Americans say they’re saving money. Retail spending is up. Low interest rates have sparked the housing market and the stock market has rebounded from its initial pandemic dive.
But how does any of this make sense when so many people are struggling financially months into the Covid-19 crisis and the recession that came with it? The unemployment rate is high, unemployment assistance is about to expire again in some states, overall consumer spending is down and mortgage delinquencies are on the rise.
The reason is what’s expected to be a K-shaped economic recovery, which disproportionately impacts different segments of the economy. Even now, more than six months into the pandemic, some households’ finances are largely untouched, while others are looking at a long and arduous recovery.
For many, weathering what has become a longer-term financial storm will require more than just an emergency fund. An individual’s financial issues are so closely tied to the state of their mental health, and the ongoing stresses of the coronavirus pandemic are well documented.
While you cannot predict how—or when—the American economy will recover from this period, you can take some time to reframe how you think about your finances on an emotional level.
Here’s what you need to know about protecting your finances and your mental well-being during these uncertain times.
What is a K-shaped recovery?
An economic downturn and its eventual recovery can take many shapes. You may have heard of a V-shaped or U-shaped recovery. But one thing these often-referenced shapes have in common is that widespread financial challenges usually are met with widespread recovery, albeit by various degrees for individuals.
A K-shaped recovery, however, sees two groups diverging from an economic turning point, instead of tracking a single curve of decline and recovery. More affluent individuals see their situation as stable or improving during a downturn—they’re the upper portion of the K—while others experience devastating losses.
There are signs that this is happening now during the Covid-19 crisis.
People earning between $25,000 and $35,000 were nearly three and a half times more likely to report having a “very difficult” time paying for usual household expenses than those earning between $100,000 and $150,000 per year, according to a late-August survey by the Census Bureau.
Take the hospitality and leisure sectors for example, explains Brian Kench, dean of the Pompea College of Business at the University of New Haven. “Only about half of lost jobs have come back,” in those sectors, he says, due to continuing virus concerns.
Benefits designed to stabilize people who haven’t been able to return to work or find new employment—if they have been able to access those funds—are likely to run out. The grim employment outlook plus strained finances compounds the recovery process for these individuals.
“The lower part of the K feels like it’s sliding even deeper,” Kench says.
If you have large swaths of people who can’t earn money to pay their bills and make purchases, it’s going to take longer for the economy as a whole to show vast improvements, even if there are a lot of people who are doing relatively well.
And for many people, the impact of that slower recovery track can have long-term effects on their ability to earn and amass wealth.
A recent survey found that households of color face a more challenging financial landscape than their white counterparts, often with less access to aid programs like the Economic Impact Payments, popularly known as the stimulus checks, authorized by the CARES Act.
Households of color were still trying to regain ground from the last financial crisis before the coronavirus pandemic came along. Income for Black households didn’t surpass 2007 levels until 2019, according to new Census Bureau data on income and poverty.
“But that’s already old news,” said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, during a presentation this week. “The impact of the pandemic and the recession has had a disproportionate impact on Black workers and their families,” Wilson explained.
How to cope with longer periods of financial strain
With the U.S. pandemic response in its seventh month, you may have already exhausted your initial sources of financial security, whether in the form of an emergency fund or government aid. But before you strategize a long-term budget to weather this period, it’s helpful to recognize your emotional state.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, you may have felt a fight-or-flight response to adapt to the immediate changes. But that response may no longer be enough to support you through this next phase, warns Dr. Alex Melkumian, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and the founder of the Financial Psychology Center.
Some people have fewer coping mechanisms to maintain that “fight” response for a long period, or never had the resources to be in the position to fight in the first place, Melkumian says. He uses the example of someone who loses their job suddenly and needs to apply for unemployment. “For some people, that’s a devastating place to get to in their career.”
Add that grief onto the difficulties of navigating state unemployment insurance systems and the health concerns brought on by the pandemic, and the stress you feel can start to stack up—which can do long-term damage to your relationship with money.
“Money can be a conduit for anything we’re emotionally filled with,” Melkumian explains. “If we’re full of fear and anxiety, it’s going to [show] in our behavior and our decision-making with money.”
Melkumian says that beneath patients’ frustration with their financial situation are often feelings of shame and guilt. And, to persevere over the long term, you need to address that emotional side of dealing with money. “When we fight our emotional nature, we do ourselves a disservice. The longer we ignore, the longer recovery will take.”
Acknowledge feelings of shame and guilt (but don’t dwell)
Whether you were struggling before the pandemic or your financial challenges are more recent, recognize that a lot of people are in a tough position. This is not the time to feel guilty because you weren’t better prepared.
“During this crisis, priorities may need to be made that focus on the present, and that is okay,” says Sarah Parker, senior director at the Financial Health Network. “Emergency funds may need to be tapped, and that is okay because it’s exactly what they’re there for.”
If your funds are coming up short for basic needs, don’t wait to ask for help. “Don’t be so ashamed and guilty that it prevents you from reaching out for help,” Melkumian says. Many financial institutions are still working with customers to offer forbearance programs, and you may be eligible for aid beyond the channels you’ve already pursued.
“Understand you need to give yourself the room to process, to get through the emotional stuff,” Melkumian says, but don’t let it pull you into a spiral of shame that’s harder to get out of later.
Take small steps toward recovery
Don’t worry about making the perfect budget right now. But do your best to plot out your obligations, resources and any accommodations you’ve requested.
“Our research shows that planning behavior is highly correlated with improved financial health,” Parker says. “People often don’t plan because they feel overwhelmed by it, especially those with strapped budgets already. But starting somewhere with a small degree of planning for the rest of the year into the next will help.”
Thinking about your goals—even if it’s just covering the basics—can help you start to see incremental progress, Parker says.
For a boost, try using free budgeting apps that can help you track your spending and help you plan ahead. “There are many apps that analyze spending patterns and cash flow to help consumers determine what their disposable income is without jeopardizing their financial obligations when those bills roll around,” she says.
Check in with yourself
Melkumian recommends taking a few moments to do a daily emotional self-check to catch brewing financial fears before they grow larger than life.
Since you can’t predict how long the widespread economic recovery will take, you can’t let yourself get overwhelmed with daily what-if scenarios, he warns. “Everyone wants their financial world to improve immediately,” Melkumian says, but that hope can manifest irrational expectations.
It’s important to develop a mindset that can see how small improvements in your finances that may seem insignificant now can have a bigger impact a few years from now. Doing so can take time, so be patient with yourself as you continue to check on your emotional state and financially recover.
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