Q&A: Why Are Prices So High Now?

Q: I’m trying to heal financially as life returns to pre-pandemic norms, but the rising cost of many commodities, like groceries and gasoline, is making a financial rebound a challenge. Why are prices skyrocketing right now?

A: The jump in prices of many goods is proving to be a formidable challenge to millions of Americans who are attempting to recover from the pandemic. There are several compounding factors triggering the rise in prices across multiple industries, and the upward trend is likely to continue for a while. Here’s what you need to know about the sky-high prices dominating the post-pandemic economy.

How much more do groceries cost compared to a year ago?

A trip to the grocery in 2021 doesn’t come cheap. According to new data from NielsenIQ, all 52 tracked food categories are more expensive now than they were a year ago. The cost of fresh meat, for example, jumped by 8.6% from May 2020 to May 2021, while processed meats are up by 9.2% and the cost of eggs has seen a nationwide increase of 8.2%.

What is causing the increase in grocery prices?

A confluence of factors is causing grocery prices to rise.

For one, the pandemic has caused a shortage in many materials due to a prolonged disruption in the labor force and supply chain, which has increased demand, and the prices of these goods, to rise. Grocery items, in particular, also saw a surge in demand due to the many Americans cooking at home while on lockdown during the pandemic. Many industries are still suffering from these shortages and don’t expect to recover for a while. In fact, the Bloomberg Commodity Spot Index, which tracks 23 raw materials, is at the highest level it’s been in nearly a decade.

Second, there is a shortage in the labor market now, which can likely be attributed to the inflated and extended pandemic unemployment insurance, which made many laborers reluctant to return to work. Employers are forced to offer more pay for attracting workers, and they pass this extra cost on to consumers.

Finally, the increase in prices can be linked to the rise in transportation costs as gas prices continue to rise, which we’ll explore more in a moment. Again, this increased expense is passed on to the shopper through higher prices on consumer goods.

Why are gas prices so high?

It’s sticker shock at the gas pump these days, with prices as high as $4 per gallon in some parts of the country.

There are many factors contributing to the rise and fall in gas prices, of which the fluctuating price of crude oil is most prominent. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), approximately 60% of the money we pay for a gallon of gas goes to cover the costs of the crude oil that went into making it. Another 25% pays for the costs of refining, distributing and marketing the gas, while the rest pays for federal taxes, and state taxes in some states as well.

Crude oil prices, in turn, rise and fall in direct correlation of multiple factors. Most recently, here’s what’s causing the price of crude oil to peak:

  • Basic rules of supply and demand. The last few months saw a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions around the globe. This led to an increase in the demand for gas, and in turn, for crude oil. In contrast, at the height of the pandemic, demand for crude oil fell sharply — and so did its price tag.
  • The presidential election. Crude oil prices have spiked by an average of $0.75 per gallon since Nov. 3, 2020. The oil markets evidently see the current administration as one that will inhibit U.S. oil production, which leads to a tightening on the global oil market. Traders responded by driving up the price of crude oil.
    Seasonal market changes. The price of crude oil tends to rise and fall with the seasons, where prices generally rise in the spring and summer months as more motorists hit the road, thereby increasing demand. The changeover to summer gasoline blends also leads to a jump in gas prices at this time of year
  • Change in the value of the dollar. Oil is priced in U.S. dollars within the world market. When the dollar is strong, relative to other currencies, crude oil is cheaper for Americans and more expensive for the global market. When the dollar is weak, as it is now, oil becomes more expensive for Americans.
  • Strong discipline among the OPEC+ nations. When the nations which are part of OPEC+ stick to their agreement to cut back on oil production, prices increase.

What can I, as a consumer, do about the rising cost of goods?

Unfortunately, as a private consumer, there’s not much you can do to bring down the costs of common goods. However, there are steps you can take to help you manage these costs in a financially responsible manner.

First, you’ll likely need to make some changes to your monthly budget to accommodate the higher costs of groceries and gas. Shuffle your spending categories by trimming discretionary expenses until you have enough money to cover the costs of food and transportation.

