personal finance

Money Advice for the Extremely Broke and Deeply Screwed (Thanks COVID-19!)

If you're laid off and panicking about how to eat AND pay rent, personal finance experts have some practical options and advice for you.
19 April 2020, 2:21am
broken piggy bank saving financial crisis
Photo via Getty Images/Cultura RF

It is almost too much to have to think, in the midst of all the chaos and fear surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, about finding a new job. But, for at least 22 million Americans who’ve been laid off as a result of widespread business closures and shelter-in-place mandates, that’s reality right now. And the layoffs don’t seem like they’re going to stop anytime soon, either. According to a report from Data For Progress, 52 percent of workers under the age of 45 have had their income negatively impacted as a result of this crisis, and some economists predict our current rate of joblessness could actually surpass the unemployment rate during the Great Depression.

So, yes, we may be living in a crisis that rivals a period in American history when people were eating dust (?) to survive, but at least we’re doing it together. Awesome!

It’s hard not to panic while gazing into the maw of a recession, a national financial crisis morbidly in sync with a personal one. But panicking, while potentially cathartic, won’t help pay the rent (and that little $1,200 check might not help much, either). VICE asked a handful of financial experts about what some actionable steps might look like for the truly, madly, deeply financially fucked among us.

I just got laid off after living paycheck to paycheck, and I don’t have a palatial family home near a body of water where I can squat until this thing is over—like millions of other Americans , I’m fucked and I’m freaking out! What do I do?

Kelsey Sheehy, personal finance expert, NerdWallet: This is not a normal time for anyone, but it's especially daunting for people who feel like they were already on shaky financial ground to begin with. I mean, you're separated from friends and family, from your support system. You're not sure if or when you're going to be able to return to work, when you're going to have money coming in. And you still have all of these other financial obligations looming over your head!

So I think the first step I have been advising people to take is just take a deep breath, acknowledge that yes, this is a lot, and then start to focus on putting out the fires where you can.

Eric Simonson, certified financial planner and founder of Abundo Wealth: Number one, the good news is because you're young, and you're in your early earning years, you're very likely going to qualify for the $1200 relief check as soon as the government gets off their ass and actually sends it to you.

I also tell them, at the same time, you should call [your lenders]. A lot of different lenders are actually still working with customers and either forgiving part of a loan, or they are letting clients basically stop payments temporarily. Whatever it might be, it doesn't hurt to take 20 minutes and call them.

Paco de Leon, founder of The Hell Yeah Group and cohost of R29’s Money Diaries podcast: Start locally to see what kinds of assistance is available. Check with your city, county, and state to see if relief funds have been established to help the most vulnerable people. Find local coalitions that may have just gotten created and look to those organizations for help. Find organizations that are distributing funds and aid based on your type of work. [In LA], there are grants specifically for writers who write about visual artists, grants for street vendors, and relief funds for bartenders.

Natalie Slagle, certified financial planner and co-owner of Fyooz Financial Planning: Open up your online savings account and checking account and see, Do I have anything extra here? Maybe someone was planning to go on a vacation in the fall and they had set aside $1,000 for that. This could be the time and place to assess, you know, I might need that money more now and that trip can wait.

I applied (or tried to, anyway) for unemployment. Are there any other resources I should look into while I still have the energy to make some more phone calls?

Sheehy: There are a lot of resources available right now, because of these extraordinary circumstances, that wouldn't be available to people six months ago if they lost their job. Unemployment is just one avenue, and it’s definitely the first step because it’s going to take a while to get even your first check once your claim is processed.

There are formal programs like food stamps and food banks to help you put food on the table. But there's a lot of less formal things popping up to help people right now. Ask your co-workers, or your former co-workers, see if there are options in your area. Also, don't be afraid to ask your neighbors. Look for your neighborhood Facebook groups, your NextDoor groups. Look to churches and nonprofit groups to get help with things like food and basic household supplies. This is really not a time to be proud or afraid to ask for help.

Simonson: If you are a small business owner, take a look at programs that are available to you such as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance that provides up to a $10,000 advance to help with expenses and the Paycheck Protection Program Loans that provides loan forgiveness for eligible business expenses such as payroll and rent.

Which bills should I prioritize and which ones can I let slide?

de Leon: Try your best to understand how your decisions will impact you in the short, intermediate and long term. Consider worst-case scenarios for not paying bills, and use that to guide your decision making. Get as much information from the companies that you owe money to about their relief options to help your decision making.

Sheehy: Right now, you're basically in triage mode. So you need to identify your top priorities, which is food, shelter, heat, and electricity—keeping the lights on, keeping food on the table, keeping a roof over your head, are top priorities right now. So focus on those. If you rent, and you can't pay all of your rent, talk to your landlord and see if they can help you out. The key here is freeing up money in other places where you can suspend payments or can just make the minimum payment for now, to make sure that you're able to keep those priority things (food, shelter, and electricity) in place.

