Just six months ago, we all lived in a world of record stock returns and tight employment markets. Then came COVID-19, and unemployment exploded while the S&P 500 lost a third of its value in a month. Today, the markets still remain volatile with the Dow swinging hundreds of points on a daily basis.
The future isn't always predictable, but by taking inventory of your budget and savings as you head back to work, you can be prepared in both the long and short term for whatever may come.
Basics of Financial Management
The first steps are simple. Determine what comes in each month and what must go out. Also, be sure to understand your health insurance, such as whether it has a high or low deductible and whether you need to make contributions to your health savings account. If you were getting insurance through your employer, and have lost that coverage — or your extended post-employment COBRA coverage (opens in new tab) is coming to an end — you will need to look at other resources for affordable replacement coverage. Depending on your current financial status, you may be eligible for coverage through your state's assistance plans (opens in new tab) or under the Affordable Care Act. Many agencies can help you find a plan if you aren't comfortable working on your own.
Having accomplished this, turn to saving for emergencies and retirement, and — only then — save for discretionary spending.
Planning for the Unknown
Once you head back to work, it's time to take a fresh look at your budget and emergency fund. Your income may well have changed, and your work-related expenses may have changed as well. Both of these can impact how you need to manage expenses now. If you aren't sure how to do this on your own, you may want to look at a money management app to help you control both expenses and debt. Regardless, once these basics are under control in your changed circumstances, it's time to plan for emergencies and retirement, and consider ways to return to work safely.
Plan for emergencies:
COVID-19 has proven that no job is guaranteed. The last six months about 58 million people (opens in new tab) have sought unemployment benefits, and unemployment remains high (opens in new tab) today. So, even if you're going back to work, an emergency fund is still essential. Experts recommend a range of levels, from three to six months of your expenses, and some even recommend a year. Others say this is too much (opens in new tab). In the end, the amount you choose depends on your monthly outlay. The most important thing is to be prepared if you're prevented from returning to work again later.
Plan for retirement or end-of-life needs:
If 2020 has shown us anything, it's the importance of estate planning. COVID-19 may attack the elderly most viciously, but even those in their prime or youth have been victims (opens in new tab). So, even though you are in the prime of life and fully employed again, you should plan for the unknown, especially if others are dependent on you. An estate plan should, no matter your age, include at least a durable power of attorney and a will or trust (opens in new tab). Find someone you trust to follow your instructions and create a durable power of attorney so decisions can still be made if you're no longer able. That same person, or another, can serve as executor of your will or trust to handle things if the worst happens.
One commonly overlooked component of estate planning is a list of usernames and passwords for all your accounts. This list should be stored where a close friend or family member can find it, so your executor can handle every aspect of your estate unimpeded. In the excitement of returning to work, it can be easy to forget these important details.
You should also — especially if your work puts you at higher risk — have a medical directive, living will or health care power of attorney in place, particularly if you are single. Health care decisions should be what you want, not simply what a medical professional thinks is legally prudent. Finally, if you have minor children, remember to include a plan for their guardianship and education. Keep their future in your hands, not a court's.
Having made your budget, started an emergency fund, and planned for end-of-life needs, you need to think about what going back to the workplace can mean for you and those you love.
Plan to work safely and practically:
Should you go into the office (if it's open) or work remotely? Factors to be considered here include whether and to what extent your employer is comfortable with remote work. If remote work is an option, then look at your personal concerns. How old are you, and how does that relate to your risk? Do you have an at-home space that is conducive to working at home? Is there sufficient technology to support a home workspace? Are you in a particularly vulnerable group?
Working remotely may be the single most important step you can take to protect your family's financial future as you return to the workforce.
What to Do Now
Now that you are returning to work and the new reality under which you live has focused your attention on your financial needs, it's important to maintain that focus going forward. Now that you've learned that you can cope with virtually anything that arises, you will want to be prepared for further emergencies.
It's possible that you will land on your feet quickly and once again have a high salary and employer-provided benefits. But with the experience of dealing with COVID-19 and having survived with your financial well-being intact, you will have gained skills that will assist you throughout your financial life to handle both emergencies and day-to-day financial needs. By planning ahead as you return to work, you can make sure that another "plague year" won't find you vulnerable and at risk.
Josh Sailar is an investment adviser and partner at Blue Zone Wealth Advisors (opens in new tab), an independent registered investment adviser in Los Angeles. He specializes in constructing and managing customized advanced plans for business owners, executives and high net worth individuals. He holds the designations of Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) and Certified Plan Fiduciary Advisor (CPFA), the FINRA Series 7, 63, 65 licenses, as well as tax preparer license.
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