Since mid-March, we have seen our world shift and change. In some ways, it almost feels like a new frontier. This is especially true when it comes to money. People have been furloughed or laid off, shifted how and where they work, and many have taken a financial hit. Some households have dropped to a single paycheck, some have shifted living check to check, and some are barely hanging on. It’s important to take a breath and look at where you and your money stand during this time. Many people don’t even know where to start. Let’s explore a few ways to tackle budgeting and feel empowered to take control.
The very first thing I always recommend to people who want to take control of their money is to make a budget. It doesn’t have to be down to the penny, but it does help to see both where you need your money to go and where it’s actually going. These are great worksheets to help you set a budget and explore your money.
When my husband and I first got married, we set a budget for our first few months of marriage. First, we plugged in what we knew would be monthly expenses: insurance, rent, car payment, medication and a few other essentials. Those amounts rarely changed each month so we were able to take the total of what we earned each month and subtract those expenses first.
Then, we researched average utility costs and plugged in our best guesses of we would spend per month on utilities like internet, water and electricity. We then subtracted those amounts from the total that was left after our primary monthly expenses. Finally, we took the remaining number and talked about what we thought things like groceries, takeout, date night, hair cuts, any other items would cost per month and split that amount out. We also made sure to take an amount from our original monthly total to put in our savings.
Discovery and Reality
It was a very sobering process. Seeing how little money we had remaining at the end of the month for things that might pop up really made us plan to stick to our budget very carefully. After the first few months, we re-visited our original budget to see how we were doing. We were happy to discover we had over-budgeted on a couple of things: our schedules didn’t really allow for a date night on a regular basis, for example. Then, we discovered we were doing a poor job of sticking to our grocery budget. By switching where we were buying groceries, planning ahead, becoming devout couponers, and making large batches of things we could reheat or use in lots of different ways we cut our grocery budget quite a bit. At the end of our first year of marriage, we were feeling more confident in not only our money, but having conversations about our money.
During the Pandemic
If you are like millions of Americans and your world has been rocked by job changes, job loss or a stop-and-start income, take a deep breath. The very first thing you should do is figure out what your consistent income is going to be. Maybe you’ve gone from two incomes to one. Maybe your one income has halted. Perhaps you’ve got an amount in savings you’re relying on until you can find a new steady source of income. The very first thing to do is figure out what that consistent amount is. If that isn’t possible, then figure out what your money looks like for the next 30 days.
Establish what your “essential” expenses are. Rent, food, medication and things that you require to live. Figure out how much those cost and also find out if there are ways you can supplement. Can you speak with a landlord about spreading out payment, or get food from a food bank? What about checking the cost of your prescriptions and making sure you’re paying the lowest amount possible? Figure out what expenses you can do without during this time. Can you suspend a streaming service or cut out takeout or a daily coffee? Can you bike or walk places instead of taking a car or bus? Take stock of what you already have in your pantry or freezer and what you can stretch out from there.
In the Community
Make sure you are exploring groups like the Community Resource Council or United Way of Greater Topeka to see what they offer and what you can use. Another thing to remember is that community organizations are putting out content to help you right now. Starting Oct 3, Housing and Credit Counseling Inc. (HCCI) is doing a virtual WoMen and Money series. It will run through Nov 30, and you can register to attend all or some of the sessions. Kansas Appleseed is also releasing videos and has a COVID-19 section full of resources and documents for you to look through to see what you can discover.
Things can feel uncertain and unsettled right now. Take a deep breath and don’t try to solve everything at once. Use what our community is offering and trust yourself. You’ve got this.