Worrying about your job, the economy and COVID-19 is tough enough, but on top of that, stressful times like these can make us more likely to make bad financial decisions. That’s because stress pushes us to make quick, emotional decisions, or scares us into making no decisions—both of which can hurt our financial health.
It’s possible to avoid that, though. Here are a few tips on how to trade those negative reactions for positive ones:
Make a List
An effective strategy to protect yourself from getting overwhelmed is to first make a list and focus on one decision at a time. For example, if you need help making a loan payment, set aside time to contact your financial institution to learn about programs in delaying payments and securing emergency relief loans. Many banks and credit unions throughout the country have launched such programs in the last few weeks.
But, the key is to plan to take these steps in advance. Be specific about when and how you will address your financial challenges. Write them down. Send yourself a calendar invite. Not only will this nudge you to action, the act of accomplishment gives us satisfaction and confidence, helping us to take more action.
With scheduling, you’ll put a little time between worrying about decisions and making them. This gives your brain a break, a technique that can move you away from making quick, emotional decisions in favor of thoughtful, logical ones—time allows the logical part of our brain to kick in.
Be Especially Wary of Scams
Studies show we don’t recognize risks nearly as well under stress. That’s why crooks have started pumping out quack COVID-19 cures, investments and phishing scams.
On the phishing front, scammers are using phone calls, emails and even copycat websites, with content that appears official and related to COVID-19 to trick you into revealing personal information like bank account numbers, credit accounts, Social Security Numbers, login IDs and passwords. At the same time, by clicking a link, you may also unknowingly download malware that infects your computer and captures your data. Be vigilant—know what to look for.
Avoid High-Rate Loans
If you’re under financial pressure, the easy way out may look like quick loans, including payday loans or car title loans. However, the interest rates on these loans can be crushing.
Instead, you may be able to get a break on making loan payments by contacting your lender. In fact, lenders and the federal government are making loan deferrals more available. If you need a loan, look for cheaper loans first, such as borrowing from your home equity line of credit or securing a personal loan with a lower rate.
Now is also a great opportunity to refinance loans because rates are at historical lows. Refinance your mortgage or refinance a high-rate auto loan, and save thousands in interest.
Don’t Sell Stocks
Panic stock selling lost Americans tens of billions of dollars during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. Seeing our portfolios shrink literally causes pain and distress in our brains, causing us to sell to stop the pain. But the market bounced back after the Great Recession—the average down market lasts just 14 months—but not before leaving billions of locked-in losses. In fact, millions of Americans never re-entered the stock market after the Great Recession.
So, to avoid selling:
- Stop looking at your portfolio. The less you look, the less tempted you’ll be. History will prove you a hero by holding on.
- Try to not withdraw from your 401(k), even though you can do so now penalty-free and can replace the money, under new rules, within three years. Money that leaves a 401(k) often isn’t returned. And, when you cash in retirement investments, you’re trading short-term money for working longer or having a smaller nest egg for retirement.
- Better idea: Borrow against your 401(k). Having a loan with regular payments will help with the discipline to reinvest the money.
Also, don’t stop contributing to your 401(k) to save money, if you can help it. Right now, with the stock market down, you’re buying stocks at a discount. Now is the best time to be investing in stocks.
The urge to do something, anything, in times of anxiety is powerful. So, instead of selling investments you’ll regret, do something positive.
Evaluate Your Spending
It’s easy to spend reactively under stress. (Did you really need the extra 100 rolls of toilet paper?) But now that we’re all living minimally, take note of what you really need. What we consider necessities often are luxuries. For example, people regularly spend too much, and even get in financial trouble, by eating out too often.
Here's a useful exercise: write down bills you must pay. This includes costs such as your rent or mortgage, utilities and loan payments. Don't automatically put expenses such as phone or cable in that category without seeing if you can pare those back. Cheaper phone plans, cutting the cable cord and other options are all opportunities to spend less.
Instead, put that money in a separate account so you can be sure you cover the necessities. The rest of the money is your discretionary pot, and it’s a lot easier to manage when it’s separated from necessary expenses.
If you find you’re saving money, put that into savings or toward paying down debt.
Think Long Term
In times of stress, we tend to think short term. So, try to think long term by both remembering the past and imagining yourself in the future.
A little over a decade ago, we experienced a deep recession. As painful as it was, we persevered and our normal lives returned. This, too, shall pass.
But more importantly, don’t forget to look to the future. Connect with that future “you” and envision the best that the coming years have to offer. You can even create visual aids—a picture of that dream home, a photo of your children or your children’s children—things that will help remind you that the future you plan for will come. And when it does, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared. That means taking financial steps today that align with your plans for tomorrow.
Robert Frick is a corporate economist for Navy Federal Credit Union. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertFrickNFCU.
Justin Lindemann is a Business Intelligence Analyst in Branch Operations.
Krista Hines is an assistant supervisor in Personal Financial Management, Lending.