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Getting closer to financial wellness is a common aspiration at the beginning of a New Year, when we’re looking to instill some better habits and dig our way out of the deficit we often find ourselves in after a lot of holiday spending.
Pair that common annual scenario with this year’s uniquely harsher reality of persistent economic strain and personal financial losses due to 2020’s pandemic, and many of us are at a loss as to where to begin making our way back to solid financial ground.
We spoke with Sarah Blankenship, Financial Planner at MassMutual New York State, and Kristi Humphrey, Senior Manager at Chiampou, Travis, Besaw & Kershner, LLP, to get some expert advice for those looking to improve their financial situation in 2021. While everyone was impacted differently by the fallout of the pandemic, many of their recommendations are applicable to everyone – whether you’ve maintained income and are simply trying to correct some year-end overspending or create a roadmap for a financial goal, or if you’ve suffered significant hardships in 2020 and are simply trying to get back on your feet.
“2020 was absolutely a strange year,” said Blankenship. “We had so many rapidly evolving changes as far as government legislation, from filing your taxes at a different time to alleviation of having to make student loan payments for certain loans. There were so many different things going on, and it was hard for people to keep on top of all of that and know what was real and what wasn’t.”
The upside of that unusual year, according to Blankenship, is having the opportunity to take advantage of some of the alleviation that the government and some private entities can offer, such as stimulus funds, student loan forbearance, late fee forgiveness, and lower interest rates. Blankenship notes that it’s important to be mindful of how you can utilize those opportunities to yield the greatest benefit.
“If you’re somebody who is getting a stimulus check, make sure that you’re using it in the most appropriate, most financially beneficial way for yourself,” she said. “If you’re paying for student loans and you’re on pause, make sure that you’re doing something really smart with that payment – either continuing to make the payment if you’re still employed and taking advantage of zero percent interest rates, or using that payment towards something more appropriate, be it bulking up an emergency savings fund or paying other bills with it.”
Blankenship also advises calling your credit card companies and inquiring about zero percent interest or waiver of late fees, or contacting your mortgage company to see what alleviation they can provide. Consider reaching out to your car insurance provider and asking if you can receive a credit for being a safer driver, since you may not be driving as much these days. It’s also worth contacting your cell phone provider to see if there are more affordable plans available.
“If you are still struggling with unemployment or getting back on your feet with not being employed for a long time, that’s worth the time to make those kinds of phone calls,” she said. “I would also say now is the time to review your budget and cut out the fat – get rid of anything that is excess and something that you can just be without for a little bit.”
This idea of going back to the basics and making a strong start by building a budget is advice that holds true for anyone, regardless of their employment situation.
I always say that at the start of every new year or every change in your income, re-establish a budget,” Humphrey said. “Record what your expenses are and what your income is, so you can see the bigger picture and try to rebalance so that you can get back within your means.
Humphrey notes that a key part of this is understanding the difference between your “fixed expenses,” like rent, car payments and insurance, and your “fluid expenses” like gas and food. Once you’ve identified some of those fluid expenses that aren’t necessities, like entertainment or dining out, you can cut back on them and allow your bank account to recover a bit.
Both Blankenship and Humphrey emphasized the importance of “paying yourself first” by setting aside some money, even a small amount, in savings at the same time that you’re working to pay down debt. Humphrey recommends putting a little bit away each month in a completely separate account from where you perform your everyday transactions. Ideally, you would allow that savings to build up to at least six months’ worth of expenses to give yourself a cushion for the next time the unexpected happens.
With COVID, we all had a very good example of how an emergency fund becomes really important,” Blankenship said. “All of a sudden we might be in a situation where we are either sick or out of a job, where we really thought that perhaps we would have been safe for a long time. Which is why setting aside money for a rainy day fund for emergencies is that much more important.
If you’re fortunate enough to have maintained your income and are pursuing larger goals, like purchasing a car or a home, that savings habit will help get you there. It may also allow you the opportunity to occasionally make a double payment on an existing debt, thereby helping you pay it off sooner and save on interest. Investing some savings in a retirement account – especially if your employer offers a match – is another way to set yourself up for financial stability down the road. Even if your contribution is small to start, it will add up over time.
Blankenship also points out that the increased amount of downtime and social isolation resulting from the pandemic also presents an opportunity to bulk up our resumes by pursuing online certifications or doing some career networking via Zoom. “Add a different skill to your resume so that when the next opportunity does come around – be it this year, next year – you might have some more qualifications because you had the time to spend on it,” she said.
In addition to these smaller steps, prioritizing making a financial plan and adhering to it is essential to financial wellness in the long term.
“It always feels like this is never the right time to do a financial plan because maybe your job is up in the air or your income is inconsistent, but that’s always going to be the case,” Blankenship said “Life is always going to throw different curve balls at us and the whole point of doing a financial plan is to take where you are now and figure out what is important to you, what your goals are, what you want to achieve going forward, and create a roadmap that will help to get you there. Part of that roadmap is being able to pivot. We understand that life changes and that your plan will change, so that’s expected, but we do it the best we can with the information we have now, and then when that new job comes around or when that stability comes around, that just creates more opportunity for you.”
Doing your research into financial planning and support services is a great place to start this process. You can find free financial education seminars like the ones currently offered online through the Establishment. There are also non-profit entities like Consumer Credit Counseling that can provide guidance for free. Simply making a phone call to a financial planner and explaining your situation and needs can be a great first step as well. As Humphrey notes, it never hurts to have a conversation with someone, and they can at least point you in the right direction.
“We found that the biggest reason that people were having a lot of fear and insecurity this year was a lack of education, because if this is not what you do every day, it can be confusing” Blankenship said. “If you don’t have a financial advisor or a financial planner that you are comfortable with, we always are a resource to anybody who has questions. That’s the most important part – asking questions – and sometimes having somebody that can help answer some questions that you didn’t even know you should be asking.”
The most encouraging reality that Humphrey shared was that, regardless of how difficult the past year may have been and how worrisome your current situation may be, it’s always possible to get to a better place financially.
“Anybody can really get to financial health, if you start out with small goals,” she said. “Don’t expect that tomorrow you’re going to put a ton into savings or pay down all your debt if you don’t have the availability to do that. Start out small and try again to rebalance. It’s those small tiny pieces that build you up, and as you start to achieve those small goals, you can slowly build your goals bigger and bigger until you get back into financial health. It’s always tough to get going, but once we do it leads to big outcomes.”
In tough times, our efforts to maintain fitness, healthy nutrition, and personal wellness can fall by the wayside as we direct all our energy into navigating our individual storm. Yet, in the face of what’s happening in the world around us, it is essential to make space for self-care and experiences that fortify our physical and mental wellbeing.
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Trying to manage a proper work-life balance, saving for your future while paying all your bills, all while keeping strong relationships with friends and family… We know that life can get pretty stressful, and it’s easy to forget what’s best for your health both physically and mentally. Project Best Life is here to help with our podcast: Happy and Healthy. We provide tips from experts and share stories that will inspire you to live your best life, whatever that means to you. Listen now on Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google