'Trying Like Heck' to Make Ends Meet: How 3 Families Are Weathering the Financial Fallout of COVID-19
After being furloughed in April, Dasja Reed has been called back to work twice this year. And twice, she’s been forced to say no. The administrative assistant with the City of New Orleans hasn’t been able to find a daycare spot for her two-year-old son.
She started the year assuming she was getting ahead financially — working on her degree, earning money through a side hustle, having a little extra cash month-to-month after paying off her car.
“I really thought I was getting some relief,” she says. “But you know, life happens. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
In this case, the punches stemmed from a global pandemic and a recession that barreled in with unprecedented force and speed. The economy has rebounded from its darkest days in the spring, but in the past six months, nearly 8 million more Americans have fallen into poverty, according to researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame. As the year closes out, there are roughly 10 million fewer jobs than there were in February.
So Reed is hardly alone in having to adapt to a harsh new financial reality. The number of long-term unemployed — those out of a job for at least 6 months — has been ticking up each month and now totals nearly 4 million. As of November, there are currently 16 unemployed people for every 10 available jobs, says Elise Gould, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute.
“It’s hard to think this will come to an end any time soon,” she adds.
Scott Hughes, who worked in live music promotions, spent months applying for any type of work he could get. After the extra $600 weekly in federal unemployment ended at the end of July, he and his wife had to spend down nearly $10,000 worth of savings to keep up with necessary bills.
In 2020, you’ve heard plenty about the "essential worker," Hughes, of Indianapolis, says he felt like an expendable one.
Unable to return to his job because of the limitations on large gatherings, he watched as support for the jobless expired and lawmakers sat by for months. They "basically pulled the rug out from under us financially and then left us hanging,” he says.
Last week, Congress finally passed new legislation to give additional money to the millions of people out of work, but it only lasts through March.
With limited help from the government, families have had to milk their savings and choose which bills to skip. It has been a months-long (and ongoing) test of financial resiliency. Here's how three families are making it work.
A 58-Year-Old Changes Her Retirement Plans
After living paycheck-to-paycheck for most of her working life, Victoria Mattas-French felt she was finally on firm financial ground as 2019 turned to 2020.
A community business development manager for Barnes & Noble in Maize, Kan., her role perfectly combined her experience in advertising, marketing and sales. And with two daughters grown and little debt to pay down, she’d started socking away $200 a week to try to catch up on retirement savings.
Then March 14 came.
“All of the sudden, you have no job,” she says. “And at 58, you’re looking at trying to get back into a marketplace that’s changed.”
Unemployment data show older workers this year lost jobs faster and returned to work slower than mid-career workers. Such late-career layoffs are challenging for the simple matter of time: older workers have less of it to make up for lost earnings before they're forced out of the labor market.
Furloughed in March and officially laid off in September, Mattas-French has exhausted her unemployment benefits and blown through her emergency savings. She’s “trying like heck” to avoid touching her small retirement fund.
She qualified for $488 a week in unemployment insurance — the maximum amount available through the state of Kansas. That, plus the federal $600 a week, didn’t entirely replace her lost earnings, but it was enough to cover necessities. Kansas is one of 30 states where maximum unemployment benefits don’t cover typical costs of living, according to a Money analysis.
“I cut pretty much everything I could,” she says. “But I still had rent. I still had a car payment. I still had health insurance."
By the time federal unemployment benefits expired in July, she had to start dipping into savings. It had taken her three years to build up an $8,000 emergency fund and less than 6 months to spend most of it down.
Geoff Sanzenbacher, a research fellow with the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, says the biggest risk for someone who’s lost a job in their late 50s and early 60s is choosing to retire and start taking Social Security early.
“That’s really disastrous because it locks in a lower payment,” he says, adding that every year a worker can delay claiming Social Security will bump up their payouts by 7% or more.
For her part, Mattas-French now doesn't expect to retire any time soon. In her search for work this year, she lowered her salary expectations by nearly $20,000 to compete with younger professionals, who are both more tech-savvy and able to work for less. It was discouraging, she says, to be continually passed up for jobs she knew she was qualified for.