Next, incorporate cost-saving techniques you may not have needed to use until now to help you manage these increased expenses. Think couponing, shopping the seasons and the sales, buying items you always use in bulk, and cutting back on pricey grocery items you can do without. To save on gas costs, consider walking to work or to do your errands, carpooling when possible, or using public transportation more often.

Rising prices might be hard on the wallet, but with some proactive steps, you can still stay on top of your finances and help bring your financial health back to pre-pandemic norms.

Your Turn: How are you budgeting for the rise in the cost of groceries and gas? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Post-Pandemic Money Moves

Re-acclimating to normal life as pandemic restrictions are lifted and businesses reopen across the country will mean more than just getting used to wearing real pants again and working without your cat on your lap. You’ll also need to consider your finances. How has your overall money management changed during the pandemic? Have you dipped into your savings? Have you been letting your retirement accounts slide? Or, maybe you’ve been waiting for the chance to hit your favorite retailers again, and you can’t wait to splurge after a 15-month financial fast.

As you prepare to leap back into normal life, proceed with caution. Be sure to consider your full financial picture as well as long-term and short-term goals.

Here are some forward-thinking money moves to make as you adjust to post-pandemic life.

Review and adjust your budget

Pandemic times required their own budget, as people cut down on costs like dining out and updating work wardrobes, but spent more on things like at-home entertainment. Others may have had to adjust their spending to fit a changed income level or to help them coast during a stint of unemployment. The pandemic may have also shifted something in some people’s mental list of needs and wants, as they found they can live with a lot less than they’d believed.

As you adjust to post-pandemic life, take some time out to review and tweak your monthly budget. Be sure to incorporate any changes in income, as well as a readjustment to pre-pandemic spending or changed priorities. You may need to review and adjust your budget, and maybe even your spending behaviors, every few months until you find a working balance.

Rebuild your savings

If you are one of the many Americans who were forced to dip into savings, or even to empty them completely, during the pandemic, create a plan to get your savings back on track. Tighten up your spending in one area until you’ve built up an emergency fund that can keep you going for 3-6 months without an income, or use a windfall, such as a work bonus or tax refund, to get the bulk of your emergency fund in place.

Once your emergency fund is up and running again, continue to practice basic saving habits, such as setting aside 20% of your monthly income for savings, or whichever approach you prefer. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that it’s always best to be prepared, because you never know what can happen.

Rethink your long-term and short-term financial goals

The pandemic has prompted many people to reevaluate their goals. Retiring before you hit 50 or spending a month in Europe next summer may not be as important to you as you’d originally believed; or it may be even more important now. Similarly, you may realize your family has outgrown its living space and that moving to a new home is your number one financial priority. Or maybe you’ve decided you can live without a second car.

Take some time to rethink your long-term and short-term financial goals and adjust your savings and budget accordingly.

As you move through this step, be sure to consider any long-term goals you may have put on hold during the pandemic. Have you stalled your contributions to your retirement accounts or toward your child’s college tuition fund? Have you been making only the minimum payments on your credit cards? If any of these apply to you, be sure to revert your savings and debt payments back to pre-pandemic levels as soon as you can.

Spend with caution

It’s perfectly fine to enjoy a shopping spree in celebration of a return to pre-pandemic norms, but it’s best to spend with caution.

First, prepare to encounter inflated prices wherever you go. Gas prices have jumped recently, and costs of many consumer goods have spiked as well. If you planned to purchase a big-ticket item like a new car or tickets for a cruise, consider waiting it out a bit until prices cool off.

Also, you may be eager to make up for lost time, but no amount of nights out on the town will bring back the months you spent at home. Similarly, overbuying for this fashion season won’t bring back the seasons you spent at home in a hoodie and sweatpants. To avoid irrational overspending, set up a budget before you hit the shops and only spend what you’ve planned.

