Build emergency fund, save for retirement: Ways to manage your money depending on your financial situation, priorities

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The pandemic swept many people into uncharted financial territory. Millions lost their jobs and loved ones they relied on. Others endured more than a year of isolation and uncertainty, working from home or on the front lines. Whether your bank account bulged or dwindled during the long months of lockdown, now is the time to take stock of your financial situation and decide your next steps.

“We’ve been getting a lot of clients who say, ‘I really need to think about this now,’” said Pam Capalad, a certified financial planner based in New York City and founder and CEO of the financial advisory firm Brunch & Budget. “Either the pandemic was a wake-up call and it really turned their finances upside down, or people got through it OK and now they’re saying, ‘I need to figure out what is next for me.’”

In a survey from the Pew Research Center released in March, 30% said their situation had improved, 21% said it had gotten worse, and 49% of adults said their family’s financial situation was about the same as it was a year ago.

With limited spending opportunities, savings shot up during the pandemic. Last March, the personal savings rate was 27.6%, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That rate, which represents personal saving as a percentage of disposable income, was 12.9% the previous March.

Depending on your financial situation and your priorities, what you do now will vary. But there are several ways to put yourself in a better position financially for whatever comes next. Here’s how to get started.

First, don’t rush it
The trauma of the past year has been extraordinary, and for many people, their initial impulse may be to plunge in and make travel plans and purchases to make up for lost time.

“People feel like life was stolen from them, and an increase in spending often comes along with that,” said Brian O’Leary, a private wealth adviser and senior analyst at Aline Wealth in Melville, New York.

But if there was ever a time to reevaluate priorities and align your spending and saving behaviors with your values, that time is now, experts say. Is your career on the right track? Do you like where you live? Are you happy in your relationships?

The pandemic may have helped people think about saving differently, focusing on what brings them joy, said Inga Timmerman, a certified financial planner and associate professor of finance at California State University, Northridge.

If you’re thinking of switching careers, starting your own business or making some other major life change, there may be a financial cost, at least in the short term. At a minimum, “you should have a spreadsheet with the bills and things you need to have covered regardless of how the business or side hustle does,” Timmerman said.

Try to have a good idea of how many months you can cover those bills out of your savings, she said, or what you’ll do instead to pay them. It might mean selling a car or moving into less expensive housing.

Assess three things
Whether you’re dreaming of turning your pandemic side hustle into a new career and need to determine how to pay for it, or you simply want to feel you’re on firm financial footing, planners say there are generally three major financial areas to evaluate first.

“If someone has an emergency fund, no high-interest debt and is saving a decent amount for retirement, they’re in a good position to make big changes,” said Brian Walsh, senior manager of financial planning at SoFi, an online lending startup. “If they don’t have those boxes ticked off, they should be more careful.”

BUILD UP AN EMERGENCY FUND. In the past, planners have generally recommended that people have three to six months of expenses in an emergency savings fund to carry them through tough times. Some now suggest that fund should be able to keep you afloat for up to a year.

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“Now, the advice is even more conservative,” said Dan Herron, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Elemental Wealth Advisors in San Luis Obispo, California. “COVID just happened, it’s still here, and what’s to say that something else isn’t coming down the road that’s even worse?”

REDUCE CREDIT CARD DEBT. Even though credit card balances declined sharply during the pandemic, thanks in part to fewer buying opportunities as people hunkered down at home, the average household credit card balance still tops $8,000, according to a study by WalletHub.

If you are carrying a high credit card balance, now is a good time to consolidate that debt by transferring balances or signing on with a debt consolidation service that will allow you to make a single payment monthly. Interest rates are as low now as they’re likely to be for the next few years, said Tony Molina, a certified public accountant and senior product specialist manager at Wealthfront, an online investment advisory company.

SAVE FOR RETIREMENT. If you’re one of the lucky ones who increased your savings during the pandemic, don’t stop now.

Earmarking some of that money for retirement can be a good strategy. Depending on how close you are to retirement and whether your projected savings will meet your expected needs, your approach may vary. A financial adviser can help you figure out the best plan for you.

Capalad encourages her clients to increase their retirement savings incrementally. If every six to 12 months you increase your retirement contributions by 1%, you’ll build up that balance, but the extra withholding will only be “a blip in your paycheck,” she said.

Spend wisely
One way to increase savings is to reduce spending that may have ballooned during the long months of isolation. Do you really still need subscriptions to every streaming channel on your TV? Maybe it’s time to cut back on virtual yoga classes now that your gym has opened again, or to cancel your food delivery services.

For some, online retailers became not only an essential way to order necessities but also an easy means to buy stuff that was not necessarily needed.

Capalad suggests to clients who want to break the habit of making impulsive online purchases that they put items they want in their cart, but not purchase them right away. Then pick one day a week to go through the cart and reevaluate whether they really want those things.

Spending decisions aren’t just about money, of course, but about how you want your life to be going forward.

“I have some clients who say they’re never going to order wine at a restaurant again,” Timmerman said. They’d rather uncork a bottle at home and invite their friends over for takeout, she said.

Protect yourself and your family.
The pandemic brought into sharp relief the fragility and unpredictability of life, and provided an object lesson in the importance of estate planning.

In addition to a will, your plan should include documents that detail your wishes for medical treatment and decision-making if you’re unable to communicate that yourself. Depending on the state, these may be called living wills, health care proxies or medical directives.

Standardized forms may be available online, but because state rules vary, “I almost always suggest that if you want it done right, find a local attorney that specializes in estate planning, as they can help guide you through the process,” said Dana Menard, a certified financial planner and founder of Twin Cities Wealth Strategies in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

Now is also a good time to reassess your life insurance coverage, Menard advised. How much you need will vary depending on what you own, what you want to protect and your life circumstances.