With negotiations to push through a new Congressional relief package coming down to the wire before the Senate leaves for its holiday recess at the end of next week, it may be worth considering how to stretch your budget if federal lawmakers can't come to an agreement as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.
About 84% of Americans say they've received some type of government aid this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, including stimulus payments, unemployment benefits and small business loans. That's according to a recent survey of nearly 600 U.S. adults in August from mobile bank Varo and the Common Cents Lab, a financial research lab at Duke University.
About half those surveyed have already cut back their spending and 16.8% say they have taken on a side gig or second job. Yet for many, it isn't enough. About 45% of respondents believe that without additional stimulus, Americans will go hungry and continue to struggle — even after the pandemic eases.
If a legislative package doesn't come together before Dec. 18 or the legislation doesn't include any additional stimulus payments or enhanced unemployment benefits, many Americans may face difficult choices.
Mariel Beasley, co-founder of the Common Cents Lab, has six tips to help those struggling financially stretch their budget as much as possible.
1. Focus on big cuts
Nearly half of those polled by Common Cents Lab say they have cut spending by cooking more meals at home, while 38% have switched to buying cheaper brands. While every cent helps, it can make a bigger impact to think about how to reduce the biggest expenses in your monthly budget, Beasley recommends.
"That will be more effective than constantly trying to pinch pennies," she says. If housing is your biggest cost, can you add a roommate or move in with a friend or family member to reduce your monthly bill? Or can you downgrade your phone plan to something more basic for the time being?
2. Seek out help before you're desperate
Seek out and utilize food pantries and social support programs in your community before you need to — don't wait until you run out, Beasley says. Feeding America has a helpful lookup tool that shows where their network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries and meal programs around the country are located. In many cases, you do not have to be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, in order to qualify for pantry services.
Using these types of programs now will stretch your budget further. "You'll have a little bit more mental bandwidth to navigate it when you aren't in a dire emergency situation," Beasley adds.
3. Ask friends and family for help
About 14.7% of the respondents in Common Cents Lab's survey have already asked friends or family for help this year, but Beasley encourages more people to tap into this resource. "Friends and family can be a crucial support network – if you have this resource available to you, consider it," she says.
However, you can damage relationships if you're not careful, so it's important to be clear about your expectations going in, Beasley says. You should also make contingency plans. "Don't just agree to the most optimistic repayment schedule," Beasley says. "And don't borrow from friends or family who may themselves need the money soon."
4. Avoid credit cards
While it may be easy to simply charge your expenses to a credit card when money is tight, this can end up being a very expensive option, Beasley says.
Instead of turning to your credit cards first, try approaching local credit unions for a personal loan. These institutions tend to provide lower cost options, as well as offer more flexibility and forgiveness on credit histories, Beasley says.
5. Consider additional ways to earn money
Finding a job, even a side gig, is incredibly difficult for many Americans. Not only are jobs scarce, but many families are navigating remote learning as schools around the country shut down in-person classes. This can make it much more challenging to work outside the home for parents.
But it's still worth pursuing alternative ways to earn additional cash, Beasley says. Do you live in a city where you could walk dogs on Rover? Perhaps you can become an online tutor or teach ESL through sites like Cambly or VIPKid. She also suggests sites where you can sign-up to take online surveys and test products on platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, Prolific, Survey Junkie, Swagbucks or UserTesting.
Sites like Steady act as a community job board to help you identify opportunities in your area, and apps like Nextdoor can help you connect with locals who are looking for quick jobs.
6. Don't overspend on the holidays
The end of year holidays are a great time to slow down and appreciate the people in your life. But the holidays also can be one of the most expensive times of the year. That's a trap you don't want to fall into, especially if you're struggling financially this year.
"Luckily there's research to show that experiences are often better and more meaningful gifts," Beasley says. She recommends getting creative and coming up with safe and free (or inexpensive) experiences you can gift to your loved ones this year.
You could offer lessons in something you're good at, such as music or art. Or you can develop a homemade scavenger hunt around your city or town for your friends to participate in together. Gifts of free babysitting, pet sitting or dog walking are always appreciated as well.
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