Americans are getting back to work — but not back to the income they once lived on.
Unemployment rates have dropped below 7%, but as of September disposable income was nearly 8% lower than it was in April, when unemployment was twice what it is now. A large part of this discrepancy has to do with the expiration in July of the $600 boost to weekly unemployment benefits, a provision of the CARES Act. With large industries like dining and entertainment still unable to operate at full capacity, many workers aren't taking home the income that they did eight months ago — whether from the same job, a prior job, or unemployment.
It can be a scary time if you lost your good-paying job, only to take another that just can’t cover your expenses. Luckily, there are many measures you can take to help you get through this difficult period and move back toward financial security.
Adjust Your Monthly Budget
Who should do it? Everyone.
When you’re flying high with a good-paying job and disposable income, it’s perfectly reasonable to shell out each month for little luxuries that make life more pleasant. But the price of old spending habits might not work when your cash flow drops.
“If a person’s income or salary is adjusted, then their budget needs to be adjusted as well,” says Thomas Racca, a personal finance manager at Navy Federal Credit Union. If you need some help, some popular budgeting software is You Need a Budget (YNAB) and Mint, both of which link to your bank accounts and help you track your spending habits.
The first thing you should do when starting a new job that doesn’t pay as well as your last is to pull out your budget and see what can change. Figure out if there’s one streaming service you use more than any others and commit to cancelling or freezing the rest, or stick to strict spending limits.
You can also make adjustments in areas of your budget that may seem fixed. For example, if your new job is completely or partially remote, it’s likely that you’re driving less — automatically avoiding many of the risks that are typically covered by your car insurance. It’s possible to lower your monthly payments by reducing coverage or even pausing coverage if you haven’t been driving at all.
Trimming the fat off your budget won’t instantly solve every problem, but it can provide you with a little more financial stability.
Re-Route Your Cash Flow
Who should do it? Everyone.
Under ideal circumstances, your paycheck should be divided into three key areas at minimum: a checking account for everyday spending, contributions to a retirement investment account, and an emergency savings account. While it’s important to continue saving for the future, if you’re struggling to make ends meet after a pay cut, it’s imperative that you make changes that allow you to safely pay for all necessities.
In some instances, this may just mean temporarily lowering the percentage of money going towards an emergency fund or retirement account, but in more dire cases, you may need to take money out of certain accounts. If you can, it’s best to tap your savings account rather than a traditional retirement fund like a 401(k), because you’ll face a 10% penalty if you access that money before age 59 ½, along with income taxes. (A provision in the CARES Act waives that 10% fee through Dec. 31, but still, withdrawing money from your retirement account should be a last resort.)
“If you can continue contributing to your retirement funds, that should remain a priority,” says Racca. “Whenever possible, contribute at least to the level your company matches.”
It can be incredibly disheartening when you’re forced to take a detour from your financial plan. The key to staying motivated to save more once you’re out of an emergency situation is to set goals for getting back on track.
Contact Your Lenders
Who should do it? Anyone with any outstanding debt.
Over 300 million Americans carry some sort of debt, so no matter what stage of life you’re in, it’s more than likely that you’re in some type of repayment process — and possibly being weighed down by it.
Federal student loan and mortgage loan borrowers who are struggling to make their payments have some flexibility through the end of 2020. Foreclosures are currently on hold until December 31, and homeowners experiencing hardship with federally backed loans can still apply for a 180-day forbearance. Student loans are paused until then as well — but that deadline is just around the corner.
If your new salary is still too low to be able to make your monthly payments, it’s crucial that you contact your lenders to see what options remain. For federal student loan payments, it’s possible to change the monthly amount you owe by switching to an income-driven repayment plan. Private loan borrowers can also talk to their lenders about temporarily suspending their payments or refinancing the loans into one with a lower monthly payment.
If you can't pay your bills on time, learn how late payments affect your credit score. You might want to prioritize paying your mortgage over paying your utilities, for example, since a late payment on the former will ding your score more. Also, let your creditors know you're having trouble. It's much better to contact them proactively than to wait for them to contact you, experts advise.
Apply for Government Assistance
Who should do it? Anyone who qualifies.
The fact that you're employed doesn’t automatically disqualify you from any sort of assistance. In fact, over 87% of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) and 80% of Medicaid recipients’ households include at least one working individual.
Each state has its own individual requirements in order for residents to qualify, but if you're unable to consistently put food on the table or pay for medical care, then you are likely entitled to help.
Some people might feel there is a stigma attached to receiving help from the government, especially if you were getting unemployment checks while in between jobs, but the money that funds programs like SNAP and Medicaid comes from your tax dollars — you’re entitled to them.
Find a Cheaper Living Situation
Who should do it? Anyone paying rent, especially single people.
Is your rent suddenly taking up more half of your paycheck, instead of the 20% it used to? If so, it might be time to consider other living arrangements. This is of course easier to do as a younger, single person without a family or a mortgage.
For renters, there are plenty of ways to rearrange your living situation: you could split your rent by finding a roommate, move into an apartment with a lower lease (and roommates), or — if the option is available to you — move back in with family.
It is obviously not ideal to invite a new person into your space or bunker down in your childhood bedroom after living independently, but housing payments are usually our most expensive monthly bills. Lowering this chunk of your budget can help you save more money and stay on top of the rest of your monthly expenses while you continue to look for higher paying work.
Upgrade Your Resume
Who should do it? Anyone whose skills are no longer applicable to what’s available on the job market.
Normally, it’s great to have lots of skills specific to the industry you want to work in. But during the pandemic, jobs in normally big sectors like hospitality and entertainment have flatlined.
It used to be common knowledge that if you took a lower paying job, it could affect your potential earnings for the rest of your career. Nowadays, with two major recessions in the last 12 years and employment rates bolstered by gig economy jobs that often don’t even equal out to minimum wage, it’s perfectly normal to have your earnings ebb and flow. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work hard to boost your earning potential.
"As a hiring manager, you can see the distinction between who actually put the work in to stay relevant and who didn't," says Matthew Warzel, a professional resume writer and career coach.
If you’re currently working a low wage job, it’s probably not financially wise to spend money on classes or certifications you can’t afford. Luckily, in the golden age of the internet, there are plenty of free ways to gain knowledge and get certified in topics and programs that look good on a job application. You can get certified for free in Google Analytics or Google Marketing Platform using Google Skillshop or even take free coding classes from CodeAcademy, depending on your interests and what skills good-paying jobs in your area require.