It hasn't been an easy 19 months. The coronavirus pandemic disrupted lives and upended the finances of tens of millions of people.
Record numbers of people temporarily lost their jobs at some point over the pandemic, turning to food banks, loan forbearance and extended unemployment benefits to make it month to month.
Now, though, things are looking up for those who have found a job after a bout of unemployment, upgraded in the hot job market or are simply less stressed about losing their jobs than they were a year ago. That said, millions remain unemployed and in need of assistance, and the pandemic still rages on.
But if you're in a better place and trying to get your finances back on track, here's a checklist of four things to do now.
1. Increase your retirement contributions
Millions of Americans decreased their retirement contributions or stopped saving altogether during the pandemic. In fact, half of non-retired adults in the U.S. say the coronavirus pandemic will make it harder for them to achieve long-term financial goals, such as retiring, a Pew survey found.
Pulling back retirement contributions for a few months isn't the end of the world, but if you're on stronger financial footing now, it's a smart move to reverse that. Experts advise saving at least 15% of your income each month in a 401(k) or individual retirement account (that includes an employer match if you qualify for one), but upping your contributions by even a few dollars a month helps.
And if you're 50 or older, take advantage of catch-up contributions. That's $1,000 more in an IRA and $6,500 more in a 401(k) this year. Married couples in which one partner is not working can also take advantage of spousal IRAs, which allow the person working to contribute up to the max for both partners.
2. Plan for student loan repayments to resume
Federal student loan payments will be paused through January 2022. At that point, millions of borrowers will have gotten a break from their monthly bill — which averages $400 — for over a year. Many have put that money toward paying off other debt or into their savings.
But with the payments starting up again soon, it's crucial to plan for the sudden loss of that extra money each month. If you're able, setting aside a few dollars over the next four months in preparation for your resumed payments can ease the transition.
Also, check that your student loan servicer, the company that bills you each month, has up-to-date contact information, higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz previously told CNBC. It should be informed of any change of home address or banking information, for example.
Come February, if you're still in a tight spot and unable to afford your payments, you have a few options. You can request an economic hardship or unemployment deferment, under which you won't accrue interest. If you're unable to qualify for those, you can put your payments into forbearance. That will suspend your monthly payments, but interest will still add up.
Finally, if you're not already in one, you may also want to explore an income-driven repayment plan, which can lower your monthly payment by capping it at a percentage of your discretionary income.
3. Prepare for the worst-case scenario
Estate planning has always been important, but for many, the coronavirus pandemic drove home just how crucial it is to have a plan in case of unforeseen emergencies.
Plan to talk to your partner, children and other close family members about your finances. Then get to work: Make sure you have a will and a power of attorney drawn up, no matter how young and healthy you are or whether you have children.
An easy first step in the estate planning process is to ensure that all of your financial accounts — 401(k)s, IRAs, savings accounts, life insurance policies and others — have assigned beneficiaries. This usually can be done in a few minutes on most financial companies' websites.
4. Prioritize building your emergency fund
If there's one lesson many people took away from the pandemic, it's the importance of having a robust emergency fund, no matter how secure you think your job is.
Most experts recommend having a minimum of three to six months' coverage of essential expenses — housing, food, transportation, debt repayment — stashed away in a liquid savings account. Depending on your situation, though, you might require more to really feel secure.
Don't have that much set aside? Then it's time to make some sacrifices. While it would be great to be able to sock away a few more stimulus checks, there's little chance of the government sending out another.
One savings suggestion: Make a list of all the nonessentials you spend money on each month, including recurring subscriptions and memberships. Rank them in order of importance and then cut out the expenses at the bottom of your ranking for a few weeks or months. It won't make you rich, but it is a relatively pain-free way to add a little cushion.
If there's nothing you can cut from your budget in order to save a little more, look for ways to increase your income.
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