Sept. 7, 2021
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 gotten better — it is an uncertain time.
On one hand, the federal eviction moratoriums are gone now, and extended unemployment benefits are ending shortly. High inflation in some sectors does not help, and neither do rising housing costs. On the other, jobs — though maybe not the ones that hotel and restaurant workers, theater 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.
Everyone can use a Stephen.
Good financial planners 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 paychecks and usually know from dry spells.
Stephen Lee Anderson has been that person for up-and-coming theater 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%,” he told me this week. “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 — a kind of book club but for money. It may come with an uncomfortable amount of transparency, but it can help you learn and stay accountable for your decisions.
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 like Equifax, Experian and TransUnion 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.)
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers plain-English advice on how these temporary rules are supposed to work, including what specific accommodations you can try requesting from a lender that should also protect your credit. The rules will apply until 120 days after the end of the national state of emergency, which the federal government has so far renewed throughout the pandemic.
And the credit bureaus currently allow people to check their reports weekly — without charge. If your credit is precarious, or even if not, take advantage of this.
The bureaus are notorious for the number of errors their reports contain. If you find any, dispute them. For starters, you will want to contact both the credit bureaus and the financial services company that may have furnished the incorrect information. (The consumer bureau has a good guide.)
As for that tax return, it never hurts to organize 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.
Prepare yourself now, and you can file as early as possible in 2022 and quickly get any refund you have coming. One note of caution: Donna Trainor, a financial planner and accountant in Atlanta who has done extensive pro bono work with people in danger of losing their homes, worries that recipients of the new monthly tax credit payments do not realize that it is a kind of advance. Getting it now means you may not get the same size tax refund that you normally do, so you will need to take any such expectation out of your 2022 budget.
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 prioritize.
Out in Hollywood, among a class of workers that resemble theater people like our money mentor Stephen, even the most successful were often gripped by fear, said 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.
Miko sees a kind of psychological scarring all around her, even among people making $600,000 per year. Cry them a river, but they know good and well that even absent a pandemic, a year with just $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.
“Minimizing the catastrophizing 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 5-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.”
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