Four months ago, she gave up her home and moved 50 miles away to live with her long-term partner. Her job had kept her in a different suburb of Wichita, and the two have lived happily apart for over 20 years. It wasn't an easy decision. But it saves her $900 in rent a month, so it was a practical one, she says.
Then, a week before Christmas, she finally caught a break. After more than 100 applications and roughly 25 interviews, she was offered a job selling ads for local newspapers. It wasn't exactly her first choice, to return to a role she'd outgrown professionally. But she couldn't pass up a job with full benefits — or the sanity that comes with having a normal schedule again.
"It was a mixed bag of emotions," she says. "But grateful was the most prominent emotion."
A Seattle Family Leans on Mortgage Forbearance
For the Hornby family, the spring was a string of unfortunate events. In no particular order, there was: a layoff, a series of strokes, a school shut down, a car accident.
Looking back now, Amanda Hornby says, it’s hard to remember it all in detail. She and her husband, Brian, have endured previous financial ups and downs, even layoffs, in their 18-year relationship. But that couldn’t have prepared them for what Hornby calls the “shit storm” earlier this year.
A 6-month mortgage forbearance helped them sock away more than $3,000 a month in a “last-minute emergency fund.” That forbearance, and a new urgency to build a well of savings, has helped the Seattle family of three manage for part of the year on her income as a librarian at the University of Washington.
“For an emergency step, it was very, very helpful,” she says. “I don’t think we could have gotten through the spring without it.”
Spurred in part by eased rules in the CARES Act, homeowners like the Hornbys have delayed billions of dollars worth of mortgage payments during 2020, including more than $4 billion this month, according to mortgage data provider Black Knight. As the year ends, more than 8 million homeowners are behind on their mortgage payments, according to a Census survey.
The Hornby family has encountered some serendipitous breaks this year, too.
Brian, a graphic designer, lost his job early enough to get an application in to the state of Washington’s unemployment system before it was completely overwhelmed. He’s received about $600 a week and has been able to stretch his unemployment eligibility through the entire year by skipping weeks when he’s picked up freelance work.
When their new Kia was totaled, they got $16,000 from their car insurance policy. But instead of putting the insurance money toward a new car, they decided to go without — at least until either of them has to start working out of the house regularly.
And with after-school clubs and occupational therapy for their 8-year-old son on hold because of the pandemic, the couple has been able to cut back their monthly spending by up to $500 a month.
Still, not having childcare eats into Brian's ability to apply for jobs or do freelance work. Amanda, for her part, is juggling roles as a co-educator, occupational therapist and mom, along with her actual job as a librarian at the University of Washington.
“That’s this kind of hidden cost that we’re now almost 10 months into,” Hornby says.
In the fall, after their forbearance period ended, the Hornbys decided to pay off their missed months in a lump sum. The majority of their emergency fund now is money that’s left over from the car insurance payout.
For now, they’re living off Amanda’s $4,800 a month salary. It’s enough to comfortably cover the mortgage and property taxes. But there’s little left after they pay for utilities, food and debt, including for a $14,000 line of credit from emergency home repairs and $2,000 in credit cards.
Having such a small cushion each month makes her nervous, especially amid so much uncertainty. Her husband is applying for jobs, and they hope freelance work will pick up next year. But they can’t rely on that.
He's up for service or retail work, yet that has its downsides, too. They've been strictly following social distancing rules this year since they're helping her parents after her mom suffered a series of strokes at the beginning of the year. Hornby wonders how the long-tail effects of 2020’s recession may damage their ability to provide eldercare down the line.
She recognizes that, even now, they’re still in a relatively privileged position. As two college-educated, salaried professionals, they felt financially stable going into March. But they had little savings outside of a retirement fund, and she frankly never thought they’d need a large pot of money to sustain several months of unemployment.
That's one lesson 2020 has hammered home: emergency savings are crucial, says Luis Rosa, a Las Vegas-based financial planner. He asks his clients to picture what they'd do if they were out of work for 6 months.
"If the answer scares you, then it probably means that your emergency savings is underfunded," he says.
Hornby says they won't make that mistake again. Now, and in the future, they’ll aim to save more, donate more, and spend less money on things they don’t really need.
