By Andrew Lisa
The pandemic forced people to regroup financially and reassess what they were doing right with their money and what they were doing wrong. In most cases, the answer was to be more conservative — to pare back spending, increase savings, be wiser with their investments and take fewer risks.
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Now that places are reopening and things are changing, many people are letting their guards down — the problem is that “over” is an overstatement. Millions who could and should be vaccinated are not, the Delta variant is now raging across several states and new lockdown restrictions are being imposed.
In other words, don’t break the fast just yet. The next few months are hopeful but uncertain. These are the places in your financial life where it’s best to keep your guard up for now.
Keep Planning For the Worst
Don’t get lulled into free-and-clear post-pandemic complacency, particularly when it comes to saving for any new emergencies that might pop up in the back end of 2021. For now, stay on a financial war footing.
“If you’ve made it through the pandemic thus far unscathed financially, now is not the time to get lax in your resolve,” said Steffa Mantilla, a certified financial education instructor (CFEI) and founder of the personal finance website Money Tamer. “With the new Delta variant, areas could go back into lockdown, which will affect the job market and potentially your income. Make sure you have an emergency fund of six months’ worth of expenses built up.”
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Keep Attacking Debt
Mantilla is so adamant about prioritizing emergency savings that she says you should build a financial cushion even if it means paying just the minimum balance on your debts — but only temporarily.
“Then, once you have some money saved, you can go back to debt payoff,” Mantilla said.
Here, too, it’s all about preparing for late 2021 curveballs.
“The more debt you can get rid of, the more income is freed up,” she said. “Should you lose your job and need to take a lesser-paying job, you’ll have an easier time paying all of your monthly bills.”
Resist the Urge for a Celebratory Splurge
With new stories popping up every day about life in post-pandemic America, it’s easy enough for an “I deserve this” celebratory spending mentality to set it — but your kissing-a-sailor-in-Times-Square moment hasn’t arrived just yet. If you reined in spending to play it safe up until now, keep it up.
“My hope is that more people will take budgeting seriously and become more intentional with how they spend their money,” said Merilee Speigner, founder of the Easy Budget blog.
She’s seen people make real strides toward responsible spending and diligent saving during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, I’ve also seen people who have used the post-pandemic bliss to take on expensive car loans and vacations. After a year of deprivation, it’s not surprising, but I do hope these people prioritized their savings and investments beforehand.”
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Don’t Quit Your Day Job
Tales of high wages, great benefits and easy pickings in a tight labor market tempted legions of workers to quit the jobs they already had in search of something better. But they did so while riding the confidence of artificially inflated bank accounts.
“The federal government has given nearly $6 trillion in aid since the outbreak of COVID-19,” said Kunal Sawhney, CEO of financial research firm Kalkine Group. “Households received $1,400 and the unemployment support of $300 has been extended until September.”
When the money runs out, which it will, many of those labor speculators will find themselves stuck when the market returns the leverage to the employer.
“Americans may be on their own, and natural forces like employment and wages will shape how people undertake spending,” Sawhney said. “The harsh reality is that the unemployment rate rose to 5.9% in June. In some sectors like hospitality, the unemployment rate remains in double digits.”
Think Hard About Your HGTV Fantasy
Many of the same forces behind the labor shortage also created one of the hottest real estate markets in years — bidding wars and above-list sales have been the norm for months. That — combined with still-low interest rates — has compelled newbies and wannabes alike to finally gamble it all on that investment property they’ve been dreaming of. The problem is, they risk buying at the peak only to have the market cool off.
“One has to prudently cut spending and rethink parking of money in any ultra-hot asset like real estate,” Sawhney said. “House prices are growing at record rates. Don’t fall into the trap by making an uninformed decision. A correction may come at any time.”
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Plan To Keep Your Car Drivable for the Foreseeable Future
If you’re driving an older car that you hung onto during the pandemic to avoid a big-ticket expenditure, you might have been putting money into a repairs fund to prepare for the inevitable. Keep it up.
“Consumers need to keep padding their car repair budget,” said Nathan Mueller, MBA, a financial coach and financial planner who runs an independent financial practice called BlackBird. “Increased demand, chip shortages, lack of fleet sales, all have contributed to pushing used car prices tremendously up. It is going to be a while before prices come back down. If you can keep your current car running for another year with minor repairs, you stand to save a couple of thousand that used cars have jumped by.”
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Don’t Gamble With Your Emergency Fund
It’s no secret that modern savings accounts pay comically small interest rates. With the stock market delivering record highs as the longest bull run in history marching on, you might be tempted to consider adding your emergency fund to your brokerage account and putting all of your money to work at the same time.
Resist the temptation.
“Most of us are losing money due to inflation with our emergency savings, as these funds tend to be in a savings account, CDs and money markets,” Mueller said. “It can be tempting with interest rates low and equities doing well to have your money do more for you, but remember, an emergency fund is designed to be liquid and not carry risk.”