Feel like your financial life has been turned upside down during the coronavirus? You’re not alone. One in five Americans has been late on rent since the crisis started, and roughly 39 million have lost their jobs, according to Business Insider. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has people worried about their futures.
The COVID-19 crisis has made the importance of good financial habits all too clear. The average American couldn’t have seen this coming, so it makes sense that many people were caught off guard. But the pandemic also proves that anything can happen, and that establishing sound financial behaviors now can help you weather tough times in the future.
Whatever your habits were before the crisis, it’s never too late to start fresh. Establishing good financial practices now will help you get through coronavirus and become more resilient during future downturns.
Read on to discover 24 things you can do to create healthy money habits right now.
1. Commit to a budget
Everyone needs a budget, no matter their income. Make a list of all your essential expenses, such as your rent or mortgage payment, utility bills, and groceries. Then add in everything else, including streaming subscriptions and take-out food. Once you have it all listed out, start cutting back on non-essentials. You can use those savings to pad your emergency fund or help pay down debt.
Thankfully, there are plenty of free budget spreadsheets available online to help you form this good financial habit.
2. Create an emergency savings account
It’s a good idea to have three to six months’ worth of savings at all times in case of emergencies. Saving that much will take time, so focus on starting small and taking it day by day. Put whatever you can afford into a savings account each time you get paid, even if it’s just $10. If you already have an emergency fund, you’re ahead of the game! Just remember to reassess it each year and update it if your cost-of-living expenses have increased.
If your income has become unstable, or you’ve lost your job, don’t stress if you can’t save as much as you’d like. Cover your essential needs first and put whatever you can—no matter how small—into savings. Every dollar in that account increases the buffer between you and financial stress in the future.
3. Make more than you spend
This tip may sound as tired as the “calories in, calories out” weight-loss mantra — but it’s essential. Include your income with your budget so you always know you’re keeping more than you’re paying out.
If your bills are exceeding your budget, many companies are hiring part time and gig workers. If you feel comfortable taking on some extra hours, this could help you find financial balance while you get back on your feet.
4. Pay your bills ahead of time
If you typically pay bills late to stretch your paycheck, this financial habit will take a special kind of discipline to master. But the reward is well worth the effort. When you pay your bills ahead of time, you avoid the risk of forgetting about your due date and getting hit with late fees or shut-off notices. If your creditor or service provider offers an autopay option, take advantage of it. Scheduling automatic withdrawals for a few days ahead of your due date will take a weight off your mind and ensure that your accounts are in good standing. On-time payments play a huge factor in your credit score, which is all the more reason to set it and forget it when it comes to your bills.
5. Pay in cash
One of the best financial habits you can establish is shopping without your credit cards. When you opt to take out cash instead of carrying plastic, you’ll only spend money on what you intended to buy in the first place. Plus, a bit of a reality check takes place when you have to hand over your hard-earned cash in-person, instead of swiping your card.
If you’re staying home and shopping online more, you can still take advantage of this golden rule. Services like PayPal let you link to your bank account and are accepted at many online retailers. You can also buy prepaid debit cards or gift cards to your most frequent retailers ahead of time—or pay with your Visa or Mastercard-enabled debit card.
6. Pay more than the minimum amount on your credit cards
Part of becoming financially stable is paying off your credit card balances each month. If this isn’t an option for you at the moment, aim to pay more than the minimum payment amount and commit to slowly increasing it each month. Even a few extra dollars can help chip away at your debt and decrease the amount you pay in interest over time.
7. Eliminate credit card debt
What’s even better than paying slightly above the minimum required amount on your credit card bill? Paying it off completely. If you have the financial resources, pay off your credit cards and then stash those away for emergencies only. If you can’t pay it off right now, keep chipping away and pay cash for your everyday needs.
8. Pay yourself
This can be a tricky one — especially if you’ve never “paid” yourself in the past. Consider setting up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account each pay period. The amount can be as little as $5 or as high as you can manage. Whether it’s a set percentage or a flat number, make sure your savings account is getting a consistent diet of green each month. It will be an adjustment at first, but before you know it, the money will transfer seamlessly without you giving it a second thought.
9. Check your credit report
Thanks to the plethora of free credit reporting services online — there’s no reason not to regularly check your credit report, and monitor your credit score. From now through April of 2021, AnnualCreditReport.com is providing every American with a free copy of their credit report from each bureau every week. Track your score and look for inaccuracies in your report.
10. Improve your credit score
Whether your current score is excellent or not the best, there’s always room for improvement. Making payments on time and not maxing out your credit cards are two important steps you can take in this direction. Credit utilization plays a significant role in your score, so avoid charging purchases you can’t pay off every month. If you’re strapped for cash, revisit your budget to identify other areas to cut or consider asking friends or family for a short-term loan.
11. Cover your essentials first
If you’ve faced a layoff or reduced work hours, thinking about padding an emergency fund or paying off your credit cards may seem like a distant dream, and that’s OK. We’re all doing what we can to get by right now.
To make things easier on yourself, pay your essentials first—housing, utilities, food, and minimum debt payments, for example. Once you’ve covered those, put a little toward your savings (or your debt) before you buy any non-essentials.
