Quarantined consumers watching their work and financial lives struggle for air have reached the bargaining stage.
This is where they start to make promises, saying things like “If I make it through this without going bankrupt, I’ll fund an emergency savings account” or “max out my 401(k) savings” or “stop my wasteful spending.”
Promises and deals made, those consumers will say when the pandemic ends that they are changed forever. More likely, they are changed temporarily.
Oh, we want to believe that going through a traumatic experience gives us clear vision, a pure heart and significant motivation.
It does, but only for a while.
Savers and consumers come out of challenging times with good intentions, but ultimately are done in by short memories and unexpected events.
Personally, I went through it with the heart attack I suffered in the fall of 2010. I vividly recall being on the table at Boston Medical Center — conscious throughout the procedure that saved my life — making a list that focused on three types of actions: There were the things I needed to start, behaviors I needed to stop, and stuff that I needed to finish.
Nearly a decade later, I achieved some of my goals and improved on some of my less-than-ideal behaviors, but I also fell back in some areas, making initial gains before back-sliding into my previously comfortable, not-always-healthy behaviors.
It’s precisely the way I expect most savers and consumers to behave.
For roughly six years now, nearly 30 percent of Americans surveyed by Bankrate.com confessed to having no emergency savings. Another 40 percent said they would need to borrow money in some capacity to cover a $1,000 emergency expense.
Some studies on during the last two months show that people are actually letting spending become unhinged while in isolation. A study from WalletHub showed that 50 million Americans acknowledge spending more money while self-distancing, with 43 percent of Americans saying that “comfort buying” has eased their stress.
So when you hear from people saying that after this crisis Americans will have learned enough to become a nation of savers, I fear that change will only apply to a minority.
The majority will bump up their emergency savings but few will reach or exceed previously recommended levels. The standard advice on emergency funds is that they should hold three to six months’ worth of expenses; given how much that kind of cushion would help those who don’t have it now, you can see it becoming an aspirational goal.
The minute real life reappears, however, bad habits will come back with it; most people will still believe that emergencies happen mostly to other people.
In the years since my heart attack, I have realized that the areas where I returned to bad behaviors were the ones I was least prepared to change and alter when I left the hospital. It’s hard to succeed when plans and goals are vague.
With that in mind, here are steps that savers and consumers should be planning for now, so that they have a clear path for making them happen when the “next normal” is here.
• Rebuild your emergency fund to 1.5 times what you had – or should have had – before the viral shutdown started.
The pandemic has shown that emergencies come up from out of nowhere, and this one’s not done yet. With the potential for a second wave – and a potential second round of isolation protocols – consumers need to rebuild emergency savings and to pump it to higher-than-normal levels for as long as danger seems imminent.
• Take advantage of any matching monies offered in retirement accounts.
Even if the market has sidestepped a lot of pain and manages to avoid re-testing recent lows, few experts expect it to take off from here while the economy is in recovery mode. Matching monies – where employers set aside an amount based on how much an individual worker saves – are free profits; they change the math on growing your savings and they are a must.
It is fair for money-strapped workers to stop contributing to the savings plan, but as they get back to full work and normal pay, they need to at least set aside enough to get the matching dollar. Going a little further – perhaps funding an additional Roth IRA but even setting aside dollars for taxable accounts – would be better, but doing what’s needed to get any “free money” your employer offers is a must.
• Cut the quarantine spending.
Studies show that consumers have been going big for subscription services – for watching movies, hearing music, reading a newspaper, playing video games and more – but the fees and costs will keep rolling even when your life changes.
Don’t keep on paying for services you stop using, and don’t let inertia or forgetfulness result in financial leakage. Stop the ridiculous comfort spending.
• Organize your finances; purge files.
While still in shelter-at-home mode, clean your shelter. Not only will it help you tally up your net worth – the total of what you own minus everything you owe – but it will make it easier for you to track, follow and manage your money.
• Write down your goals, and how you intend to pursue them.
This is where you make those detailed personal bargains about the changes coming to your life.
I fell short coming out of the heart attack. I knew the goals, but I had no real plan for how to achieve some of them, and those are the ones left undone a decade later.
While life can intervene and change your plans and goals – whether it is poor health, bad financial luck or a global pandemic that stops your income flow – you are better positioned to react to whatever happens next if you know what you want to achieve and whether your path for getting there is blocked or merely detoured.