Tips From A Local CFA On How To Make A Budget During This Recession

A sign on the closed Thrift Store on Moody Street, Waltham, says it will be open "as soon as possible." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A sign on the closed Thrift Store on Moody Street, Waltham, says it will be open "as soon as possible." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

I’m a planner. Knowing what’s coming next and having a strategy to deal with it gives me a sense of security. Goals and game plans help me function. That’s why I love having a budget: it gives me rules for my saving and spending.

But I didn’t plan for a pandemic, and I’m guessing you didn’t either.

Unemployment is at a record high; businesses and individuals are unable to make rent; families are struggling to put food on the table. And what we have known (and experienced) as true for months was made official earlier this week: We're in a recession.

There are a lot of unknowns. Until we get a treatment or vaccine, we’ll likely continue to operate in this new normal – and that makes financial planning hard.

“Not having financial independence and having financial insecurity is a huge source of stress,” said Alice Avanian, founder and co-chair of the CFA Society Boston Financial Literacy Initiative. “The skills are not difficult: looking a little bit in detail at your credit card, thinking about paying off your student loans, generally being careful about fees and interest expenses. But they are as important as going to the gym, in terms of your personal health.”

Not everyone is going to be able to get through the tough times with a little belt tightening. If you’re in dire need of economic help now, you can find a list of resources at the bottom of this article. 

If you’re looking to create or restructure your personal budget in these unprecedented times, here are some tips from Avanian.

Calculate your monthly expenses in your new normal

We have been in this “new normal” for almost three months now, which will give you enough data to see what you’re spending on average per month. While you’re spending less on gas or social events, you’re likely spending more on things like groceries or your electric bill. You need to take all of this into account.

“Once you have a baseline of the minimum, then you can start layering on more activities and expenses,” Avanian said.

Use the 50/30/20 rule as a “rule of thumb” for your new budget

This isn’t a new concept. The 50/30/20 rule divides your take-home income into three categories: 50% for needs, 30% for wants and 20% for savings and debt repayment. Avanian said these ratios can change in times of financial strain.

For example, if your salary was cut or you’ve lost your job, you’re likely spending more than 50% of the money you’re bringing in on needs. But during this pandemic you may be spending less on things like a morning coffee or a gym membership.

Avanian suggests adjusting for wants first before cutting into your debt-repayment or savings allotments.

Figure out what you need vs. what you want

If quarantine has taught us anything, it’s what we can and can’t live without. Your morning Starbucks was maybe not as essential as you previously thought.

“I've talked about budgeting at the high school level for many different kids of all backgrounds,” she said. “I'm always amazed by the things that they must put in their monthly budget. I mean, the guys put in video games and bicycles, and the girls put trips to the nail salon. So there are definitely things that people are not doing now that you might realize you don't actually need.”

Look out for recurring payments 

Taking a hard look at your bank statements is a good place to start if you’re trying to figure out what you don’t need right now.

“If you're not going to the gym anyway, for example, that could be a monthly recurring charge on your credit card that you might not have even paid attention to,” Avanian said.

Another area to reassess is your phone bill.

“Sometimes people pay a lot of money for their cell phone and internet, and they may not be using as much data as they think,” she added.

Boost your emergency savings

The general rule of thumb is to try to have at least a month's worth of expenses in your savings account as a safety net. But it can be hard to make the conscious effort to move money over to your savings, especially if funds are tight.

The more you can automate saving, the easier it is, according to Avanian.

“There are many ways you can sweep money into a mutual fund or even just a savings account at a bank. But you want to check the dates,” she said. “If you get paid – it might be bi-weekly or bi-monthly – you should know what that day is. And if you're getting unemployment, it's weekly, but on a particular day. You want to make sure you're comfortable with both the [amount] and the timing [of your automated savings deduction].”

Have a long term goal

It’s really hard to save without working toward something. Some long term goals, like planning a family vacation, seem irrelevant in the current environment. But there are still some really important long term goals you can set.

