RAYMOND — Increased social distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders are leaving millions of people with reduced income or without a paycheck.
But there are some steps they can take to gain control over their finances.
Becky Smith, a family financial management specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said people should immediately review their budgets and adjust their lifestyles.
“Just the threat of COVID-19 triggers panic,” she said. “The measures we are having to take to combat that threat are putting millions of families and individuals in dire financial circumstances. When we panic, we tend to lose perspective and focus too narrowly on a problem, which often makes things worse. Ignoring the situation can also make things worse. So, it’s best to take control of your finances right away.”
Make a plan
First, analyze what cash or remaining income is available, make a list of monthly bills and expenses, and then prioritize those bills and expenses by need and due date.
“Look for ways to reduce your expenses,” Smith said. “Are there subscriptions you can cancel? Can you reduce your cable or cell phone bills by changing your plans? If you can’t pay all your bills, decide which bills are most important to meet critical family needs, like utilities, food, and rent or mortgage payments.”
Second, list debts, including credit cards, student loans, car payments and medical bills. Continue to pay creditors if possible. But if making these payments is impossible, contact each creditor to negotiate a payment plan and get it in writing.
“Creditors are more willing to work with you if you reach out to them,” Smith said. “This recession is widespread, and creditors know people who ask for help legitimately need it. And creditors are more willing to be lenient with the current economic situation.”
Pay for groceries and other necessities with cash or a debit card instead of credit cards. Avoid using credit to replace lost income. Apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through the Mississippi Department of Human Services to get temporary assistance with groceries instead of using credit.
Individuals who have lost their jobs can file an unemployment insurance claim with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security and should do so immediately. However, because of the need right now, the system is backlogged. It will likely take a while to begin receiving the benefits. Smith recommends seeking out local community organizations that can provide food and possibly bill payment assistance if needed in the meantime.
David Buys, Extension health specialist, said people can cope with financial stressors in much the same way they handle the other stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The one thing I would say to people who are experiencing anxiety over their finances right now is to focus on the things you can control,” he said. “Analyze your finances and come up with a plan. Just doing that can help you feel more in control, and as a result, lessen your anxiety.”
For some people, spending is a coping mechanism, Buys said.
“Be mindful of how stress can trigger unnecessary spending if this is one of the ways you handle stress,” he said.
Personal connections with friends and family also can help manage anxiety.
“Pick up the phone and call someone,” Buys said. “You don’t have to talk about your finances. You can talk about the other challenges you’re facing because of this situation. You’ll find you are not alone. Everyone is stressed by this situation in some way.
“And if you try these things and are still not OK, then know that it is OK to not be OK. It is normal to feel anxious in a time like this,” he said.
For more information about managing personal finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the Extension website at bit.ly/2XebF3D.
Extension Information Sheet 1867, “Take Control of Your Finances When Your Income Drops,” provides a road map for managing finances after income loss.
To learn more about managing stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at https://bit.ly/2Vadvjr.
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