Financial Tips for Pandemic Times
Working behind the bar mixing drinks and behind the chair cutting hair, the Cluck family’s livelihood depends on the up-close and personal.
Shelter-in-place requirements and business closures caused the Cluck’s income to evaporate. The couple finds themselves in unique circumstances: three school-aged children to support and two parents out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emily Cluck, a third-generation hairstylist and Tulsa native, pays weekly rent for her salon space. The city’s shelter-in-place measures meant she couldn’t use it for several weeks.
“It’s like having a second mortgage but for a house you can’t live in,” she says.
No one and nothing has been left unscathed by the COVID-19 crisis, least of all employment and finances. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission paid out more unemployment claims in the first three weeks of the pandemic than in 2019 as a whole. Shelter-in-place orders and safer-at-home guidelines have left Tulsans reeling economically.
Budget and Prioritize
Dialing 911 is almost a reflex when physical disaster strikes. However, when financial difficulties occur, it can be unclear how to get help. No matter the type of distressing situation, staying calm is key.
“The more emotions get involved, the more we’re likely to make the wrong financial decision,” says Lorianne Williams, BFATM financial advisor at Prime Wealth Management, a private wealth advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, LLC.
While many things, including finances, feel out of control, each of us still has control over how we’re spending our money. Williams says now is the perfect time to sit down with your family, write out your expenses and create a budget, paying special attention to what categories you’re spending in.
Next, with budget in-hand, prioritize necessary expenses and ask yourself what you can forgo for now. Williams advises to focus on the sacrifices as temporary. Remind yourself that making sacrifices now ensures money in the bank to pay bills later.
Understand the Terms Before Skipping a Payment
For some, paying off student loans and mortgages are weighty budget line items. Many families found some relief for some loans from the passage of the federal CARES Act. It suspended federal student loan payments through September 30 and offered forbearance on federally backed mortgages. Locally, utility providers PSO, ONG and Cox have suspended non-payment disconnections.
However, remember these benefits don’t mean the balance due is waived for good. Providers and lenders may ask for the balance as a lump sum at a later date. Make sure you’re clear on the terms of the forbearance or flexibility before skipping a payment.
No matter the type of debt carried or bills due, Williams advises contacting each lender and provider to explain your situation to reach an agreement.
“It’s similar to a parent-child relationship,” Williams offers. “Parents will deal easier with a child if the child is up front and communicates with them.”
Williams says paying the minimum, or even less, on debt services is better than paying nothing and won’t affect your credit as badly. Conversely, if you’ve been paying extra on loan principal or contributing into a retirement account, it’s O.K. to cut back temporarily and use that extra money for more immediate expenses.
Use What You Have First
When it comes to making ends meet, Williams advises using what you have first. Don’t turn to racking up credit card balances or paying tax penalties by withdrawing from retirement funds. Now is the time to use emergency funds and savings to fill the gaps in your budget — just remember to rebuild them in the future.
As part of the CARES Act, many have received Economic Impact Payments (a.k.a stimulus checks) and expanded unemployment for self-employed workers. Williams says to treat your stimulus check as a resource to get you through tough times, whether that’s now or later. For Cluck, her family’s stimulus check helped them catch up on expenses and stay afloat.
“The stimulus checks seem like a lot of money, but this has replaced my income since I haven’t been able to get unemployment,” Cluck says.
Finding Emergency Aid
In addition to honing in on spending and taking advantage of CARES Act helps, many local organizations have been providing emergency aid to those in need.
211 Eastern Oklahoma
211 Eastern Oklahoma, a program of the Community Service Council connecting callers to community services and resources, fielded over 35,000 calls between March 15 and May 5. Half of those were COVID-19-specific needs.
“We have seen a surge in calls across Eastern Oklahoma during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially from people who have never needed assistance before,” says Pam Ballard, CEO of the Community Service Council. “More people are turning to us for help for the information and resources they need. Assisting individuals and families during hardships is not new to CSC. We know how a sudden change can impact someone’s life. No one should go through this alone. Our 211 Eastern Oklahoma specialists have worked around the clock to connect more than 34,000 Oklahomans to help with food, mental health support, housing, health care, and especially how to find COVID-19 resources, including how to schedule and receive a COVID-19 test.”
The Salvation Army’s Center of Hope
Operators at 211 Eastern Oklahoma often refer callers to The Salvation Army, which offers utility assistance through its Center of Hope. In April the local command helped 26 households with COVID-19-related utility bill assistance, averaging $339 per grant. There aren’t income restrictions associated with receiving the aid, and anyone in Green Country can apply at www.salarmytulsa.org.
“Part of our normal ministry is helping with utility bills, but we’ve been blessed with some additional grant funds from the [Tulsa] Community Foundation that are going to help us expand that,” says Major Mark Harwell, area commander of The Salvation Army Tulsa Metro Area Command.
Oklahoma Department of Human Services and More
In addition to The Salvation Army, 211 Eastern Oklahoma refers many callers to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services for its many assistance offerings. Religious organizations, such as First Baptist Tulsa, Restore Hope Ministries and Bethel C.O.G.I.C, and American Legion of Oklahoma have also provided financial assistance to families during the COVID-19 crisis.
As Tulsa businesses are reopening their doors and dipping their toes into the new normal, Cluck doesn’t know what lies on the other side of the threshold for her family’s employment and finances. While salons are allowed to open, some clients aren’t comfortable coming in. For Cluck’s clients that are ready to return, it’s under strict guidelines. Cluck says she’s grateful for the work she’s able to do.
Even with all the unknowns before her, Cluck says it’s easier knowing her family isn’t the only one going through hard times.