The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an interruption in income for many—not just business owners, but families as well. It’s nearly safe to say no one expected cash flow to dry up across the board. While the market has recovered the majority of what it initially lost, many individuals are still in survival mode.
I believe the answer to survival starts by establishing an emergency fund, which should generally precede your decision to invest. The fund should consist of liquid assets that are accessible without penalty or excessive tax that you can use to pay expenses and should typically amount to around three to six months’ worth of expenses. This will enable you to pay the rent and utilities, and care for your dependents.
If there is only one spouse working, I recommend six months’ worth of expenses. If both spouses work, many times, three months of expenses will do. Once you have that cushion, you have options like reducing your expenses or looking for other ways to bring in money. That could be cutting extracurriculars like social clubs or a new or second job. An emergency fund is critical in helping to avoid taking on debt or being forced to access retirement savings during times of uncertainty. It can also help to ensure you aren’t forced to make decisions you shouldn’t because you’re under stress. While tapping your retirement funds is an option, accessing this money can create undesirable tax consequences and penalties.
When cash flow is uncertain, you need to control your expenses. For individuals, I often recommend looking at refinancing their homes. Mortgage rates are at extreme lows with the national average carrying around 3.5% interest. Homes are also at some of their highest appraisals. Locally, I have seen around a $10,000 increase in appraisals from a year ago. I’ve had clients refinance, pulling out their cash equity, lowering their interest rate only half a percent, and able to keep their monthly payment about the same. The cash can then be used to sustain your household through tough economic times.
As part of the planning process, I also recommend investors have their insurance coverages in place, including disability policies. It is much more likely for an individual to suffer a disability than to die. Furthermore, the disability may increase expenses and add to your current obligations.
One of the final steps for surviving an economic hardship is diversification of your assets. For example, if you work an industry that is sensitive to the economy, such as a home builder, you should consider investments in Consumer Staples or Healthcare that can help hedge against losses in Industrials. Some investment choices are not meant to achieve 10% growth year after year. Some are purely meant to lower the risk across all your investments, including your ability to earn.
Individuals shouldn’t rely on the government to be there with a bailout every time the economy comes to a halt, like we saw with the CARES Act. Having a cushion and controlling your cash flow are essential steps for success even in the best economic times. Financial planning with this in mind can help you feel as secure in bad times as you do in times when the market is strong.