How I’m Managing My Money During the COVID-19 Chaos

Wow, pals. It’s only been three weeks, but what a three weeks it has been. 

I’ve been really quiet here as this situation has escalated, for a few reasons. One, I started following the story a bit earlier than it seems like many people in my circle did, so I have consistently been the “panic-cancelling a few days before it seems reasonable to do it” friend and family member. It’s taken up a lot of my brain space to be honest, so I’ve been using my evenings and weekends to try to unplug. I have, without sugarcoating it, been anxious as heck.

(It goes without saying, but stay home. Cancel plans. Be me, the person who is cancelling things even when it feels incredibly awkward. If you have recently returned from travel, follow strict isolation for 14 days for the good of your community, including not getting your own groceries.)

Two, I think a lot of financial educators have been doing an amazing job of covering the situation and helping people understand what’s happening. Bravely Go’s Instagram coverage and stories are amazing, Dumpster Doggy’s investing content is beyond excellent, and Mixed Up Money has been doing a stellar job lightening things up on her blog and Instagram, in addition to covering it for Zolo here in Canada. Rob Carrick is a true hero for Canadians, and Chelsea Fagan’s articles and videos are fantastic (The Financial Confessions has also become a go-to dog walking podcast, unrelated to these events, it’s just great.)

Three, I’ve quite frankly been unsure how to best show up in this time. I’m not a health expert, or an investing expert, and I haven’t known quite what to say or whether it would be useful. I’m at the point, though, that I do have some things I want to say and share based on what I’ve found helpful for me. 

Unfollow liberally

When I first started writing about money, I read a bunch of blogs that in retrospect, didn’t really make me feel all that good about myself and my choices. It was a lot of lectures and a lot of restriction, and even when I tried to implement the strategies they shared, I never felt like they were a fit for me.

Now is a great time to pay attention to how the advice and content you’re seeing makes you feel, because there’s no way you could have seen this coming. 

There was no predicting or anticipating *waves hands* all of this. If you feel badly because you see a personal finance blogger telling you “Well, you should have saved more in your emergency fund,” the best thing you can do is to unfollow that person immediately. Ditto if they’re bragging on Twitter about how great their investments are doing (sadly yes, this is a thing happening).

There was no anticipating this. Give yourself all of the grace and kindness you can possibly muster, because you deserve it. Focus on getting through this however you can, and understand that you are not alone. Do not listen to anyone who is trying to make you feel badly about the current state of your finances.

Sandi Martin, CFP extraordinaire, put out a fantastic thread on Twitter about this—this is what real financial education and compassion looks like, and what you should be paying attention to right now. 

What I want all of us to let go of is the idea that we would have been just fine if only we had prepared better. If only we had paid more attention to our cash flow, or finally topped up that emergency fund, or rebalanced their portfolio, or whatever.

No one feels good about this and no one has their shit together, so let yourself drop that particular burden. Yesterday is over and you’re starting from today. Just do what you can to take care of yourself and your neighbours. To get through, never mind get ahead.

Sandi Martin, Spring Financial Planning

Put on your own life mask first

Additionally, it’s a more important time than ever to understand the state of your finances. Go through and cancel recurring subscriptions you don’t or can’t use right now, figure out what your bare-bones expenses are each month, understand the employment insurance and government programs you’re entitled to, and look into all the debt deferral or postponement options on the table. 

This is always true, but now more than ever, you’re the most informed person on what your unique financial situation is. That includes getting to know your actual expenses, but it also includes understanding your employment situation, and how stable or not you expect your income to be this year. No one who isn’t being paid to know those things about you knows them better than you—another good thing to keep in mind if you’re reading financial content right now. What works for them may not work for you, and that’s OK.

Gather the information you need to make calls that will help you in the weeks and months to come, and make sure to put your own life mask on first. If you’re secure and are able to help out those around you, please do in whatever way you can—but if you’re not feeling secure for any reason, there is no need to do more than you are able. Make sure to put on your own financial life mask first.

Pay (close!) attention to government programs

There are new details being released every day about financial help offered from federal, provincial, and local governments. Zolo and Wealthsimple have good Canadian roundups, and Broke Millennial is maintaining a great resource for US programs (and more!).

Do your research with reputable news sources in your area to better understand what’s available for your specific situation—the programs are there to be used. 

Don’t think about investments if you can help it

If you can at all avoid it, it’s worth avoiding looking at any investments you have right now. Now is not the time to make any major decisions, and any beginner-to-moderate investment strategy should be independent of what’s specifically happening day-to-day in the market. (If you’re a seasoned day trader, IDK, live your life and good luck??? That’s not me and I assume it’s not most of you.)

Don’t touch your portfolio if you can help it, don’t sell low, and evaluate for yourself whether continuing to invest or using cash to save more for your emergency fund makes more sense for you. This flow chart from Wealthsimple was helpful for me, as was this video from Ben Felix, as was reading and following everything Dumpster Doggy has been putting out—she’s a former investment lady for fancy rich folks, and she’s the real deal, plus fun as heck.

So what does this look like for me?

Ok, so that’s all well and good—and a bit of a brain dump of all the things I’ve been thinking about this past few weeks—but here’s the concrete ways this is coming to life for me.

  • I’m spending less on discretionary expenses. When I am spending, I’m trying to support small and local businesses during this time.
  • I’m redoing my budget, and our budget. I’m rethinking where my money goes, and which expenses can or naturally will go down during this time—and which ones will go up.
  • I’m continuing to invest small amounts every paycheque. I’m expressly not trying to “get in while it’s low” or do anything outside of my normal routine. I chose my investment strategy for a reason, and I’m going to stick to it. That’s because for now, my income feels fairly secure. If yours doesn’t or isn’t, this decision could look very different—it’s very personal.

And here’s what it looks like for Half Banked.

  • I am still here. More than anything, there are going to be financial topics I think we need to talk about and demystify over the coming year. I still love to talk about all of this stuff, and while it won’t be quite as frequent, I am looking forward to continuing to help. 
  • I believe I can help most when we know what’s happening. Right now, it’s purely a survival situation, and things are changing every day. When things stabilize someday, I am excited to help you learn what you want to learn to take the next steps with your finances. Right now, the best people covering your immediate next steps are quite frankly, local and country-wide trusted news sources covering the government programs available, or the timeless advice already available in books and on blogs on topics like creating a budget or setting up an emergency fund (if you are in the position to do so). Just given my personal bandwidth and time, I won’t be your best immediate source for information.
  • The archives are always around. I am happy to know that I’m able to stand by what I’ve written here over the past almost-five years, and that it’s all freely available as a resource if you want to learn. But please, give yourself permission to be where you are—if you are scared, or anxious, or grieving the loss of normality, don’t try to make this The Most Productive Time In Your Life. The archives will still be there in a year.

I feel incredibly grateful to everyone who is doing the hard work of keeping our society running during this time. I am holding every single person reading this in my thoughts, and I think you are all doing perfect, exceptional jobs of managing a completely unexpected and unique-in-our-lifetimes event. I’m so proud to know you all.