With the economic uncertainty due to Coronavirus (COVID-19), you’ll want to get a grip on handling your money. It’s hard to predict how things will shake out and how the economy will ultimately shift. Perhaps recent events have already had a profound impact on your finances. Maybe they have affected your income, and in turn, your ability to cover bills and pay off debt, depleting your emergency fund.
If you’re experiencing a tough money situation — a job loss, or are hit with a medical emergency or bill — and are wondering how you can safeguard your credit and finances. Here are a few tips on how to go about it:
Go Through Your Spending Plan
Methodically go through your spending plan to see what adjustments you can make. Not entirely sure where your money has been going? This takes a bit of investigating. There are a few easy ways to go about this. A good way to figure this out is by checking your bank statements, or by using a money management app. This could reveal the truth of your spending and saving habits, and not what you think you’re doing.
Once you see what you’ve been spending money on, you might want to cut back on a specific area — which we’ll get to in a bit — or make some shifts. Every cut you make should go toward covering your necessary expenses and bolstering your emergency fund.
Cut Back on Expenses
Take a close look at your spending plan and see where you can make cuts. This can be “big wins,” which could mean cutting back in one of the three major spending categories — housing, transportation and food. I’ll say this cheekily, but depending on your spending habits, this could well include a 4th category: online shopping.
You could also start on the “easy wins,” expenses that don’t take a lot of effort to cut back on but could result in significant savings over time. For instance, cutting back on your subscriptions or dropping them altogether. Another easy tactic? Call your cable, internet, or cell phone provider and see if they’re willing to lower your monthly payment. This usually takes about 20 minutes to do but could save you money over time. I once negotiated my internet bill down by $20 a bundle, which netted $240 a year in savings.
Get a Handle on Your Debt
Tempting as it might be to turn the other way, it’s essential to face your debt situation. First, jot down a list of all your debt; the amounts, the interest rate, and how long you have to pay each off.
You’ll also want to check to see where the debt is held. If you’re not sure whether a debt has gone to collections, you can dig up this information by reaching out to the original lender or by checking your credit report. You’re entitled to a free credit report every year from each of the three main bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
Due to the Coronavirus situation, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will suspend federal student loan payments until September 30, 2020. You don’t have to reach out to your student loan servicer or take any action. Plus, your interest won’t accrue during this period.
As for private student loans, you’re still on the hook for making payments. While your payments won’t be put on hold, some options could make your payments more manageable. For instance, student loan refinancing, which could lower your monthly payments or bump down your interest rate.
Call Your Creditors
If you’ve been walloped financially, you’ll want to reach out to your creditors as soon as you can. Yes, it can invoke a lot of anxiety, and you’d much rather put off the conversation for as long as possible. But informing your creditors and lenders about your situation goes a long way.
This shows that you care and are responsible about your debt. The other party won’t be as blindsided, and it gives them time to come up with a few different options. For instance, perhaps you could temporarily pause your payments, lower your minimum payments each cycle, or come up with an alternate payment plan.
Asking to skip payments or lower your monthly payments should only be a last resort, points out credit card expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. Otherwise, you might be unnecessarily stretching out the payback period of your loan. “To the extent, you can continue to make minimum payments without causing financial stress on you or your family, do so,” says Ulzheimer. “Don’t take this as an opportunity to skip payments that you can easily make. If you can help it, you’ll want to avoid extending loans by deferring payments to the back end.”
Keep Tabs on Your Credit Score
Checking your credit score on the regular is like tracking your BMI when you’re trying to get more fit. Turn credit monitoring into a habit and aim to check your credit score about once a week. If you sign up for a free credit monitoring service, you could gain insights on what is hurting and helping your score. You’ll want to aim to continue best practices for keeping a solid score — don’t rack up too high a debt on your cards, and make your payments on-time.
Lean on Your Community
During tough times, turn to your tribe and have real money talk with them about your financial situation. They could hook you up with side hustles to boost your cash flow, help with child care, or help you find resources to alleviate money stress. Your friends and family could also point toward useful information, offer guidance, or just provide an emotional pick-me-up through support and words of encouragement.
Protecting your credit and finances can feel like a tall order, especially during rocky economic times. However, having a plan, taking small, actionable steps, and sticking to your plan can help you do all you can to stay on top of your money situation. No matter what state your finances are in, you can get to a better place.
Jackie Lam is a personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in Investopedia, Magnify Money and The Bold Italic, and she’s been featured in Money, Kiplinger, Forbes and Woman’s Day. She runs heyfreelancer.com, a blog to help freelancers and artists with their money, and to balance their passion projects and careers.