This is not a test; for most people, it’s a real, unfolding financial emergency.
For years — seemingly whenever some controversy or snafu meant that people couldn’t be paid or lost wages — I’ve encouraged consumers and investors to test their finances, to effectively see how long they could go without touching their paycheck.
I’ve done it through government shutdowns and the aftermath of hurricanes, in situations that made national headlines but that didn’t hit home with most people, allowing the unaffected to play along at home and stress-test their finances for the proverbial rainy day.
That day is here. Financially speaking, it’s a downpour and many people can expect real trouble.
The American Payroll Association says that three-in-four Americans would experience financial difficulty if their paychecks were delayed for just a week, saying it would be “somewhat or very difficult” to meet their financial obligations.
Likewise, Bankrate.com’s January Financial Security Index showed that roughly six-in-10 American adults would cover the cost of a $1,000 car repair or emergency-room visit using savings. Seven percent of the respondents had no idea how they would cover that kind of emergency.
The SCE Credit Access Survey issued in February by the New York Federal Reserve showed that the average likelihood of being able to come up with $2,000 in case of unexpected need was nearly 72 percent last month, its highest level since October 2015.
That’s good news, relatively speaking, but the looming trouble Americans are facing is much larger.
Consider that there are financial advisers and experts who suggest that emergency savings should be roughly $14,000, or a quarter of what a typical household spends in a year.
That means the low-dollar thresholds from those studies now are in play in real life for the millions of Americans displaced from some or all of their work as a result of the social-distancing policies, quarantines and shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
There has been talk of tax incentives, college-loan debt forgiveness, working with banks and lenders and more, but people missing out on their primary jobs and/or side gigs should neither wait for nor depend on that help. Even if it comes, it may be insufficient.
Two college professors showed last fall that $2,467 in emergency monies is the “minimum liquidity buffer” that average consumers should set aside so that typical emergencies didn’t become actual hardships.
Even by the generous measures of the Fed’s SCE study, that’s a tough nut. That theory will be challenged now, and fast.
Obviously, no one knows how long shutdowns will last, but getting through and past these troubles will take unique, individual efforts.
In my own family, for example, I lose revenue from my favorite springtime side gig — officiating lacrosse games — a small inconvenience because my primary work is unchanged. My oldest daughter, by comparison, holds down five separate jobs in Chicago; all are on hiatus stemming from the closing of schools. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter starts a new job in health care — at full hours — in the next few weeks.
I know of families where everyone is still working, and others where everyone is home on furlough, and virtually every situation in between.
You know people in those situations too.
While circumstances vary by individual or family, the process doesn’t. Follow these steps:
1. Examine and track spending.
It’s crucial to know where the money goes — every penny of it — if you want to know how to cut back. Some spending may stop just because of social distancing, but this is a time to review cellphone and electric bills, insurance coverage and more, searching for the savings.
2. Contact creditors now if you expect to need help.
Whether it is signing up for a utility’s budget-billing plan or contacting credit-card issuers to notify them that you’re affected by work shutdowns — which many lenders are encouraging so they can offer assistance — see what kind of relief you can get before you actually need it.
Make sure due dates are staggered to avoid a pile of bills all hitting at once; most creditors will help you move dates as needed.
3. Consider credit options and potential needs now, before the trouble gets deep.
Know how much credit you have available and consider whether you want more. Using home-equity lines of credit, for example, might be better deals than borrowing on credit cards. But to get the best terms on any new credit, apply for it from the strongest possible position; that’s now, before balances rise and potentially hurt your credit score.
Even if you don’t expect to need additional credit, consider getting it. Be choosy about offers; don’t apply for a bunch at once.
4. Hold fast to cash.
Many investors are considering when to put money back to work. While investing at or near a market bottom is a savvy investing move, spending dividend cash that has built up in a stock account now is a bad decision if it leaves you struggling to pay bills and, maybe, forced to sell investments later.
5. Discuss this situation with your family.
All of this work-from-home or stay-at-home makes for lots of family time. Use some of it for money talks with loved ones, parents, children, friends and anyone you might lean on in a pinch. This is where savvy savers and investors pass along good habits, when kids learn to be better consumers and more.
6. Replace missing and lost income if you can.
This may be easier said than done, but look for options and see if there is anything that can help to tide you over. There are still ways to pick up extra work; my favorite site for examining options is SideHusl.com, run by longtime personal-finance journalist Kathy Kristof.
7. Remember, the better you come through this crisis, the sooner it will pass completely.
Markets will bounce back, your finances will recover, but being frugal now will make your personal rebound as easy as possible, no matter when the pandemic response ends.