of maintain and operate, and can take 4-5 years to pay off. It’s not uncommon for people to trade in their ‘old’ car for the newest model, rolling over their existing loan into the next car payment.
If you are fortunate to be able to work from home, you have an excellent opportunity to save money on all of these costs. Think of alternative options such as rideshare or rental cars and verify if you can save on car insurance. Put that savings toward your emergency fund or retirement, depending on when you might need the money. You’ll see a nice boost in your overall financial picture over time.
Pay Attention to All Forms of Debt
When paychecks are coming in, and things are going well, it’s easy to let debt creep up. This especially true when you receive a pay raise. You tell yourself that you’ve worked hard, and you deserve to spend that little extra for a house, or car, or shopping trips. Covering that extra spending seems manageable while you’ve got that steady paycheck rolling in. Of course, when tough times hit, those additional payments become much harder to make.
In personal finance, there are frequent discussions about good debt versus bad debt. Good debt, like mortgages on investment properties, purchases an asset that will theoretically appreciate. Bad debt, like cars, is “wasted” money.
While there are many factors in the type of debt you carry, the reality is all debt requires you to pay it back at some point. Even though you might have that home in a highly desirable neighborhood that’s appreciating, it’s still a substantial mortgage payment that might be challenging to keep up with if you’re out of a job.
That being said, when it comes to debt and housing payments, the lesson that COVID-19 teaches us is to keep it as low and manageable as possible. That way, you can put all your energy into staying safe and healthy throughout the pandemic instead of worrying whether you’ll have a roof over your head next month.
Gig Workers Miss Out on Unemployment
If you are a gig worker (e.g., you drive an Uber), then you may not qualify for unemployment, depending on where you live. In this particular instance, the CARES act allowed gig workers to receive unemployment, but that wouldn’t be the case under more normal circumstances.
As a gig worker, it’s easy to assume that there will always be some form of work for you. After all, if you drive for one of those taxi-like services, there must be someone that wants a ride somewhere, right? As COVID-19 has shown, that might not always be the case.
Gig workers should do their best to save as much as possible for an emergency fund. If the income dries up, they may be on their own when it comes to social safety nets. That fact was a wake-up call for the estimated 55 million gig workers in the United States.
Money Isn’t Everything
COVID-19 has made many people miss the little things in life. The ability to go to your parents’ homes, for example, and talk with them in person, or just running to the store quickly isn’t an option. The isolation and inconvenience have many people rethinking their priorities.
Most personal finance articles only discuss the money side of “personal finance,” but there’s a human component to it as well. Yes, you should save money, but you should also enjoy life. COVID-19 has shown us that we should never take the simple things in life – the ability travel freely, eat out, go dancing, etc. for granted.
As you build your six-month stash and get your financial boat afloat and headed in the right direction, it’s essential to recognize that life is more than obsessing about metrics and financial projections. Keep those in mind, but also take the opportunity to have fun and live.
COVID-19 Means Something Different to Everyone
This pandemic has affected everyone differently. Essential workers will have a different perspective than corporate executives. However, when it comes to personal finance, the lessons transcend class boundaries. Have an emergency fund and keep debt minimal. If you’re a gig worker, understand that you might miss out on some social safety net benefits. Consider some of your routine expenses (like your commute) and see if you can cut those even as life resumes to normal.
Finally, recognize what you miss during the pandemic (friends and family, for example) and prioritize that more in the future.
This pandemic will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people, so make the most of it to learn, reflect, and strengthen your resiliency for when other tough times hit in the future. Your future self will be glad you did!
I never realised how expensive commuting is! Now that I’m working from home I’m saving a lot of money. I hope after all of this is over I can still have a couple of days of home office.
Hi Matt, great that you are saving some money. What do you plan on doing with it? Funding an emergency fund? Saving for a trip?
I became unemployed for 4 months last year, and my emergency fund saved me during that time. So, yeah, I can assure you that saving at least 10% of your salary each month can save your life.
Hi Ethan, I’m sorry to hear of your unemployment but I hope you came out ahead. Sometimes these abrupt changes in our lives are an opportunity to reflect on whether we are on the right career/life path for us. Thanks for the testimonial on the value of an emergency fund. Especially about it being “at least” 10% because for extended downturns people will need every penny.
The point about keeping an eye on debt was really insightful. I need to research more about “good” and “bad” debt, it’s a concept I had never heard before. Thanks for the information!
Hey Hugo, thanks for your comment. Everyone has to make the decision for themselves as far as what level of debt they are comfortable with. Leveraging the banks’ money can help save a lot of time compared to saving the cash yourself. I just recommend people weigh the pros and cons, especially with large buying decisions.
I’m glad that the company I work in has already announced that we’ll get 3 days of home office after the pandemic is over, because I’m saving a lot of money!
Hello Aldana, that’s great news. I hope you save a lot of time and money during those days. Let me know how it goes!