Welcome to Money on My Mind, where our advice columnist Erin Lowry — a personal finance expert and author of Broke Millennial — helps solve your money conundrums. While we don’t hear enough about it, there’s a critical connection between our financial well-being and our whole human well-being. Money is a top cause of significant stress for Americans, and unchecked stress levels have been linked to issues from heart disease to diabetes to depression. Read on for advice on how to take control of your financial and overall health, one small step at a time.
Q: My income has decreased due to the coronavirus, and it’s incredibly stressful. How can I deal with this money stress?
A: Trust me — I empathize. It’s day… I can’t even keep track anymore… of sheltering in place. And, for many states, there’s currently no reliable prediction for when some level of normalcy may resume. It’s a truly scary proposition, especially for those of us who have had hours reduced, income cut, clients freeze budgets or jobs lost entirely. So few people have been immune to the financial quakes that have rippled out as the coronavirus spreads. No matter what type of work you do, here are some steps to help you handle any decrease in income you’ve experienced — and the accompanying financial stress.
File for unemployment (if you qualify)
It’s true that Americans are applying for unemployment in record numbers, and I’ll caveat this advice by acknowledging that this is by no means a seamless experience — the system is overloaded and many U.S. residents say they’re either unable to get through to their unemployment office by phone or email, or they’re waiting a very long time for their checks. So while extreme patience may be required, if you’ve been laid off or furloughed, your first move should be to submit your unemployment insurance claim.
The government’s stimulus aid package, known as the CARES Act, is offering a subsidy of $600 per week in unemployment assistance, on top of the regular payments offered by your state. The boosted payment will be available (as of this writing) for four months, with a deadline of July 31, 2020. Under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, many self-employed Americans, gig workers, and independent contractors who are out of work or have significantly reduced hours as a result of the coronavirus pandemic qualify for unemployment benefits. If you’re eligible for the PUA program, you can get up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits through December 26, 2020 plus the additional $600 weekly payments from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program until July 31, 2020. Keep in mind, some states have been slow to set up their PUA program, but the good news is that you’ll be paid retroactively if you’re eligible. (You can learn more about unemployment in your state and how to file by going to the site CareerOneStep, which is sponsored by the Department of Labor.)
Slash every unnecessary expense
Your next step — and frankly, I’m recommending this to people whether or not they’ve experienced a reduction in income — is to create a “bare essentials budget.” Figure out exactly how much you need to meet your bare essentials like food, rent/mortgage, insurance, medicine, utilities, and any other recurring bill payments. Everything that isn’t essential gets slashed right now. While this is also a time we want to support others, you need to be sure you’re putting on your own financial oxygen mask first.
Talk to your bank, creditors, and landlord
Once you’re armed with the information about the bare minimum you’d need to be bringing in to cover all your essential expenses per month, you can realistically look at your income and savings to determine if you need to press pause on any payments. Individuals with federal student loans may have already found that their loans have gone into automatic forbearance with a zero percent interest rate. This means that your payment obligation will automatically stop for a period for six months. Note, this relief isn’t guaranteed for many of your other loan payments, so reach out to your lender if you have questions. If you’re struggling to make the minimum payment due — say on your mortgage or auto loans — reach out to the lender or creditor to proactively ask about their relief programs.
Look for supplemental work
Although it’s true that unemployment benefits require that you report how much you’ve worked and earned each week, this is not a reason to avoid looking for ways to supplement your income. (In fact, make sure you double check the terms of unemployment for your state and whether you’re on traditional unemployment insurance benefits or PUA. Some states may still require that you’re actively seeking work as long as it doesn’t put your health at risk.) Ultimately, even a few hours per week working a remote side gig has the potential to turn into something bigger and longer term — and knowing you’re working toward that goal can help alleviate a lot of your stress and anxiety about the future.
Digital job boards and newsletters are good starting points, as well as reaching out to your network. There are also jobs available for those able and willing to perform high-demand essential duties, such as working in pharmacies, grocery stores, and hardware stores. However, protecting your health — especially if you’re in a high-risk category for COVID-19 — comes first.
Be mindful of how you use your stimulus check
If you’re getting a stimulus check and haven’t received the direct deposit or check in the mail yet, the IRS’s “Get My Payment” tool can help you monitor your payment status and update your preferred payment method. The stimulus check can be as much as $1,200 for an individual adult and $500 for each qualifying child, so if you’re eligible, it’s important to maximize its use. Right now, the name of the game is preserving your cash — which means you should use only what you need to pay your monthly bills if your current income or unemployment benefits won’t cover essential expenses. Anything that remains goes into savings. Don’t focus on aggressive loan repayment right now.
Take care of your mental and physical well-being
Even though you’re feeling pinched and may not have extra cash to invest in self-care, there are lots of ways to tend to your well-being that don’t require money. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, for instance, has some free resources you can look into online. For instance, if you need someone to talk to, the Crisis Text Line (text “HELLO” to 741741) and Disaster Distress Helpline (call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746) can be great outlets.
For me, and millions of others, the YouTube channel “Yoga With Adriene” has been really helpful, both physically and mentally — and if yoga’s not your thing, there are other great options for free workouts to stream at home. There are also some fantastic free resources available to help you get the sleep you need right now. It’s also important to resist any pressure to go into “hyper productivity” mode; even as you may be job hunting, you still deserve to take the time to process your feelings, and have your good days and your bad ones. It can be messy, and that’s OK. We’re all going to come out of this, but for now, remember that we’re all processing this uncertainty, frustration, and sadness together.