The restaurants and movie theaters are open for business again, and mask mandates are dropping all over the country. As life returns to pre-pandemic norms, be sure to consider the state of your finances and to make responsible, forward-thinking money moves like those listed here.

Your Turn: What post-pandemic money moves will you be making now? Tell us about it in the comments.

Spring Clean Your Finances

Spring is a great time of year to clear your house of accumulated junk and make it sparkle. Why not do the same for your finances? Junk can accumulate there, too. In fact, some of your money matters may need a good wipe down this season. It is especially true this year, when many Americans are still recovering from the financial fallout of COVID-19, or maybe wondering how to use the latest round of stimulus checks. Whatever your current situation, a thorough spring-cleaning for your finances is a responsible move this time of year.

Here are some ways to spring clean your finances:

Sweep out your budget

It’s time to shake out the dust in your budget! Review your monthly spending and find ways to cut back. Have you been overdoing the takeout food this year? Buying up more shoes than you can possibly wear? Pare down your budget until it’s looking neat and trim.

Freshen up your W-4

Tax season is prime time for revisiting the withholdings on your W-4. If you received an especially large refund this year, you may want to adjust the amount you withhold. The IRS’s tax withholding estimator  can be a useful tool to help you determine the perfect number.

Deep clean your accounts 

If you’ve switched from one bank or credit union to another, you may have dormant accounts that are still open and may be charging you fees. Or, perhaps they’re holding onto money you’ve forgotten you have! And don’t forget about the 401(k) you may have from an old job. Now may be the time to transfer those funds to your current 401(k).

This spring, do a Marie Kondo on your finances and get rid of any accounts you don’t need any longer. A minimalist approach to your finances will make it easier to manage your accounts. It will also give your savings a greater chance at growth, and help you avoid fees for unused accounts.

Toss out your debt

Get ready to kick that debt for good!

If you’ve been stuck on the debt cycle for too long, make this spring the season you create a plan to break free.

First, trim your budget or consider a side hustle for earning some pocket money, designating these extra funds for your debts. Next, choose a popular debt-busting approach, such as the avalanche method, in which you pay off debts in order from highest interest rate to lowest, or the snowball method, where you start with the smallest debt and then move up your list as each is paid off. Once you’ve chosen your approach, maximize payments to the first debt on your list, making sure not to neglect the minimum monthly payments on your other debts. Before you know it, that debt will be gone!

Dust off your saving habits

Have you been remembering to pay yourself first? Get into the habit of maximizing your savings this spring with a tangible financial goal. You can also make savings an itemized line in your budget. This way, you’ll have funds set aside for this purpose, instead of savings only happening if there’s money left over at the end of the month. Finally, automate your savings by setting up a monthly transfer from your checking account to your savings account. Never forget to pay yourself first again!

Make your investments sparkle

Whether you’re an experienced investor or you’re just getting your feet wet, it’s time for a spring cleaning of your investments! Check if your allocation strategy is still serving you well, whether you need to adjust your diversification and if your retirement accounts are on track for your estimated retirement timeline.

Make your stimulus count

Don’t let your stimulus payment and tax refund blow through your checking account. Instead create a spending plan for the funds that includes paying down debt, allocating some of the money for long-term and short-term savings and possibly investing another portion of the payment. Don’t feel guilty about using the rest of your stimulus check to splurge on a purchase or experience you’ve been wanting for a while now. The money is being distributed with the hopes that it will help stimulate the economy, and the best way to do that is to spend — just don’t go overboard.

Spring is the perfect time to give your finances a thorough cleaning. Follow our tips to make your money matters shine!

Your Turn: How are you spring cleaning your finances this season? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
nerdwallet.com
thebalance.com
doughroller.net

Spring Clean Your Finances

Spring is a great time of year to clear your house of accumulated junk and make it sparkle. Why not do the same for your finances? Junk can accumulate there, too. In fact, some of your money matters may need a good wipe down this season. It is especially true this year, when many Americans are still recovering from the financial fallout of COVID-19, or maybe wondering how to use the latest round of stimulus checks. Whatever your current situation, a thorough spring-cleaning for your finances is a responsible move this time of year.

