Even as the U.S. gives out 2.9 million doses of the vaccine every day, a fourth wave of COVID-19 seems imminent.
As cases surged in the Northeast, Midwest and elsewhere over the past week, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention went off-script to say she couldn’t shake the feeling of “impending doom.”
In times like these, Suze Orman says people need to become “warriors” to protect themselves and their finances.
It’s not easy, as jobs vanish, markets gyrate and retirement savings are threatened, but the personal finance author and TV personality says you need to look past the “now” and stay focused on your long-term goals.
Here are 17 do’s and don’ts from Orman to keep your finances strong.
1. Do be careful about making big purchases
Even if you’ve got cash in the bank, now is not the time to buy a new car or smartphone, Orman says.
“Stop with major purchases right here and right now, because the future is unknown, and this is the time for you to conserve in every possible way,” she says on her podcast.
Though if you’re convinced you’re in a good position, you might want to open your wallet for something practical — like life insurance, to protect the people who depend on you.
“If you somehow have gotten this far in the pandemic without focusing on life insurance, I have one question for you: Are you crazy?” asks Orman in a December blog post.
“It’s easy to buy online, and inexpensive,” she adds.
2. Don’t blow your third stimulus check
More than 60 members of Congress are pressing President Joe Biden to support a fourth stimulus check — and even more after that — but for now, nothing is certain. The last round of $1,400 checks could be the last.
Orman says you’ll want to conserve your relief money — particularly if you’re out of work.
“You should seriously save every penny you can. Do not go taking that stimulus check and using it all to pay off all your credit card debt, if that’s all the cash that you have,” she tells NBC’s Today show.
Instead, she says, sort your bills into two piles: essential and nonessential. Pay only the essential ones, and pay as little as you possibly can — and that includes your credit card bills. At the same time, you might cut the cost of that debt by rolling it into a low-interest debt consolidation loan.
3. Do refinance your mortgage
Have you been paying attention to interest rates? A year ago, the Federal Reserve chopped a key rate virtually to zero, helping to usher in the lowest mortgage rates on record.
If you own a home and haven’t refinanced yet, shop around for a new loan that will slash your monthly payment. Rates are starting to rise again, but 30-year fixed mortgages are still averaging just 3.18%, according to mortgage company Freddie Mac.
That said, “do not refinance and extend your years,” Suze Orman warns in an interview with People. In other words, if you’ve got a 30-year loan that you’ve been paying for five years, don’t refinance into another 30-year mortgage.
Instead, try to refi into a 15- or 20-year loan to hold down your interest costs over the long run.
4. Don’t panic-sell your stocks
When the stock market’s big coronavirus crash began last year, Suze Orman’s initial reaction was that investors should “rejoice,” because they could buy great stocks at bargain-basement prices.
“Could stocks keep going down? Of course,” she writes in an article on CNBC.com. “But since World War II, we have had 12 bear markets. The average loss was around 35%, and though stocks fell for an average of a bit more than a year, they typically had made back their losses in another two years and then rallied to new highs.”
In fact, it took only a few months for the S&P 500 to rally to new all-time highs.
If you’re ever panicking over your investments, you might get some help by hiring an affordable financial adviser of your own. Those services are available online now, with no social distancing issues.
5. Do try to put some bills on hold
During the pandemic, government programs have offered consumers relief from their usual financial obligations, and many creditors have been more understanding.
“If you can’t pay your bills, or could really use some short-term relief, call anyone you owe money to and ask them what help is available,” Orman says in her “Women & Money” podcast.
Call your credit card issuers to find out what they can do for you, because some have suspended interest charges. “Are there long wait times on customer service lines? So what? You’ve got time,” says the money maven.
Taking advantage of offers to sideline bill payments shouldn’t hurt your credit score, but check your score regularly — which you can do for free — just to be sure you’re not getting dinged by mistake.
6. Don’t assume the job market will snap back
Suze Orman has some sobering words for people who’ve been laid off because of the COVID-19 outbreak and are now sitting at home: Some of your jobs may not come back.
“Are we looking at a total change in the jobs that do come back, jobs that don’t come back, and where those jobs are performed? Yeah, I think we absolutely are looking at a total revamping of how business goes on after this over,” she says on her podcast.
So work on your resume and try to learn some new skills during your downtime. See if you can pick up freelance or gig work that might lead to something bigger later on.
“I do not expect us to go back to business as usual,” Orman warns.
7. Do keep investing, if you can
Not only should you not sell stocks, but you also shouldn’t stop putting more money in. “If you aren’t yet retired, now is not the time to stop investing. Focus on the long term,” says Orman.
If you’re making regular automatic transfers from your bank account into an investment account, or if you’ve got a portion of every paycheck going into a 401(k) or other retirement plan, just keep doing what you’re doing.
And if a new crisis is coming in the form of a fourth wave, now is probably a good time to make sure you have the right mix of stocks and bonds — there’s an automated investment app that can help you set up the optimal portfolio.
“Whatever your asset allocation goal is, you need to check your retirement portfolios at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track,” Orman writes in a December blog post.
8. Don’t get carried away with online shopping
With so many of us stuck at home to avoid getting sick, you might feel the urge to combat cabin fever with some online shopping.
“Given that backdrop, retail therapy is tempting and it’s so easy to tell ourselves it is more than okay because it comes deep in our heart — we want to give to others,” she writes in a December blog post.
“I get it. And yet, I am still going to ask you to fight the urge if you’re still hard at work making sure you and your family is financially secure.”
Before you make a big purchase, consider the alternatives: “Please don’t spend dollars on gifts if those dollars can be used to build an emergency fund, pay down credit card debt, or help you make more progress with saving for retirement.”