“Depending on your age group, you may still really want to pay off your student loans. You may want to pay off your credit card debt. Those are the sort of drags on people's finances at any time, especially now if they're unemployed,” Avanian said. “Then there are some long term goals that don't go away. Like, maybe you were planning a wedding. If the wedding is not this year, it could be next year and two years from now, and you may still want a honeymoon.”

“The other thing that is more important now is people may want to buy a car because they may not feel comfortable taking public transportation,” she added.

Don’t forget to sprinkle in some short-term goals, too

“If you don’t have any fun, everyone goes crazy,” Avanian said. “If you’re doing more baking, maybe you buy flour or the utensils that you need. Maybe people feel good by donating. The range of what people might want to do to make themselves feel better is kind of beyond my imagination.”

If you are in a position to give back or donate to people in need, here are some ways you can help. 

Don’t always be afraid of credit cards

This is a tricky one. Credit cards can be helpful but also dangerous, especially now, when people may not have the cash to fully pay them off. First and foremost, Avanian said, you should avoid fees at all costs. You always want to try to pay off as much debt as possible.

“There may still be offers for no interest credit cards,” she said. “Depending on your credit score and your work history, you may or may not be eligible. But it is actually a money management tool to have a credit card that doesn't charge interest for six months. Could you use a new credit card to pay off an old credit card? Yes.”

Avanian also suggested that you review how your credit card charges interest. Sometimes, they charge the entire balance at the end of the month; other times, they charge it on a daily average basis. This means even if you don’t use your card often, you still may end up paying interest.

In the end, the less you can put on your card (if you’re paying interest) the better. The more you can pay off, the better. If you have a question, your bank is a great place to start, as it’s an essential service that’s definitely open.

“If you’ve been paying [your card] off well, it may be possible that your own bank may give you a new card that gives you double points or double cash back,” Avanian said. “There are so many deals and types of credit cards that if you have time to do a  bit of research you can save fees, interest and expenses.”

Invest in yourself

Avanian believes that, as the economy adjusts, new industries and jobs will pop up that didn’t exist a few months ago, similar to contact tracing. She suggested using your time off (whether forced from layoffs or when you’re off the clock) to take free online classes or webinars.

“Change is unsettling, and we are in dramatic change. We've never seen the economy in the world go off a cliff simultaneously. Every recession is usually a slow burn, as with the Great Depression. So we just went off a cliff,” Avanian said. “But that doesn't mean that there won't be opportunities.”

If you need financial help now: 

  • Do you qualify for state aid? This interactive tool from NPR will help you see all the programs available to you depending on your financial situation.
  • Key ways to give or receive help: As the pace of the outbreak has quickened, so has the pace of people trying to provide each other support. If you need financial, housing or food help, you can find several options here.
  • File for unemployment: The state's unemployment call centers have received a massive increase in inquiries, so the state is now hosting daily online town hall meetings to help people get through the registration process. You can view the town hall materials here.
  • The state Department of Unemployment Assistance has also released a Spanish-language site, with multilingual guidelines and a new unemployment application form in Spanish.
  • The Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund was established in early April, and will support "frontline healthcare professionals and vulnerable populations including Massachusetts residents and immigrants facing homelessness, food insecurity and loss of critical services as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis."
  • Apply For SNAP benefits: If you need help buying fresh or nutritious food, you may be eligible for food stamps. In your application you’ll need to provide personal information, including your Social Security number (if you have one), birth date, home address (if you have one), income, and expenses. You can apply and see SNAP eligibility charts here.
  • Learn more about Boston’s rental relief fund. The pre-screening form for the second round of Rental Relief funding is open now through Friday, June 19, at 12 p.m.
Headshot of Meagan McGinnes

Meagan McGinnes Assistant Managing Editor, Newsletters
Meagan is the assistant managing editor of newsletters.



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