3 tips on managing money in a pandemic

When you've been on edge - emotionally and financially - for so long, you need these checks

When you have been on edge - emotionally and financially - it is especially important to conduct check-ins.
When you have been on edge - emotionally and financially - it is especially important to conduct check-ins.PHOTO: UNSPLASH

(NYTIMES) - Maybe you lost your job. Maybe your hours were cut. Or maybe you had to take over caregiving responsibilities. If your income fell precipitously in the past 18 months - even if things have become better - it is an uncertain time.

High inflation in some sectors does not help, and neither do rising housing costs.

Yet jobs - though maybe not the ones that hotel and restaurant workers, theatre people and small business owners had before - have been increasingly available in many parts of the country, though job growth has slowed recently.

No two situations are exactly alike, but when you have been on edge - emotionally and financially - for this long, it is especially important to conduct three types of check-ins.

First, find another human to talk to who has seen more (and hopefully knows more) than you. Then, do a quick nuts-and-bolts audit of your financial standing. Finally, check in on your feelings - which can influence how you plot a recovery from a pandemic that has permanently expanded our understanding of what qualifies as a volatile industry.

1. Everyone can use a good financial planner

They are a reliable source of guidance, but you may not be able to afford one right now - or find one who will take you on pro bono.

So consider that nearly every workplace or industry collective has a go-to guru or two for all matters of personal finance advice. Seek them out.

If that does not work, where else might you look in your acquaintance list? Consider freelancers, especially people in creative industries. Sudden income shocks may be familiar to them because they often lack regular pay cheques and usually know from dry spells.

Mr Stephen Lee Anderson has been that person for up-and-coming theatre actors in New York for many years. He is particularly adept at nudging them to pay themselves first in a retirement account. "You give your agent 10 per cent," he told me. "Aren't you worth at least that much?"

The Stephens (and Stephanies) of the world are still out there, dispensing all manner of useful advice to people who lack professional financial planning.

Or maybe you believe in strength in numbers. If you are hurting or trying to heal, there is a good chance others in your profession or at your job site are, too. Consider forming a support group. It may come with an uncomfortable amount of transparency, but it can help you learn and stay accountable for your decisions.

2. Get some certainty about debt and taxes

Any rebound or reboot has to include the basics. Your credit file serves as a transcript and resume for lenders sussing you out, while your tax return is a kind of self-evaluation on earning, retirement savings and your own record-keeping skills.

Like it or not, credit bureaus have enormous power over what you will pay when you borrow or whether you can even obtain a mortgage, credit card, auto loan or rental dwelling.

Perhaps you ran up credit card debt because you had to, or decided to spend more to make life easier and safer these past 18 months.

If so, keep in mind that provisions of the first big pandemic relief Bill still require credit bureaus to mark many individuals as "current" on their accounts if they received certain types of payment accommodations from lenders. (Have you asked your lender for a break of some sort? No time like the present, if you need one.)

As for that tax return, it never hurts to organise all the tax data you can during the last few months of the calendar year. It is a record of your recent past and a window into your long-term future (say, via any notation about retirement savings). The process may also serve as a reminder that there is often at least one more thing you could do in the present to help yourself while handing less money over to various governmental bodies.

3. Do not just contemplate catastrophe

Now, for the searching questions about your feelings. Even for those accustomed to financial uncertainty, the pandemic may have increased the kind of catastrophic thinking that can suffocate your ability to plan and prioritise.

Out in Hollywood, among a class of workers that resemble theatre people like our money mentor Stephen, even the most successful were often gripped by fear, said Ms Leighann Miko, whose financial planning firm works often with people who move from gig to gig.

"The fear was that things would take much longer to recover," she said. "People thought they were going to have to pursue other means of employment." What they really hoped to avoid was what she called "Plan Z", the code for former jobs in different industries that they were hoping never to have to take again.

Ms Miko sees a kind of psychological scarring all around her, even among people making US$600,000 (S$812,300) per year. Cry them a river, but they know good and well that even absent a pandemic, a year with just US$30,000 in earnings could easily be around the next corner.

To help those who cannot conceive of doing anything beyond the dream jobs they have worked so hard to obtain, she plans and schemes - and tries to get them to as well.

"Minimising the catastrophising means ensuring there are multiple layers to every safety net," she said. "Because at some point or another, they are going to fall through the first one and then the second one." So rather than lose yourself in contemplating what unfathomable thing might be the next unfathomable thing, make an action plan for the next upheaval. It can be relatively simple: If income falls from B to A, tap C, D and E in that order and cut F, G and H. If that isn't enough, swallow pride and ask people I and J for help.

"It's like asking five-year-olds, 'If you get into trouble, what should the punishment be?' " she said. "If it happens, they've committed to it. These were your words, your feelings." When things are falling apart, she said, "no one likes being told what to do".