My name’s Nicola. I’m fortunate enough to still have a job right now, most of my friends have lost their jobs and it’s made me realise that if I had lost my job I wouldn’t be able to survive at all. I have no savings, a few debts and spend all my earnings every month. What do I need to start doing, right now, to ensure that by the time the next crisis hits the economy, I would be able to survive regardless of my employment situation?
Thanks for all the financial knowledge you share.
Dave Ramsey is having a field day with this COVID-19 pandemic and associated financial crisis! His very conservative school of advice is exactly the type of financial planning that you need to survive an economic crisis and it works especially well if you are in the type of job that is insecure and disappears in a market downturn. Go to his channel and he is all about the, “I told you so.”
Quite soon after the global COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, stock markets plunged to 2017 levels. Lots of investors got scared and decided to hold their money as cash, however, those of us that follow the Warren Buffet school of investing were not selling our shares, we continued buying as usual but at the now lower prices to reduce the average price at which we bought our shares. It turns out to have been a good idea because portfolios have bounced back very rapidly BUT it wouldn't have mattered either way, those of us with 15 plus horizon have plenty of time to recover and make fresh gains.
Investing consistently over time and especially when stock prices are falling helps to reduce the average price at which you buy your shares, this is called “Dollar Cost Averaging”.
Getting your financial house in order takes time; it is not an overnight thing. If you have a low income or significant debts it can take very many years indeed but these are the fundamentals you will not have regretted following in a world where the next crisis is always just around the corner.
I don’t claim to have created a new financial world order; the principles I like and follow have been collected from many financial authors over the last fifteen years:
1. CREATE AN EMERGENCY FUND (and AD HOC FUND)
Have an emergency fund of £1,000. This will cover most emergencies. If you’re a student, a £500 emergency fund should be sufficient.
I used 60% of our £1,000 emergency fund to buy a freezer just before the UK went into COVID-19 lockdown. We only had a 70/30 fridge/freezer which means the freezer portion is tiny.
I’ve personally always preferred fresh fruit, veg and milk to frozen or canned stuff so it was never a problem before but having such a low stock of food made me properly anxious and I am not even the anxious type. I won’t tell you the drama I went through to get what was probably Britain’s last freezer from a back alley warehouse shop but I do know I am not the only one that had some kind of emergency when COVID-19 hit.
If you did use your emergency fund then please share how you used yours in the comments.
If you didn’t have to use your emergency fund, that is awesome but I know you will have had a certain level of peace of mind by having had the £1,000 emergency fund set aside. An emergency fund is there to be used for any expenditure that you feel has to be made but had not been budgeted for: a car breakdown, an unexpected medical expense etc.
How should you set up your emergency fund?
Many UK savings accounts and current accounts are completely free so I would just add a savings account at your existing bank and build your emergency fund there.
We also use the emergency fund for ‘ad hoc’ expenses so it gets topped up monthly to accommodate what we call ad hoc expenses. These are expected annual expenses that we prefer to pay for annually rather than by monthly direct debit. Ad hoc expenses include:
For example, if you figure out that these will total £1,800 per year, then you need to add an extra £150 every month to your Emergency Fund. Sometimes it will dip below £1,000 but because it’s topped up religiously every month it will get topped up again and if these annual expenses are bunched up around the same time of the year sometimes your emergency fund will be well above £1,000 but that is okay because you know that the money is there for a specific purpose.
Paying for lumpy expenses annually rather than monthly gives you the same peace of mind as buying things for cash. You’ve paid for it, it’s done and frequently paying for it once a year is cheaper than setting up payments. Of course, if it costs exactly the same to pay monthly then that might be the better option to even out your cash flow.
Alternative option: You could split bank accounts up further by having a separate "Emergency Fund" bank account and Ad Hoc Fund or Annual Expenses account; that way, the Emergency Fund remains sacred for a true emergency.
2. GET TO DEBT FREEDOM
You will not ever regret having paid your debts off completely. Those that had zero debt when COVID-19 hit will have been best placed to weather the storm because they have no debt payments to be making in addition to their costs of living.
If you want to tackle your debts systematically, get my “notes to debt freedom”.
If you do have outstanding debt then create a plan such that in under 3 years, and ideally within 12 to 18 months you will be completely debt free. My notes to debt freedom will guide you through that process.
3. SET UP A CRISIS FUND
The crisis fund is completely different to the emergency fund. A crisis fund is there to protect you against times of unemployment.
The usual advice is to maintain 3 to 6 months of expenses to protect yourself against periods of unemployment. If you have a budget then you can easily calculate which expenses would continue whether you were unemployed or not. For guidance on creating your budget plus a downloadable spreadsheet to create a budget see my article, “Q&A: I hate budgeting – am I doomed to be broke?”