Here are some ways to spring clean your finances:

Sweep out your budget

It’s time to shake out the dust in your budget! Review your monthly spending and find ways to cut back. Have you been overdoing the takeout food this year? Buying up more shoes than you can possibly wear? Pare down your budget until it’s looking neat and trim.

Freshen up your W-4

Tax season is prime time for revisiting the withholdings on your W-4. If you received an especially large refund this year, you may want to adjust the amount you withhold. The IRS’s tax withholding estimator  can be a useful tool to help you determine the perfect number.

Deep clean your accounts 

If you’ve switched from one bank or credit union to another, you may have dormant accounts that are still open and may be charging you fees. Or, perhaps they’re holding onto money you’ve forgotten you have! And don’t forget about the 401(k) you may have from an old job. Now may be the time to transfer those funds to your current 401(k).

This spring, do a Marie Kondo on your finances and get rid of any accounts you don’t need any longer. A minimalist approach to your finances will make it easier to manage your accounts. It will also give your savings a greater chance at growth, and help you avoid fees for unused accounts.

Toss out your debt

Get ready to kick that debt for good!

If you’ve been stuck on the debt cycle for too long, make this spring the season you create a plan to break free.

First, trim your budget or consider a side hustle for earning some pocket money, designating these extra funds for your debts. Next, choose a popular debt-busting approach, such as the avalanche method, in which you pay off debts in order from highest interest rate to lowest, or the snowball method, where you start with the smallest debt and then move up your list as each is paid off. Once you’ve chosen your approach, maximize payments to the first debt on your list, making sure not to neglect the minimum monthly payments on your other debts. Before you know it, that debt will be gone!

Dust off your saving habits

Have you been remembering to pay yourself first? Get into the habit of maximizing your savings this spring with a tangible financial goal. You can also make savings an itemized line in your budget. This way, you’ll have funds set aside for this purpose, instead of savings only happening if there’s money left over at the end of the month. Finally, automate your savings by setting up a monthly transfer from your checking account to your savings account. Never forget to pay yourself first again!

Make your investments sparkle

Whether you’re an experienced investor or you’re just getting your feet wet, it’s time for a spring cleaning of your investments! Check if your allocation strategy is still serving you well, whether you need to adjust your diversification and if your retirement accounts are on track for your estimated retirement timeline.

Make your stimulus count

Don’t let your stimulus payment and tax refund blow through your checking account. Instead create a spending plan for the funds that includes paying down debt, allocating some of the money for long-term and short-term savings and possibly investing another portion of the payment. Don’t feel guilty about using the rest of your stimulus check to splurge on a purchase or experience you’ve been wanting for a while now. The money is being distributed with the hopes that it will help stimulate the economy, and the best way to do that is to spend — just don’t go overboard.

Spring is the perfect time to give your finances a thorough cleaning. Follow our tips to make your money matters shine!

Your Turn: How are you spring cleaning your finances this season? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
nerdwallet.com
thebalance.com
doughroller.net

How to Celebrate Valentine’s Day on a Budget

Love is in the air and the money is flowing like heart emojis. According to the National Retail Federation, the average American spends $221.34 on Valentine’s Day each year. That’s a lot of money to spend on a one-day celebration!

Lucky for you, there are ways to enjoy a romantic evening with your partner without going into debt. Here’s how:

Work with a budget

Instead of spending mindlessly and regretting it afterward, designate a budget for all your Valentine’s Day expenses, and be sure to stick to it. In addition to helping you keep costs under control, working out a budget in advance will allow you to choose how to spend your money. You may decide to spend more on a gift and less on dinner, or maybe you’d rather skip both of these and splurge on a fun activity instead. Best of all, a preplanned budget means there will be no regrets spoiling the memory of your special day.