12. Click off the TV — at least sometimes
We’ve all been watching a ton of TV lately, but that may not be a great thing. Even if you’re a cable-cutting, show-streaming, commercial-free TV-watching guru, spending too much time in front of the tube can result in more spending. Just because you aren’t forced to sit through scripted commercials doesn’t mean you aren’t being advertised to. Sponsors pay for product placement in television shows and movies, a practice that’s become increasingly popular as more consumers switch from cable to streaming services.
Social media can also influence your spending mindset, especially if your favorite Instagram personalities or YouTubers are constantly telling you about #sponsored products they love. Unplugging from the TV and your phone can help you break the marketing spell and assess what you actually need to buy (and what your budget will allow).
13. Pick up a financial book
A better use of your limited pandemic downtime? A financial book. There are dozens of financial experts out there who have documented their path to success on the pages of books. If money is tight right now, check out services like Libby, a free app that lets you digitally borrow eBook and audiobook versions of tons of titles. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our list of 6 personal finance books to read.
14. Have an open dialogue with your kids about personal finance
Setting spending boundaries with your kids now will help them establish their own good financial habits in the future — not to mention help you stay within your budget. Once they’re old enough to understand very basic money management, give them a small amount to spend each month. Even if that’s just $5, you can help them learn to pick and choose when they want to treat themselves and instill a lifelong skill.
15. Set up a weekly budget review
Whether with your spouse or solo, set aside at least 30 minutes each week to review your budget. Analyze receipts from the past seven days and reflect on your spending patterns. While it might be uncomfortable at times, this financial habit can help you determine gaps in your savings and areas where you might be overspending. If you can’t commit to weekly budget meetings, aim for monthly.
16. Find a financial blog and follow it
Staying educated on investment trends, news, and related topics is a great financial habit, especially during tough times. There are hundreds of individual financial bloggers to choose from, or you can follow an institution like The Wall Street Journal. Find one that resonates with you and try to catch up on posts at least once a week. Staying current on economic events and trends will better prepare you for future downturns and keep your money habits top of mind.
17. Set savings goals
Consider writing out goals you want to accomplish in the next five years and the money you’ll need to achieve them. If you want to buy a new car, for example, aim to set aside enough to cover the cost of the down payment. By aligning these goals with your budget, you’ll be able to see how much you need to save each month.
18. Know what you’re actually paying
From investment fees to credit card interest to cell phone service charges, it’s important to know where every dollar is going and why. Review your statements regularly to understand how you’re being charged and for what. Also keep an eye out for inaccuracies on utility bills and other recurring statements. Even an extra $2 charge each month adds up, especially if it’s for a service you aren’t even using.
19. Manage your subscriptions
Speaking of recurring payments, let’s take a look at how many subscriptions you’re currently signed up for. With so many companies offering free trials on everything from audiobooks to razors to streaming services, it’s easy to sign up in the moment and forget to cancel later. Sift through your credit card bill with a highlighter and mark every charge that occurs monthly. If you don’t take advantage of it regularly, cancel it. Then put the amount you were paying in subscriptions into your savings.
20. Negotiate your bills
While you can’t talk your way into paying less for your water or electricity bill, you might have a chance with the cable guy. Cell phone, cable and internet companies are constantly changing their fee structures and offering new promotions. Don’t be afraid to call these companies and ask for a discount. They aren’t obligated to lower your rate, but remember — if you don’t ask, the answer is always “no.”
21. Meal plan
Whether you’re feeding yourself or a family of five, meal planning is a good financial habit to form. Write out a list of meals you want to make, shop only for those items, and follow your plan for the week. Having meals planned each night will prevent you from spending money on last-minute takeout.
22. Stay where you are, even when your income increases
For some people, staying put in the same place can be a challenge. When faced with a promotion or a new job, upgrading to a bigger, better house can be tempting.
Instead of jumping in feet first, consider the value of learning to live beneath your means. Keep paying the mortgage or rent on your current home and direct additional funds into your savings or investment accounts. By staying where you are and saving excess money, you’ll improve your entire financial outlook much faster than if you were to move to a larger, more expensive home.
On the flip side, if you’re struggling to afford your rent, take a day to compare prices in your area online. You may be able to move to a comparable pad for less and save in the long run.
23. Drive your car until you can’t
There is an influx of car advertisements right now with enticing deals and offers to let you skip the first few payments. We wouldn’t be surprised if you’re tempted to trade up. Instead of trading in your perfectly functional car, commit to driving it until you can’t. Or at the very least, for another year or two. If your current set of wheels is at the point of no return, remember that reliable transportation does not have to be brand new.
24. Be accountable
Your financial habits will only become habits if you stick to them, so hold yourself accountable. If you know this will be a challenge, ask someone you trust to help you stay on track. Whether a parent, best friend, neighbor or mentor, having someone else keep you in check can be a great way to continue moving forward.
Habits for the long haul
Building new financial habits takes time, so give yourself some grace. Chances are you will blow your budget from time to time, especially if you’re already stressed out about work or the state of the world. The important thing is that you keep coming back to your commitments and start over even after you’ve made a financial mistake.
Rather than making sweeping gestures with your money, start small. You aren’t going to tackle all of these tips at once, so pick one or two that seems achievable and focus on those. Once, say, budgeting and saving become old hat, you can add in another tactic. Your goal should be to build sustainable behaviors that will help you achieve financial wellness no matter what else is going on around you.