Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, many workers all around the world have been forced to stay home from work, sometimes along with their children whose schools have closed. With so much uncertainty still surrounding this pandemic, it’s natural to have some major financial concerns.
Here are the 3 smart financial moves you can make during the coronavirus outbreak.
Don’t sell investments out of fear
We’ll start with things you shouldn’t do. If you’ve been following the news, you know the stock market has dropped like a rock and threatens to continue spiraling. As of March 13, the stock market is more than 20% lower than it was a month ago. Even if you don’t own stocks directly in a brokerage account, this has likely caused your 401(k) or other retirement account to lose a significant percentage of its value.
It can be extremely stressful to watch the value of your retirement nest egg plunge by tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve watched a significant portion of my account value evaporate recently as well.
However, one thing you absolutely do not want to do is sell any stocks or stock-based investments as a result of this panic — especially in retirement accounts that you won’t need for several years. So long as your immediate financial needs are met, selling stocks after a massive market selloff is the worst thing you can do to your long-term financial health. The goal of investing is to buy low and sell high. By panic-selling, you’re doing the exact opposite.
Stocks experience 20% or greater declines every few years on average, but they have always gone up over the course of decades. In fact, many people are better off not even looking at their 401(k) or brokerage account when the market is so volatile, as doing so often leads to irrational, knee-jerk decisions.
Most retail investors (like you and me) underperform the stock market over time, and the main reason is that we’re prone to making emotion-based decisions. Just stay invested for the long run. This isn’t the first time the market has dropped this much, and it certainly won’t be the last.
If you are still not into the stock market investment or looking to trade in stocks then this is the right time to start.
Take advantage of low interest rates
Interest rates have plunged during the coronavirus outbreak, and this has resulted in some of the lowest borrowing costs in history.
The most significant example is mortgages. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rate is at a near-record low of 3.47% as I write this, and borrowers with excellent credit scores can likely find even better rates. If the mortgage rate you’re currently paying is significantly higher than the current national average, it could be a good idea to look into refinancing your mortgage, which can lower your monthly payment and help you build equity faster by putting more of your mortgage payment towards your principal balance.
If you choose to look into refinancing, here are a couple of suggestions:
- Make sure you’re paying attention to the annual percentage rate (APR) of any mortgage offer, not just the interest rate. The APR tells you the total cost of borrowing, including certain fees.
- Shop around. While mortgage rates are at historic lows, you’ll still receive different offers from different lenders. You may be surprised at what a seemingly tiny difference in APR can do over the repayment term of a 30-year mortgage. Plus, there’s a provision in the FICO® credit scoring formula that ensures your credit score won’t be hit by multiple hard inquiries if you do all your rate-shopping within a two-week period.
- Know your FICO® Score and what it means. Your credit score has a big impact on the mortgage APRs you’re offered. There are several places where you can view your FICO® Score — many credit card companies give customers access to one of their FICO® Scores for free — or you can pay for a more comprehensive service such as myFICO.com. To get an idea of what to expect, you can check out the current average mortgage rates by FICO® Score at myFICO.com.
The downtrend in interest rates that has accompanied the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to extend beyond mortgages. If you have a lot of high-interest debt, you might want to consider taking out a personal loan for debt consolidation, for example. Other forms of borrowing, such as home equity loans and auto loans, are also likely to be cheaper than they were just a few weeks ago.
Look for opportunities to cut expenses
If you are simply worried about your general level of cash flow during the outbreak, it’s smart to look for ways to cut expenses. Some of the usual suspects might not be practical — for example, I can’t in good conscience suggest that you get rid of your Netflix subscription when you might be stuck at home indefinitely.
Fortunately, there are many ways to get your costs under control without depriving yourself too badly. And if you’ve thought about scaling back on going out to eat or shop because of the virus, considering how much money you’d save by doing so could give you extra motivation.
Cable: With all the streaming services available, including some that let you watch live TV, there’s really no reason to spring for a cable package. You can get all the shows and movies you need online at a quarter of the cost or less.
Annual cellphone upgrades: Despite what phone manufacturers would have you believe, this year’s smartphone isn’t much different than last year’s. One of the most common ways people waste money is by upgrading to the latest iPhone or Galaxy when their old phone works fine.
Unused subscriptions: Those small monthly charges may seem insignificant, but they add up. If you ever find yourself debating whether you need a subscription, it’s probably best to cancel for the time being. You can always resubscribe later if you miss it. Even if you think you’re not wasting any money here, you should look back at the last few months’ worth of bank and credit card statements. You may be automatically paying for some subscriptions you had forgotten about.
Credit card interest: Credit cards are the best payment method you can use, but only if you pay your balance in full every month. Paying interest on credit card balances is a terrible deal for you, because it essentially means you’re paying extra for every purchase. If you currently have any credit card debt, focus on eliminating it as quickly as possible.
Banking fees: Account maintenance fees and overdraft fees can be a frustrating drain on your budget. If you’ve been paying unnecessary banking fees, it may be time to look into the top bank accounts so you can make a switch.
Smoking/vaping: It’s obviously difficult to up and quit habits like these, but both of them cost you money and have a negative impact on your health. A pack of cigarettes costs $5.51 on average in the United States, according to Fair Reporters, so if you’re smoking anywhere near a pack a day, you’re looking at over $150 per month on cigarettes.
Vaping costs depend quite a bit on what device you have, but Elevated Vaping estimates that it can be anywhere from $35 per month with a refillable pod system to $171 per month with a more expensive setup, based on a consumption level of 1 ML of e-liquid per day.
Don’t over-buy items in preparation
At this point, we’ve all heard the stories about stores being sold out of toilet paper (of all the things to panic-buy…) and other essential items. While it’s certainly reasonable to stock up on some staples in anticipation of having to isolate yourself for a while, be careful not to over-prepare. Ask yourself questions like: “If I’m forced to stay home for a month, would I use anywhere near 10 cases of toilet paper?” Buy what you need, but be reasonable.
I’d especially advise readers to avoid over-buying anything on credit cards. You’re probably reading this because you’re concerned about your personal finances. Well, buying a ton of disaster preparation goods on credit cards may do far more harm than good, as you’ll rack up high-interest debt.
Boost your emergency fund
Experts suggest that you should have three to six months’ worth of expenses in a readily accessible place, such as a savings account.
Times like this are the reason emergency funds are so important. Imagine the peace of mind in knowing that if you were forced to take an unpaid month off work, you’d be just fine financially.
If you don’t have a comfortable emergency fund, now could be a great time to start building yours up. You don’t need tens of thousands of dollars — but some cushion is certainly better than none. If you’re among the fortunate people whose income and work schedule haven’t been disrupted yet, consider saving more aggressively in your emergency account. And if you haven’t yet received or allocated your tax refund, bulking up your emergency fund could be an excellent way to use it.