Shop smarter with a sales app

Check out shopping apps, like ShopSavvy or PriceGrabber, to score deals on that dream Valentines’ Day gift. The apps help you compare prices at online and in-store retailers, locate coupons for items you’re searching for and even bring up cash-back options to put money back into your wallet. Why pay full price when you don’t have to?

Save on flowers

Did you know that Americans spend close to $2 billion on Valentine’s Day flowers each year?

Save on those beautiful blossoms with these tips:

  • Shop for flowers at Costco, Trader Joe’s or Aldi. You’ll find great deals on fresh flowers that will outlast the cheaper ones you might find at street vendors.
  • Don’t buy flowers online. They’re unlikely to last well through the shipping and delivery process.
  • Use the food. The small packet of flower food that comes along with your blossoms will help them last longer and stay vibrant and fresh — but only if you use it.

Bring down your dinner costs

Don’t break your budget on a romantic dinner for two.

First, consider dining in. Yes, we know your kitchen table isn’t the hottest place in town, but you can find another area in your home and turn it into a special spot for a special meal. Consider laying down a blanket in front of the fireplace for a picnic-inspired experience, moving a small table into the living room or even setting up a cozy corner in a rarely used room in your home, such as a storage room or guest bedroom. Cook up a storm, or order in — you’ll still save on restaurant costs by forgoing beverages, gratuities and other add-ons you end up blowing money on when you eat out.

If you or your loved one are really looking forward to dining out, make it less expensive by learning how to beat the psychological tricks that restaurateurs play on diners to get them to spend more:

  • Look left. Restaurant owners strategically place the most profitable items on the menu in the right-hand corner — the spot most people look to automatically.
  • Say the price out loud. Notice the lack of dollar signs on the menu? It’s a trick to get you to spend more. Make the price real in your mind by saying it out loud.
  • Ignore the decoys. Restaurants famously place popular dishes near ridiculously overpriced items on the menu to make diners believe they’re getting a great deal. Your weapon against this trick is to completely ignore the most expensive item on the menu.
  • Dumb it down. Reading a restaurant menu can sometimes feel like reading French — even if you’re eating Italian. When choosing what to order, isolate the actual item on the menu instead of getting lost in all those descriptive phrases.
  • Take no notice of negative space. Another restaurant trick that gets diners to spend more is to create a pocket of empty space around high-profit items on the menu. This draws the eye to where the restaurant owner wants it to go and gets you to spend more than planned.

Celebrate late

If you dare, postpone your Valentine’s Day celebrations by a day or two for steep savings on all related expenses. You’ll find Valentine’s Day candy and greeting cards on clearance, gifts already marked down, and you won’t have to pay inflated restaurant prices for the same meal.

Use these hacks to plan the perfect Valentine’s Day on a budget.

Your Turn: How do you save on Valentine’s Day costs? Share your best tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
clark.com
rd.com
nerdwallet.com
mentalfloss.com

What’s a Recession Anyway?

Unless you’ve been living in a bunker for the last several months, you’ve likely caught the term “recession” thrown around on the news more than once. Hearing this word being used to describe the state of the U.S. economy can trigger a range of reactions from mild anxiety to a full-blown stuffing-money-under-the-mattress panic.

For many people, though, part of their angst surrounding the state of the economy is the vast amount of unknown: What is the exact definition of a recession? How is it different from a depression? How long do recessions usually last? What causes a recession?

So many questions — but we’ve got answers! Here’s all you need to know about recessions, the current state of the U.S. economy and what all of this means to you as a private consumer.

What is a recession? 

A recession is a widespread economic decline in a designated region that lasts for several months or longer. In a recession, the gross domestic product (GDP), or the total value of all goods and services produced in the region, decreases for two consecutive quarters. A healthy economy is continually expanding, so a contracting GDP suggests that problems are brewing within the economy. In most recessions, the GDP growth will slow for several quarters before it turns negative.

What’s the difference between a recession and a depression?

