Managing Your Personal Finances
When the world suddenly slows down due a global health crisis, this can leave a lot of West Virginia families struggling with how to manage their finances. Service workers and those who have been unexpectedly laid off may not have the savings they need in a time like this. Others may be wondering how best to manage their finances in a time of uncertainly. Lauren Weatherford, WVU Extension Families and Health Agent in Nicholas and Fayette counties, offers the following tips and advice to help get people through this unusual time.
- Be proactive. If you don’t have money to pay a bill, there may be financial support available through the government or through the company directly. Make the call! While many financial institutions are providing relief to those affected by COVID-19, they won’t do it unless you ask. You can’t simply stop paying your mortgage, utility or credit card. You must call and ask for assistance. It is also important that you call before you miss a payment. Some additional ways to reduce bills include:
- Use auto pay for cell phone plans, internet, cable and, sometimes, utilities.
- Bundle internet, cable and phone to receive significant discounts. Insurance is another common discounted bundle option.
- Use credit cards wisely. In a pinch you can use credit cards to pay bills or buy groceries. Don’t forget this is adding more debt you’ll have to pay later. You also can move higher interest balances to low or no interest card accounts. Be careful of transfer fees and rates, as well as what the rate will be when an introductory rate has ended.
- Ask to skip a payment. You can often call your bank to delay payment on a mortgage, student loan or car. But be warned this is not a free option. You will pay additional interest. The payment will be added to the end of your loan period. Also, this option is usually only available if you have an on-time payment history.
- Prioritize. There is a big difference between wants and needs in a crisis situation. Shelter, food, utilities and transportation can all be critical to survival. Other items such as internet, cellular accessories (such as expensive data plans or high-end phones) cable, beauty treatments and entertainment are wants, and can be reduced or eliminated. Take time to really consider what is most important. Make a list of those essential needs, then begin to contact those lenders and companies to see what extensions or benefits are available. Then, one at a time, eliminate the items that are non-essential. Internet can be found in public places. Many organizations are making free internet available in their parking lots. Use your online library for movies, TV shows and audiobooks. Look for free online options. Or find disconnected activities for you and your family such as books, board games, physical activity crafts and puzzles.
- Do the research. Some relief programs only apply to people in certain situations. Often these terms are explained online. Lots of reliable websites offer financial advice for lowering bills and addressing debt. Also pricing and discounts can often be found if you are willing to look a little deeper. Always comparison shop. And don’t hesitate to make a direct call. Some discounts and deals are available, but only if you ask.
- Don’t panic. This is definitely a time like no other. But that doesn’t mean that paper products are going to disappear. It’s ok to stock up on supplies for a few weeks. Shelf-stable foods and medications can be beneficial to maintaining social distancing. Hoarding can break the budget and cause more problems down the road. Most products have been manufactured six months or more in advance. So, items like paper products will be replaced, and can continue to be produced for weeks and months to come.
- Get your tax refund. The government just moved the filing deadline to July 15. This can be a much-needed extension for those who will need to pay taxes. But if you are owed a refund, go ahead and file; that money could be what you need to help get you through. Once you know what the amount of your refund will be, make a plan for how to spend it most effectively. Avoid pre-pay lenders -- they often take a large percentage in interest and reduce the overall amount of your return. Should the government issue stimulus checks treat it the same way, plan for how you will use it to get the most benefit out of the money you receive.
- Don’t obsess over your retirement plan. Look to the long term. In recent weeks the stock market has taken a significant downturn. This is not a time to make rash decisions. Currently, analysts are predicting that once the pandemic has passed the economy will start to rebound. Call your financial advisors and account managers to seek their advice. But once again, don’t panic. What you see today is not necessarily what you will have in the future.
- Support local businesses. Small and local businesses are an important part of our economy and they can be some of the hardest hit during the pandemic. If you can, continue to support these small businesses where possible. Many restaurants are still offering take out options. Pre-pay or purchase gift certificates for restaurants, shops, hairdressers and even your local mechanic. And don’t hesitate to tell your local business how they can help serve you in this time of social distancing. It can be in both of your interest to find creative solutions. Your small effort could make all the difference.