Dan Slagle, certified financial planner and co-owner, Fyooz Financial: First, we would recommend contacting, whether it's your mortgage provider or your property owner, and seeing if there is an option to pause payments temporarily.

Next, you would want to prioritize your debt obligations to others or other institutions. But again, it's so important to reach out and see if there's any sort of forgiveness programs available or relief programs to [lessen] some of that burden that you're facing right now.

I guess I’ll need to build a budget, too. Ugh. Where do I start?

Simonson: Eliminate all non-essential spending. The stay at home mandate is actually helping to keep expenses down! Don’t be afraid to call places like your renter’s insurance company or internet company or cell phone carrier, because they might offer some discount or benefit right now. Some good budgeting apps to help with taking a look at all your expenses are YNAB, and a new one I've liked is Centsibly.

N. Slagle: I think what draws a lot of people away from budgeting are the variable payments that they have to figure out, and that is hard. It's hard to know how much you spend on groceries. It's hard to know how much you spend on your clothing budget for the year. But if you can at least start with your net take home pay and then what [you] have to pay with fixed expenses--that'll include mortgage payment, debt payments, internet bill, cell phone bill, [costs] that you literally can look up--then you can either just stop there and say, Alright, I have $500 a month left for everything variable, or you can take it a step further to figure out the variable expenses.

de Leon: This a chance for people to take time to review how they’ve been spending their money and correct any misalignments between their actions with their values. Cut things that you don’t value, but have been spending on mindlessly - subscriptions you aren’t using is a great start.

What about my [student loan/credit card/medical] debt?

de Leon: Your debt grows exponentially and you could get into a situation where it takes you a long time to get out of debt if you let it grow right now. Pay as much as you can afford. If you couldn’t afford your debt before the crisis, the crisis is just going to highlight that and it will be about managing the pain of paying now or managing the pain of paying later.

Sheehy: A lot of credit card companies and banks or credit unions are offering relief right now, but you have to call and ask for it. They might be able to suspend your payments or waive late payment fees. Suspending those payments can help free up cash for the things you can't delay like food and possibly rent.

And if you have a federal student loan, the government has, as part of the CARES Act, suspended student loan payments for federal borrowers for six months. That's automatic, and it's interest-free, so you don't need to do anything there.

Simonson: If you have credit card debt, which, you know, again, is something a lot of younger people do struggle with, a really great strategy right now would be to do a balance transfer to a no-interest, zero percent card and lower your payments to the minimum. This will save you money on interest and may lower your payment as well.

Shouldn’t I be... saving? Or should I be draining my savings ASAP?

de Leon: Considering the level of uncertainty with employment and the economy, I’d say not dipping into savings is important only because it keeps options open for you. If you deplete your emergency fund and need to tap other savings you have, make sure you understand how this set back will impact your life in the short, medium and long term.

Sheehy: If you have the ability to save, save. But a lot of people aren't in that position right now, so don't beat yourself up about the fact that you don't have an “emergency fund.” If you have an emergency fund and you need to use it, this is what it's there for. This is that emergency. So don't feel bad about having to tap into that.

N. Slagle: If you can afford it, it should be a major priority. Just because you haven't lost your job yet, doesn't mean it's not going to happen. So if you still have your job, and you are still having an income, now's the time to assess: If I lost my income, how long would my liquid cash reserves survive me? And if it's not three to six months, then now is the absolute time to be saving and building that cash flow up. Because you might need it quicker than you would think.

OK. Cool. Anything else?

de Leon: In good times and in bad, I think a lot of financial advice needs to be looked at critically, because good advice for one person might not be good advice for another person.

My peers should be teaching people how to think about their financial decisions so that they can make them on their own. People shouldn’t be seeking advice, they should be seeking knowledge so they can think critically and make choices that they can justify based on the lives they live and their values.

Simonson: Even though it's normally important to take a long-term approach to your finances, now is the time to look at the short-term and focus on everything you can do to make sure you can get through the next few months.

N. Slagle: I think the hardest part with all of this is starting; starting that organization, starting the tracking of expenses. I promise you, as someone who does this for a living and coaches people through it, it gets easier as you go, so don't make it any more complicated than it needs to be.

Utilize softwares if they're advantageous for you, but if writing down your accounts and your budget on a piece of paper or a notebook is really the easiest thing for you to do, then as financial planners, we think that's great. At least you're doing something. Know that once you hit the pen and paper, you've really gotten past the biggest hurdle of it all.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.