How to be financially ready for the next COVID-19 lockdown

Emilee Geist

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has hit 200,000. And, a chilling forecast from the University of Washington predicts the number could more than double or even triple by January as people spend more time indoors and tire of social distancing and other recommended measures.

Other countries are imposing new lockdowns as coronavirus case numbers explode, and a new Newsweek poll finds a majority of Americans would support a national lockdown to stop the spread.

The earlier lockdowns in the U.S. led to layoffs and furloughs, and even a new series of smaller, more localized ones could spell trouble for workers still feeling drained after round one.

But you have time to prepare if Americans are asked to hunker down again. Here are nine things you can do to protect your finances ahead of a second lockdown wave.

1. Keep on saving

As the first wave of the pandemic swept over the country, the one piece of financial advice that just about every expert agreed on was to build an emergency fund.

Apparently, people listened. In April, the personal savings rate — the percentage of disposable income that people are setting aside for the future — in the U.S. soared to 33%. That’s the highest it’s been since the Bureau of Economic Analysis began tracking it in 1959.

If you managed to preserve your emergency fund during the initial lockdown, try to keep making regular contributions. As long as they’re stashed in a high-yield account, your savings will continue to grow at a significant rate, leaving you more to fall back on.

2. Beef up your credit score

If a second lockdown would put your job at risk, you may need to take out a personal loan at some point to help cover your expenses.

But if your credit score isn’t great, it’ll be a lot harder to get a loan at a decent interest rate. The best way to make sure your credit score is in good shape is to check up on it every month.

A number of companies will show you your credit score for free online, and many of them also provide free credit-monitoring services. They’ll notify you any time your score changes and offer helpful tips on how to get your score back on track if it takes a hit.

3. Clear out some debt

Credit card debt can be tough to manage at the best of times — interest rates can top 20% — but it’ll be even more difficult if a new lockdown interrupts your source of income.

If you start racking up interest on multiple cards and fail to make your minimum payments, your credit score will plummet and your debt will quickly spiral out of control.

It’s a good idea to make larger than normal payments now if you still have the means to do so.

With a solid credit score, you may be able to save on your monthly payments by bundling your credit card balances together into a single debt consolidation loan with a lower interest rate.

4. Expand your job search

A second lockdown would almost certainly trigger another round of layoffs and furloughs. If you’re concerned about losing your job (or you’re unemployed and still looking for work), you should make a habit of checking for new job postings regularly, maybe even twice a day.

Some modern job boards will present you with jobs you never knew about that happen to fit your profile. They can even provide valuable info on those jobs, including the qualifications that recruiters look for in a top candidate.

And before you start your search, make sure you have a professional, up-to-date resume that you can send to potential employers and upload to LinkedIn and other networking sites.

5. Pick up a side gig

Whether or not you’re hunting for work, bringing in some extra income from a side gig is a great way to help out with your daily expenses.

Today, online marketplaces can help you find buyers for all kinds of talents, from graphic design to blogging to voice acting to life coaching.

Best of all, most of these side gigs can be done from the comfort of your own home.

Spending a few hours a week on your side hustle will also help to expand your network and build up your resume, both of which can improve your chances of landing a full-time job in the future.

6. Make sure you’ve got health coverage

If you lost your job during the first lockdown, chances are good you also lost your health insurance. The consumer advocacy group Families USA estimated in July that the pandemic cut 5.4 million people off from their coverage.

You might feel you can’t afford to purchase a new policy right now, but if you or someone in your family runs up medical expenses while you’re not covered, it could cost you far more.

To get the most coverage for the best price, you’ll need to shop around and get quotes from multiple insurance companies. That can be a chore, but a number of websites will let you compare rates for free and find the cheapest price in just a few minutes.

7. Take advantage of online discounts

A second lockdown would put retail stores out of operation once again, and consumers across the country would need to do most of their shopping online.

Shopping online is not without its perks: You don’t need to put on a mask or even get off the couch, and you have the ability to check prices with an enormous range of stores.

By installing a free browser extension, you can instantly compare prices on everything you order, taking into account things like shipping, sales tax and availability. You’ll also track down coupons and promo codes that you can automatically apply at checkout to save even more money.

8. Get your retirement plan back on track

Average 401(k) balances dropped by almost 20% earlier this year, when the virus was first becoming a thing. A second lockdown could set Americans’ retirement savings back even further.

If your plan for your golden years has been derailed by the coronavirus, you may want to sit down with a financial adviser to get your portfolio back on track.

Working with an adviser is more affordable than you might think, and these days it can be done entirely online, so even in lockdown, good advice is nearby.

9. Take stock of your spending

If you don’t track every dollar that leaves your account each month, you’ll be surprised by how much you can save with a few tweaks.

Create a list or a spreadsheet of your monthly expenses and identify any nonessential items that can be cut out of your budget during the lockdown. Do you really need to subscribe to multiple streaming services? Does brand-name macaroni really taste better than the store’s version?

Now take that logic and apply it to recurring or automatic expenses, like home insurance. Take a look at how much you’re currently spending and then compare rates from at least three other insurers to see if you can find a better deal.

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