A depression has criteria similar to that of a recession, but is much more severe. For example, in both a recession and a depression the unemployment rate rises; however, during the Great Recession of 2008, the worst recession in U.S. history to date, unemployment peaked at 10%, while during the Great Depression, unemployment levels soared to 25%. Similarly, during the Great Recession, the GDP contracted by 4.2%, while during the Great Depression it shrank by 30%.

Depressions also last a lot longer than recessions. The Great Depression officially lasted for four years but continued to impact the economy for more than a decade. In contrast, recessions generally last only 11 months, according to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

There have been 47 recessions in U.S. history, and a total of 13 recessions since the Great Depression. There has only been a single recorded depression in our country’s history.

What causes a recession? 

A recession can be triggered by a variety of factors:

  • A sudden economic shock that causes severe financial damage.
  • Excessive debt carried by consumers and businesses, leading to debt defaults and bankruptcies.
  • Asset bubbles, or when investors’ make irrational decisions, overbuy stocks and then rush to sell, causing a market crash.
  • Excessive inflation and rising interest rates, which triggers a decline in economic activity.
  • Excessive deflation, which sparks a decrease in wages, further depressing prices.
  • Technological changes, including outsourcing jobs to machines or other technological breakthroughs that alter the way entire industries operate.

Why the COVID-19 recession is unlike any other?

In June 2020, the NBER  announced that the U.S. economy had been in recession since February.

The COVID-19 recession, also known as the coronavirus recession, the Great Shutdown, the Great Lockdown or the Coronavirus Crash, is unique because it was sparked by an unforeseen pandemic and not by any inherent problem within the economy.

Another anomaly of the coronavirus recession is the super-healthy state of the economy before it hit. In February, unemployment levels were at a 50-year low, stock markets were at a record high and the U.S. economy had enjoyed 126 months of growth,  its longest period of uninterrupted expansion in history.

The unusual triggers and the explosive start of the current recession may be good news for its eventual end. Economists initially were hopeful that the recession could reverse itself quickly with a V-shaped recovery. Unfortunately, due to prolonged lockdowns and the nationwide failure to keep infection rates down, they have since declared that a rapid rebound is unlikely. There is still hope for a relatively fast recovery. An April Reuters poll  found that nearly half of 45 economists believed the U.S. recovery would be U-shaped: slower and more gradual than a V-shaped recovery, but still fairly quick.

How will this recession affect me?

The coronavirus recession can impact the average consumer in multiple ways.

First, many are struggling with sudden unemployment or will be facing joblessness in the coming months. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the unemployment rate at a staggering 10.2%.

Second, the economic uncertainty has triggered record-low interest rates, which in turn sparked a rush to refinance. If you are currently paying high interest rates on a long-term loan, you may want to consider refinancing and enjoying a lower monthly payment.

Finally, investments in stocks, bonds and real estate may lose value during a recession.

Your Turn: What do you think will be most impacted by the coronavirus recession? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Getting Ahead on Your Student Loan Before You Graduate

young woman working at a laptop in an officeAs you prepare for graduation and begin scouting different employment opportunities, be sure to look at the larger picture before you accept a position.

Hopefully, you’ve chosen a career path that will bring you joy and gratification. Equally important, though, is a job that can support your lifestyle choices. While the positions you consider for your first post-college job will likely offer the opportunity for growth, you’ll still need to pay your bills—and make your student loan payments—as soon as you graduate. A job that brings you satisfaction and a pleasant working environment will not last long if the salary it offers causes you to sink into debt.

How do you determine what kind of salary will be large enough to support your desired lifestyle?

To get this information, you’ll need to create a mock monthly budget for your post-college self.

Using a spreadsheet or paper and pen, create two columns, one for expenses and one for actual dollar amounts. In the expense column, list your typical monthly expenses, including housing costs, transportation costs, health insurance, groceries, entertainment costs, clothing costs, dining out, savings, etc. In the dollar column, list the amount of money you expect to pay every month for each expense.

