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American workers are having anything but an easy year. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused many employers to decrease employee hours, cut pay or both. In fact, almost a quarter of Americans have taken a pay cut due to COVID-19, according to the Pew Research Center.
A sudden dip in your income can shake up your day-to-day life, especially if you're unsure how long it will last or if it will compromise your ability to pay your bills. The good news is that adjusting your budget can help you stay afloat—and avoid debt—during these uncertain times. It begins with getting a handle on your monthly spending. Consider these seven actions you can take right now to help you gain control.
1. Create a Budget
Having a financial roadmap can help reduce stress during periods of fluctuating income. In fact, a 2019 survey Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards found that 62% of consumers who follow a budget feel more in control. There's more than one way to budget, so we unpacked a few strategies you can explore to blend your personality and spending style.
- Zero-based budget: This type of budget has you list out and align all your expenses with your expected income over a certain period of time—the calendar month or your pay cycle, for instance. Your goal is to account for every dollar and avoid overspending by assigning dollar amounts to each financial goal and spending category (such as your retirement fund or entertainment expenses) until there's nothing left to account for.
- 50/30/20 budget: Maintaining a 50/30/20 budget allows you to have more balance and control in your monthly spending. It divides your expenses into three categories and provides a framework for how much of your income each category should consume: 50% for necessities, up to 30% for discretionary spending, and at least 20% for financial goals like saving and debt repayment. If your numbers skew too high in one category, that's OK. Consider trimming your discretionary spending or any fixed monthly bills to even things out.
- Cash-only budget: Research suggests that consumers typically spend less when using cash versus a credit card. To put this budgeting style to work for you, it may be easiest to set your recurring monthly bills to autopay with you card—but when it comes to things like entertainment, groceries and fun money, put a set amount of cash in corresponding envelopes until your next payday. When each one runs out, that money is gone, which makes it hard to overspend.
- Dual-account budget: With this method, you dedicate one bank account for fixed expenses and another for discretionary spending. Start by tallying up your monthly bills, then dividing that number by however many times you get paid in a month. If your bills add up to $2,400 per month and you receive two monthly paychecks, you'll deposit $1,200 from each check into the account that's earmarked for bills. The rest can go right into your spending account. Track the balance as you go to make it last until your next paycheck.
2. Track Your Spending
A budget doesn't do you any good unless you keep yourself accountable in sticking to it. Once your budget is established, take the time to look through your spending habits and adjust them as necessary. Review your recent debit and credit card statements and compare how much you spent against your budget. Doing this will identify areas where your spending could derail your budget if left unchecked. Being aware of your spending is the only way you can make sure your budget works in practice, and not just in theory. Some items to look out for include:
- Restaurant takeout and food delivery bills that are adding up.
- Fees for memberships or subscription services you could live without.
- Banking fees you were unaware of.
- Fraudulent activity.
- Discretionary purchases that exceed what you allowed yourself when creating your budget.
Sticking to a budget takes discipline, and you'll likely have to make some tough decisions to do it successfully. If you're trying hard but finding it impossible keep to the amounts set in your budget, adjust the numbers to create a more realistic plan and help you get back on track.
Experian's Personal Finances tool accessible through your Experian account can help you budget, track your spending and keep everything ship shape. To access the tool, log in to your Experian.com account and click on "Personal Finances" at the bottom of the page. When you link your accounts, you'll see an easy-to-use rundown of your income and expenses.
3. Make Saving Automatic
Saving while navigating a pay cut may not feel top of mind, especially if you're focusing on making ends meet, but it's something you'll be thankful you did in the future. The pandemic has shown us that things can change in an instant, and having a strong emergency fund can provide peace of mind that reduces financial anxiety during uncertain times. A good goal is to eventually save three to six months' worth of expenses.
If money is tight right now, start small and celebrate the wins. Account for saving in your budget and adjust it as your income or spending changes. Automating your contributions can help make saving a habit. Even if you only put $100 a month toward savings, you'll have $600 set aside in six months' time. What's more, your emergency fund could save you from accumulating credit card debt if you encounter another financial bump in the road. Consider a high-yield savings account so you can earn while you save.
4. Cut Back on Restaurant Spending
Food spending makes up a good chunk of any household budget—especially these days. TD Ameritrade conducted a survey in April and May 2020 and found that the average American spent an extra $282 on groceries since the pandemic began. (The upside, however, is that many had saved a little less than that by not eating out.)
It's possible for an average family of four with older kids to spend as little as $680 per month on groceries, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here are some actionable ways to lean out your food spending:
- Make a habit of meal planning. Sketch out a weekly meal plan that's based around items you already have in your freezer and cupboards. It's a simple act that could stop you from ordering pricey takeout. Looking to low-cost grocery stores like Aldi, buying in bulk at Costco or other warehouse stores, and opting for store-brand products can drive up potential savings even more.
- Go with pickup over delivery. While convenient, food delivery apps come at a price. Popular platforms like Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats all tack on varying delivery fees. That's on top of whatever service fees may apply. When supporting local businesses, choosing to pick up your order yourself is almost always cheaper.
- Look for local restaurant deals. Before heading out, check to see if any local restaurants in your area are running any promotions. Some, for example, may offer buy-one-get-one deals or kids-eat-free specials on certain days.
5. See if Any Service Providers Are Offering Temporary Relief
You may be able to temporarily reduce some of your bills until your income bounces back. Those with a federally backed mortgage may qualify for a 180-day forbearance (with the option to extend it another 180 days after that), thanks to the CARES Act. This pandemic relief legislation also allows borrowers with federal student loans to push pause on their payments, including interest, until the end of September.
Even your car payment may be negotiable right now. Ford, for example, is letting borrowers delay payment or change their payment due dates in light of the pandemic. Contacting your service providers across the board could translate to significant savings.
6. Consider Refinancing Your Debts
With interest rates being as low as they are, now might be a ripe opportunity to refinance debt—and free up some extra money in your budget. Refinancing involves taking out a new loan with a lower interest rate or longer repayment period, which can bring down your monthly payment. When done right, it can save you money in both the long and short term.
Your mortgage, student loans and auto loans may all be on the table, but just because you can refinance doesn't always mean it's the most financially savvy thing to do. Refinancing a loan can involve costs that can make doing so tough to justify. Only refinance if you've considered these fees and factored them into your savings calculation. Another thing to keep in mind is that refinancing a federal student loan to a private loan means you'll lose protections like payment deferrals and income-driven repayment options.
7. Pick Up a Side Gig
One way to cope when experiencing a pay cut is to supplement your income. Picking up a side gig could be in order—and the internet has no shortage of work-from-home options. From writing to graphic design to programming, websites like Fiverr and Upwork are good jumping-off points for connecting with potential new clients. Just be aware that websites like these usually take a cut of your payments, and finding freelance clients on your own is the better move if possible. Online teaching or tutoring is another option, especially with the current rise in online learning.
You may also choose to sell unwanted clothes, furniture and electronics on platforms like Facebook Marketplace, Ebay and ThredUP.
The Bottom Line
While none of us knows what the future holds, there are still ways to feel financially empowered—even when finding your way through a pay cut. Organizing your budget, curbing your spending and looking for creative ways to up your income can help put you on the right track while you ride out the storm. No matter what, directing any savings into your emergency fund can create a safety net to catch you the next time you need it.