Three months of living expenses is considered enough if you have a safe recession-proof job that’s likely to be easy to find again should you be unemployed for a period, think nurse, doctor, accountant, delivery person, bin man etc. If there is one thing that is being amply revealed by COVID-19, it’s the types of jobs that are safe and essential to our day-to-day life. A recession is not the only reason you might need to take time off work so that's why you need a crisis fund even if your job is recession proof. If you disliked your work environment because it was toxic, for instance, you might prefer to leave even if you haven't secured another job to move on to.
If you send your children to private school, add at least a term of school fees to the crisis fund.
If you have a property portfolio then add another three months of related expenses. You can make a reasonable judgment on this. If you have a large portfolio then this may not be necessary as you can make the judgment that some properties will always be occupied to support those properties that are not occupied. If you have lots of buy-to-let mortgages then do make a reasonable provision to accommodate continued payment of mortgages even if you lost a significant portion of rental income.
If, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit you had:
If you have a mortgage-free portfolio of buy-to-let properties then you are feeling even more secure. With the stock market crash, it’s best to ride it out and not sell any of your shares. Selling would just convert paper losses to real losses. With a fully-outright-owned property portfolio you can enjoy some income stability in addition to having a healthy balance sheet as outlined above.
To clarify, my household is not in the perfect situation either but we have been working towards it and will continue to do so. Our plan to get to the above situation is a 10-year plan and we are only at about year 2 right now. Thankfully we both still have our jobs so we can continue focusing on that plan.
4. GET/HAVE AN AFFORDABLE MORTGAGE
The more affordable your mortgage is, the less financial pressure it adds to your life.
If you are in a relationship, an ideal goal would be to have a life that is affordable on the lowest of your two salaries. So, whatever your mortgage is, that mortgage and all your other costs of living would be affordable on the lowest of your two salaries.
Not entirely possible for all people. However, one way to work this is to have a very long-dated mortgage, e.g. a 30-year mortgage instead of a 15-year one, and in good times, make overpayments as though it were a shorter mortgage. However, in a crisis you would reduce payments on the mortgage to conserve cash.
I reduced payments on one of my buy-to-let mortgages as soon as the covid-19 lockdown was put in place in the UK. The monthly re-payments for the last year were £2,500/month, which was £900 above the mortgage deal and in fact less than £500 of each payment was interest. This week I called the bank and reduced mortgage payments by £900 to conserve cash in case I lose a tenant, etc. This can work in exactly the same way for your personal mortgage.
If I lose the tenant, I will call the bank and ask to pay interest only until the lockdown is over. My bank would probably be completely fine with that given my level of over-payments far exceed what they expected on the mortgage deal.
In the past I have used this same type of cash flow management by getting an interest-only mortgage deal on our home and making excess payments with the intention of cutting back to interest only should times get tough such that we need to live on one salary. However, interest-only deals with a good interest rate are much harder to secure nowadays than they were in 2010 when I last got a residential interest-only mortgage.
If your mortgage becomes unaffordable for any reason, call your bank and get a mortgage holiday. The media has made it sound as though mortgage holidays are something banks are doing as a one-off exceptional thing for COVID-19 but the truth is banks are always willing to give people payment holidays if they can prove that they are needed. Your bank would prefer not to have the hassle of repossessing a home.
That wraps up the key 'big picture' things you can do to crisis proof your finances.
>>>HABITS OF A LIFETIME THAT WILL HELP YOU SURVIVE THE CRISIS
No matter what your personal finances look like, the one thing you can do right now is look at your monthly and annual budget with a fine tooth comb and figure out how to cut your cost of living – if you have a very expensive lifestyle, this is the time to think through your habits. If you want me to help you rework your finances, schedule a call using the “request a call button” on my coach page. Sometimes you just need an independent party to point out where you could possibly cut back, you know, the non-essentials you’ve began to see as essentials.
Being confined to your home is not easy especially if you enjoy being out and about. The plethora of memes that have hit our whatsapp screens show just how much people are struggling to keep themselves entertained during the period of lockdown and social isolation. If your job, like mine, can continue as normal even from home then you have less time to get bored, however, this is the time when you can work on things that you wanted to do before because you don’t have a commute:
These are just a few ideas and I am sure you have more. Once the initial overwhelm and disruption to normal life created by COVID-19 subsides you will have the mental bandwidth to figure out how you can make the best use of this time.
Oh and by the way, watching endless YouTube videos of all the skills you would love to develop, doesn’t count. Start working on something that you would never have otherwise had the opportunity to explore.
In summary, to get your financial house in order:
Hope this helped. My prayers are with those that have lost a loved one or suffered a job loss at this already difficult time.
Lots of love and adoration,
Have a money question for me?
Heather on Wealth
I enjoy helping people think through their personal finances and blog about that here. Join my personal finance community at The Money Spot™.