Your budget should look something like this:

ExpenseMonthly Cost
Housing$1,200
Transportation$300
Health Insurance$250
Groceries$350
Student Loan Payments$350

It will take some research and some hard, honest thinking to come up with these numbers. For housing costs, take a moment to think about where you see yourself settling down after college. You don’t have to know the exact neighborhood you’ll live in, but it’s good to know the city that will work best for you in terms of lifestyle, career path, and family plans. You can narrow this down to a few choices so long as you keep it reasonable. Once you’ve chosen your desired location, research the median rental prices in the area on real estate sites like Zillow and Redfin.

Next, work on transportation costs. If you already own a car, you’ll have an idea of what it costs you each month. Otherwise, spend some time thinking about what kind of car you want to drive. You can find listings on Carfax.com. Include costs like auto insurance, gas, and upkeep, in this category.

Or, if you plan on living somewhere with reliable public transportation, you might choose this route instead. Make a calculation of how much you’ll spend on bus and/or train rides, along with the occasional cab or ride-share ride.

Complete your budget using your best estimates for each category. Once you’ve filled out each expense amount, add up your total and multiply it by 12 to give you the amount of money you’ll need each year for supporting the lifestyle of your choice. (This number will increase with inflation, but since current salaries will likely increase along with the inflation rate, this exercise can still give you an idea of the annual salary you’ll need.)
Now that you have these numbers, you’re ready to go ahead with your job search. When considering possible positions, you don’t have to choose the one that pays the highest salary if there are other things about the job you don’t love. However, it’s best to pursue positions that can actually support you.

Your Turn:
Are you choosing your first job for the salary or for other factors? Share your take with us in the comments.

Learn More:
knsfinancial.com
usnews.com
usnews.com
brazen.com

The Complete Guide to Prioritizing Bills During a Financial Crunch

Young woman stares at bills worriedly with head in handsOur vibrant, animated country has been put on pause. Busy thoroughfares are now empty of pedestrians and previously crowded malls are eerily vacant, as millions of Americans shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Forced leave of work has left many wondering if and when they’ll receive their next paycheck.
If you are one of the millions of Americans on furlough, you may be panicking about incoming bills and wondering where you’ll find the money to pay for them all. Let’s take a look at what financial experts are advising now so you can make a responsible, informed decision about your finances going forward.

Triage your bills
Financial expert Clark Howard urges cash-strapped Americans to look at their bills the way medical personnel view incoming patients during an emergency.

“In medicine it’s called triage,” Howard says. “It’s exactly what’s happening in the hospitals right now as they decide who to treat when or who not to treat. You have to look at your bills the same way. You’ve got to think about what you must have.”

Times of emergency call for unconventional prioritizing. Clark recommends putting your most basic needs, including food and shelter, before any other bills. It’s best to make sure you can feed your family before using your limited resources for loan payments or credit card bills. Similarly, your family needs a place to live; mortgage or rent payments should be next on your list.

Housing costs
It’s one thing to resolve to put your housing needs first and another to actually put that into practice when you’re working with a smaller or no paycheck this month. The good news is that some rules have changed in light of the financial fallout of the pandemic.
On March 18, President Donald Trump announced he’s instructing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to immediately halt “all foreclosures and evictions” for 60 days. This means you’ll have a roof over your head for the next two months, no matter what.

Also, in early March, the Federal Housing Finance Agency offered payment forbearance to homeowners affected by COVID-19, allowing them to suspend mortgage payments for up to 12 months. These loans, provided by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, account for approximately 66 percent of all home loans in America. The payments will eventually need to be covered. Some lenders allow delayed payments to be tacked onto the end of the home loan’s term, while others collect the sum total of the missed payments when the period of forbearance ends.

Speak to your lender about your options before making a decision. A free pass on your mortgage during the economic shutdown can be a lifesaver for your finances and help free up some of your money for essentials.

If you’re a renter, be open with your landlord.
“Consumers who are the most proactive and say, ‘Here’s where I stand,’ will get a lot better response than those who do nothing,” says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, CEO of AsktheMoneyCoach.com and author of “Zero Debt.”