For those occasions when you do need to shop online, you can download a free browser extension that will help you find better prices for whatever you’re buying.
9. Do use credit cards, but use them wisely
Though you want to keep your spending under control during this period of financial turmoil, it’s all right to fall back on your credit cards if you find yourself in a bind.
“If you don’t have enough money in your emergency cash fund to cover expenses, use a credit card for essential purchases,” Orman writes in the CNBC piece.
“But if you do this, do everything possible to pay the minimum due each month. Staying current — paying the minimum is fine during a crisis — is key to maintaining a good relationship with the card issuer,” she says.
If find yourself relying on a credit card, try to use one with cash-back rewards, so you’re essentially saving money each time you use it.
10. Don’t keep too little in your emergency savings
Right now it’s probably very difficult to beef up your savings for emergencies, but Orman is hoping consumers will come away from these difficult times with a new determination to put aside even more money for when things get tough.
Most experts say you should have enough saved — maybe in a high-yield savings account — to cover three to six months’ worth of expenses. Suze Orman says the pandemic calls for a new standard: a three-year emergency fund.
She explained it this way, in a HerMoney podcast with personal finance expert Jean Chatzky: “A bear market (that is, a 20% decline in stocks), from where it goes from the top to the bottom, back to the top again, is usually 3.1 years.”
Orman says you need a financial cushion for a bear market because you don’t want to be forced to sell stocks when markets are falling, and you don’t want to raid your retirement money, either.
11. Do leave your retirement money alone
If you have an IRA or a 401(k) or other employment-based retirement account, Orman says you shouldn’t tap it unless you absolutely have to.
She tells Deadline that even when retirement balances get beaten down, they come back — and you don’t want to miss out on the rebound.
“If you take the money out, you’re racking in a (loss), and you’re going to pay income taxes on that money,” she says.
Not to mention that, with a 401(k) or a traditional IRA, withdrawals before age 59 1/2 trigger a 10% early withdrawal penalty.
12. Don’t go without health insurance
Orman’s own recent health scare was a wake-up call. Your physical well-being is just like your physical well-being — “you can’t just put it off,” she said during a November CNBC virtual summit.
You’ve been laid off? If you had health insurance, you can keep it going. You don’t want to be left without coverage, especially not in the middle of a national health crisis.
“You can now take over the payments that you were making and your company was making on your behalf, to the health insurance policy that you currently have. That’s called COBRA,” Orman says in the Deadline interview. “That will last for 18 months.”
Depending on your income, you might qualify for a subsidy to cut your Obamacare health care premiums. If you’re not eligible, you could shop for a low-cost health insurance policy outside of the marketplace.
13. Do respect the recession
A year after the pandemic started hammering the economy, experts say the U.S. is still looking like a nation in recession.
And after new lockdowns in response to spiraling COVID cases, Orman says you need to be concerned, even if you’re still holding on to your job.
She says that’s something her driver knows all too well: He was thrown out of work by the last recession.
“My driver used to have a $200,000 a year job back in 2007, and now he’s a driver, and he’s still a driver,” the money guru says.
So get a side hustle, save as much as you can, and keep your spending under control.
14. Don’t miss out on a chance to convert your IRA
With a traditional IRA, you make contributions to the retirement account from your pretax income. Withdrawals will be taxed as current income after age 59 ½. But with a Roth IRA, the money is taxed upfront, so withdrawals are often tax-free.
“Many of you have been wanting to convert from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA,” Orman says on her podcast. That can be expensive, but if the market dips significantly again, act quickly.
The reason is that the amount you take from your traditional IRA and put into a Roth will be taxed as income.
“When the market is down … maybe, rather than having $20,000, you have $10,000 now,” Orman explains. “So, when you convert, you would only owe taxes on $10,000.”
15. Do put dividend-paying stocks in your portfolio
Orman says the market crash last year was a good reminder to have dividend-paying stocks in your portfolio, whether you’re investing your pocket change or substantially more. Even when the market goes into a tailspin, you’ll still have some returns to show.
She says many good, quality stocks pay dividends. “There are so many out there that are paying 4.5%, 5% right now that (were) crushed for no reason” when the market went down, she says in her podcast.
The dividend yield is a company’s annual dividend divided by its share price. If the business pays an annual dividend of $1 per share and its current stock price is $20, that’s a dividend yield of 5%.
Dividends are usually paid out quarterly. So if you’re invested in a company paying $1 per share annually and you have 1,000 shares, you receive $250 every three months that can be reinvested into the firm.
16. Don’t confuse ‘want’ with ‘need’
Now is one of those times when it’s particularly important to understand what you need, as opposed to stuff you just want. It’s a distinction that Suze Orman often talks about.
“I can afford a new car, but why would I want to waste money like that? Just because you have money doesn’t mean you should waste money. You should never waste money,” she told Jean Chatzky, in the HerMoney podcast.
That’s especially true at this moment, with layoffs continuing and incomes shrinking.
But still, “we are wasting so much money,” Orman says. Going back to the car example, she says instead of buying a new one she’d rather spend $2,000 to fix up her current car.
17. Do consider paying down your mortgage
If you’re able to swing it, paying off your mortgage can be a smart defensive move during these uncertain times, Orman says.
“Then, the money that you are paying towards your mortgage every month, I want you to put that exact same amount of money back into your savings,” she said in the Today interview.
But she says the strategy doesn’t make sense unless you’ve already built up eight months’ worth of emergency savings. And you shouldn’t be carrying a lot of other debt.
She says once you’ve disposed of your mortgage, you’ll want to open a home equity line of credit that you could tap for additional resources in case of a financial emergency.