“This year will forever change how we manage our finances,” she says.
A Single Mom (Finally) Finds Affordable Childcare
Here’s a peek into Dasja Reed’s typical day:
Mornings are for breakfast, flashcards, and other activities with her 2-year-old son, Jarret. Afternoons are devoted to naps and self-directed play (for him) and work (for her). In the evenings, they play outside, eat dinner, do bath time and read bedtime stories. From 8 p.m. until the early hours of the morning, she studies.
Reed hasn’t been able to return to her full-time job with the City of New Orleans after her son’s daycare closed down. In place of a steady biweekly check, she’s started a small at-home business selling educational materials to try to make ends meet.
Two million women have dropped out of the workforce so far this year, in what some analysts are calling the “shecession.” Part of the blame lies in the jobs that were lost — positions in retail, leisure, hospitality and healthcare. Those are all roles that are disproportionately held by women, says Diane Lim, an economist and author of the website EconomistMom.com.
But it’s not just job losses, Lim says. Many women have voluntarily left the workforce to care for their kids as schools remain shuttered. Of those not working, women ages 25 to 44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands, according to the Census Bureau.
“A lot of women are so consumed right now by the weight of supervising their children,” Lim says. “It’s just not feasible for women to do two full-time jobs at the same time, under the same roof.”
Reed is one of these women. In between juggling her roles as a single mother, college student, and (new) small business owner, she's spent dozens of hours in 2020 looking for childcare. She estimates she visited between 7 and 10 possible schools.
When her son’s daycare sent kids home in March, she took a few weeks of unpaid leave to care for him. Then, she was furloughed.
In June, just as she was offered a position helping with city summer camps, she learned that her son’s daycare was closing permanently, unable to withstand losses brought on by the pandemic. (A little more than half of daycare centers surveyed in November reported losing money every day, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and as more close, parents must scramble for spots in the remaining facilities.)
Finally, in September, Reed succeeded in finding a new daycare. Scheduled to return to work as part of New Orleans’ phase 3 of reopening, she signed Jarret up.
He attended for a few weeks before Reed learned she wasn’t eligible for a child care assistance subsidy she’d been receiving in February, since she hadn't yet been allowed to return to work. It didn't matter that she was trying to launch a company from home, or that she was working on getting her associate’s degree in early childhood education by taking four full-time classes at a local community college. Unable to afford the $740 monthly fee without assistance, she lost the spot. Back to square one.
Without work, she’s managed thanks to expanded paid family leave, which allowed her to earn two-thirds of her pay for 10 weeks since her son’s school closed because of the pandemic.
In May, she launched Precious Seeds, through which she makes personalized educational materials for young kids. She was busy at the start of virtual schooling, but now that it’s slowed down, she estimates she made maybe $500 last month.
One option for her in the interim may be a virtual job, like working as an assistant or customer service representative, Rosa says. An increasing number of companies are open to employees working from home, he added. Reed says she's applied to some of these jobs, and nearly landed one making calls for a doctor's office.
Reed stopped using her car, saving $289 a month on insurance. She hasn’t been required to make payments on her $32,000 in federal student loans. That leaves rent, at $820, as her most pressing financial concern. She was receiving $222 a week in unemployment until the end of September, when the checks abruptly stopped. It took several weeks and hours waiting on hold with the state's Department of Labor to figure out what was going on. In mid-December, she finally started getting payments again.
There was a period, sometime in October, when she learned that she’d lost the childcare assistance, and she couldn’t go back to work, and her unemployment checks had stopped coming. She felt defeated. But for the most part, she’s surprisingly — even infectiously — positive.
“I can’t complain, right? We have a roof over our head. We have food to eat. The lights are on. Some people are doing way worse than that.”
Her faith, and the kindness of neighbors, are helping her persevere. At the start of December, she prayed about how her son didn’t have any warm winter clothes. A week later, a friend dropped off a bag full of pants and sweaters. She's able to look at the silver linings of 2020, like how she's grown as a parent and found a way to provide for her son.
“He doesn’t even know we’re in the middle of the storm,” she says.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
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