Your landlord may be willing to work with you. That’s true whether it means paying partial rent this month and the remainder when you’re back at work, spreading this month’s payment throughout the year, or just paying April’s rent a few weeks late, after the relief funds and unemployment payments from the government begin.

Paying for transportation
When normal life resumes, many employees will need a way to get to work. Missing out on an auto loan payment can mean risking repossession of your vehicle. This should put car payments next on your list of financial priorities. If meeting that monthly payment is impossible right now, communicate with your lender and come up with a plan that is mutually agreeable to both parties.

Household bills
Utility and service bills should be paid on time each month, but for workers on furlough due to the coronavirus pandemic, these expenses may not even make it to their list of priorities.

First, don’t worry about shutoffs. Most states have outlawed utility shutoffs for now.
Second, many providers are willing to work with their clients. Visit the websites of your providers and check to see what kind of relief and financial considerations they’re offering their consumers at this time.

It’s important to note that lots of households receive water service directly from their city or county, and not through a private provider. Many local governments have suspended shutoffs, but be sure to verify if yours has done so before assuming it to be true.

Finally, as with every other bill, it’s best to reach out to your provider and be honest about what you can and cannot pay for at this time.

Unsecured debt
Unsecured debt includes credit cards, personal loans and any other loan that is not tied to a large asset, like a house or vehicle. Howard urges financially struggling Americans to place these loans at the bottom of their list of financial priorities during the pandemic. At the same time, he reminds borrowers that missing out on a monthly loan payment can have a long-term negative impact on a credit score.

Here, too, consumers are advised to communicate with their lenders about their current financial realities. Credit card companies and lenders are often willing to extend payment deadlines, lower the APR on a line of credit or a loan, waive a late fee or occasionally allow consumers to skip a payment without penalty.

Your Turn:
How are you prioritizing your bills during the pandemic? Share your tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
clark.com
nationalpost.com
consumerfinance.gov
katu.com
businessinsider.com

Give Your Finances Some Therapy With Amanda Clayman

Protrait of Amanda ClaymanMeet Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist and influencer who uses a therapeutic approach to help people get their finances on track.

Clayman is no stranger to financial struggles. She shares her journey on her blog, telling the story of the “$19,000 haircut” which served as her personal rock bottom and forced her to take her career in a new direction. Clayman makes it clear that it was not a lack of financial literacy or an upbringing steeped in bad money habits that led to her money troubles. Instead, it was the snowball effect of one bad choice leading to another, until she was struggling under a mountain of debt with no visible way out.

Today, Clayman is a popular financial influencer and a practicing clinician who specializes in money issues. In 2006, she partnered with The Actors Fund and founded a cognitive behavioral therapy-based financial wellness program. She says that money can be a tool for transformation, and this belief helps shape her approach for financial healing.

Clayman tells her followers that financial challenges are inevitable; they can only control their reactions. They need to be proactive at developing a healthy way to handle these setbacks so they can set firm, loving boundaries, make value-based decisions and align behavior with intentions when faced with a financial hardship. Ultimately, this will enable followers to view these challenges as a source of personal growth and empowerment.

You can read Amanda’s story on her blog and follow her on Twitter at @mandaclay to learn more about this transformative approach toward money management and financial wellness.

Your Turn:
Do you have a plan in place for financial setbacks? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
twitter.com
amandaclayman.com

Step 6 Of 12 Toward A Debt-Free Life: Trim Expenses

Now that we have a budget, let’s slim it down!

a couple plan their finances in a journal

You’ve already practiced spending less thanks to Step #2 in this series. Now, it’s time to get serious about it.

Take a long, hard look at the money you spend each month and find your weak spots.

  • Where do you spend the most on unnecessary purchases?
  • What’s your particular vice? You may even have several spending traps.
  • How can you cut back on you daily expenses?

Any extra money you save goes toward your debt payments.

Your Turn:
What’s your spending trap? Share it with us in the comments.