Still employed during coronavirus? Focus on building savings, paying down debt

24% of Americans said the coronavirus crisis has not impacted their financial situation

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The coronavirus pandemic has thrown tens of millions of people into financial turmoil. But not everyone is feeling the pinch. Not yet, at least.

Roughly a quarter of Americans (24%) said the coronavirus crisis has not impacted their financial situation, according to a survey conducted April 10-12 by J.D. Power. But that figure could change as more companies cut salaries, halt 401(k) match programs and announce layoffs while they struggle to adjust to the new normal.

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“It is still important for those of us that are employed during this pandemic to understand our financial health,” says Dan Slagle, a certified financial planner who co-founded Fyooz Financial Planning LLC in Minnesota with his wife, Natalie. “Just because you are employed (now) doesn’t mean you are safe a month from now.”

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Those fortunate enough to have financial stability now can use this time of social distancing to focus on their fiscal health and emerge from this economic crisis in better shape than they went into it.

Here are five ways you can pay down debt, build up your savings and retool your budget while you’re staying at home.

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1. TURN EXPENSES INTO SAVINGS

Your car is sitting idle. You’re not taking Ubers. You can’t go to yoga or spin or CrossFit. Your daily coffee is now prepared at home. Same goes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, most days. The money you’re saving on daily expenses could well be eaten up (literally) by hungry kids who are now home all the time. But if not, use it to build up your emergency reserves.

In an ideal world, you’d have three to six months’ worth of living expenses stashed away in an emergency fund. If that feels intimidating, start with one month, then build it to two months, and keep going from there.

“Just because you are employed (now) doesn’t mean you are safe a month from now.”

- Dan Slagle, a certified financial planner who co-founded Fyooz Financial Planning LLC in Minnesota

If you already have a healthy emergency fund, use the money you would normally spend on things like commuting, gym memberships and traveling to pay off debt or build up your retirement fund (more on that below).

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2. GET A JUMP ON YOUR STUDENT LOANS

Payments on most federal student loans are suspended, interest-free, through Sept. 30. That means any payments you make between now and then will go directly toward the principal on your loan, which could save you money in the long run.

Consider your financial circumstances before paying down your loan during the forbearance, though. Your money might be more urgently needed elsewhere. If you have credit card debt, for example, divert your normal student loan payment to pay off that high-interest debt more quickly. You can also redirect your loan payment to savings if you don’t have an emergency fund.

If you’re on track for Public Service Loan Forgiveness or another loan forgiveness program, making payments during the forbearance may not serve you in the long run.

3. RAMP UP YOUR 401(K) CONTRIBUTIONS

If your emergency fund is solid, and you aren’t carrying a load of credit card debt, consider giving your retirement savings a boost.

“Recurring contributions to retirement plans such as your 401(k) or 403(b) are buying shares at a discount compared to February highs,” Slagle says.

If you were already planning to max out your 401(k) contributions this year, doing it while prices are low means you’ll increase your returns when the market eventually rebounds.

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4. SAVE MONEY ON YOUR MORTGAGE

If you own a home, run the numbers on refinancing — you may be able to lower your housing costs thanks to lower interest rates. Even relatively new homeowners could benefit, as mortgage rates are one percentage point lower than they were just one year ago.

“If you can lower your rate by 1% or more, it can have a huge payoff in the long run,” says Mike Zung, owner of Java Wealth Planning LLC in Missouri.

Keep in mind: Lower rates mean higher demand for refinances, and it may be harder to qualify than it was a few months ago.

5. GIVE BACK TO YOUR COMMUNITY

This one won’t technically improve your financial situation, but it will make a difference in your community. If you’re still financially sound during the pandemic, support small businesses. Donate to your local food bank. And do your part to support those hit hardest by this financial crisis.

“Personal finance is not all about accumulating money,” Zung says. “It’s about spending it in a way that reflects what you value.”

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