Covid-19 has impacted society and how we go about our day to day lives in many ways, and we will discover more changes as long as it remains a threat without a successful treatment or vaccine. Quarantines, reopening, subsequent outbreak related shutdowns, and looming waves of infection all have the capacity to change our behavior in ways we can’t predict. We have already seen the largest spike in unemployment in the history of the U.S. and some of the largest bailout/stimulus/aid packages passed in record time.
One somewhat surprising financial effect has been the increased personal savings rate. The rate jumped from 8% in February up to 13.1% in March and according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis it hit a record 33% in April. I guess an increase shouldn’t be too surprising given that due to stay at home orders people weren’t able to spend at many of the places they usually do like restaurants and bars, and people with small kids didn’t have to pay for childcare (but still had to find a way to care for kids and get work done, if this is you, I’m in the same boat and I feel for you). Still, the magnitude of the increase is a bit shocking.
If you are part of the lucky group with stable employment and you’ve seen your savings balance go up, what should you do now? Blowing it on stuff you don’t need from Amazon might seem appealing, but there are probably better uses for your excess cash.
Create an emergency fund
Step number one in all of personal finance is earn more than you spend, and step two is to set some cash aside in case of future emergencies. If you are someone that’s been operating right on the edge between income and spending, take this time to build up a cash cushion. The old statistic that 40% of people can’t afford a $400 emergency is said to be false, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is sitting pretty with plenty of savings, or wouldn’t be in a bad spot if they had to replace the transmission in their car tomorrow.
The recommended emergency fund amount is between 3-6 months of expenses depending on your personal comfort level and situation. Chances are that the increased savings you may be experiencing is not enough to fully fund 3-6 months of expenses and that’s ok. Start by making a deposit to this fund and continue adding to it over time.
If you already have an emergency fund that you felt comfortable with heading into 2020, right now when the world is so uncertain is the perfect time to re-evaluate. Make sure your risk tolerance and comfort level aligns with the amount you have in savings. I think it’s helpful to think back to how you felt when the shutdowns started and everything was so uncertain when considering the correct emergency fund amount for you. I am not advocating for people to pull all of their money out of the stock market and keep it in cash, but having a decent emergency savings account, might come in handy and help you sleep much better in the coming months. Especially when it seems extremely likely that we will continue to deal with more uncertainty going forward.
Review your spending habits
It’s rare in life that someone or something mandates that you stop doing anything inessential. But that’s exactly what happened when the coronavirus shut downs occurred. Most of us had between 1 to 3 months of time where we were not allowed to do much outside of the basic functions of eating, sleeping, working, and caring for our children.
It was definitely frustrating in the moment when you couldn’t go out and grab a meal at your favorite restaurants or get coffee in the morning before heading to work the way you would normally do. But it also offers an opportunity to take a look at your spending pre-shut down and more mindfully consider what actions you want to continue or change now that life is moving back in the direction of normal, or at least our new normal.
Maybe during quarantine you discovered how much you like cooking for you and your family at home during the week. Or maybe you discovering how much you were spending on snacks and coffee and other things throughout the throughout the week. Or maybe you’re surprised that the extra money you have in your bank account because you were not able to head to happy hour for drinks 2 to 3 times a week like you previously were. On the flip-side you might realize just how much you relied on your weekly yoga session to destress after your work week, or how much your weekly date nights out helped you and your partner connect.
The quarantine has provided a great chance to review how you spent your money and time before and consider if there are any changes worth noticing. It’s perfectly fine not to make any changes after life gets back to normal, the important part of this process is taking a mindful look at how you were spending in both situations and making sure that you’re aligning your money with your goals to live your best life.
Give to those that need it the most
If you’re fortunate enough to be in just as secure a financial position today as you were in February 2020 that’s great, but the effects of coronavirus and the shutdowns have impacted some people much more than others. The economic effects have impacted people unequally based on race, income and education. Those with higher income and higher education levels have seen minimal effects to their financial well-being. They have been able to continue working and in many cases working from home. The shutdown has more severely impacted communities of color and less educated workers who have seen a much higher rate of unemployment since the start of the shutdowns.
If you are in a position to donate, now is a great time to give to charities that are helping those hit hardest during this time. There are many organizations that could use your help supporting the work they do. World Central Kitchen has been working to feed people during the coronavirus crisis, you can also support Feeding America or use their site to find local food banks that would gladly accept your help as well.
Along with the increased economic impact that they have to deal with, minority communities have been disproportionately hit with the health impact of coronavirus as well. Blacks and Latinos are more likely than Whites to be infected by the coronavirus and are more likely to die as a result as well. The protests around the murder of George Floyd have helped shine a light on the systemic racism and injustice that these communities must deal with everyday. One small way you can help is by donating to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Loveland Foundation or another charity working to promote racial equity in the U.S.
There are many causes and people that can use your help even more these days than in the past. I strongly recommend finding a way to support organizations like these or others that are important to you if you are able.
Plan for future goals
One of the most impactful things that you can do with any unanticipated cash is to you give yourself a head start on achieving your future goals. Putting a healthy chunk into savings account for a future house down payment, or maxing out your Roth IRA contributions for the year as well as getting a start on next years are great uses of excess funds.
As they say compound interest is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, and it’s made even more powerful the earlier you put it to work. Giving yourself a head start on savings allows compound interest to work for you for longer and potentially reach your goal much more quickly.
Don’t Look Back With Regret
However you choose to spend your coronavirus savings windfall please do it wisely. There are still plenty of ways to spend and as the U.S. opens up it will be tempting to go wild or fall back into default spending patterns without realizing it. The worst outcome financially would be to look back at this time with regret that you wasted this opportunity to build up your savings, help others or set your future self up for success.