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How to rebalance your budget — and your life — during quarantine

The pandemic could be here for a while. Plan your finances, and budget your time, accordingly.

None of us expected the COVID-19 pandemic to change the shape of our year — and when the stay-at-home guidelines took effect in March, very few of us imagined we’d still be navigating quarantines, Zoom meetings and online learning as we moved into the fall. Habits that we thought would be only temporary, from allowing the kids more screen time to wearing masks at the grocery store, have now become a staple in our day-to-day lives.

In addition to worrying about our health, our ability to do our jobs and whether our kids are getting the education they need, a lot of us are worrying about money. A HoneyFi survey of 300 Millennial couples revealed that 56% of those couples felt less financially secure than they did before the pandemic, and 22% worry about money every single day. The survey noted that although many of us are spending less than we did pre-quarantine, we’re also earning less — and saving less. This financial strain is even harder on people of color; the racial wealth gap between white and Black Americans continues to grow, and a recent Pew Research Center study indicates that Hispanic workers are experiencing higher levels of unemployment than the general U.S. population.

What does that mean for you and your family? Well, we can’t predict what might happen next — but we can prepare for it. (That’s sort of how life insurance works, by the way.) The back-to-school season is often a fresh start for families, and even though this school year will feel different, you can still use it as an opportunity to refresh and rebalance. We talked to financial, parenting and productivity experts to learn their advice on balancing your budget, managing your time and making space for both work and family life.

In this article:

Revisit your budget

We’ve been at this for a few months now, which means quarantine feels less like an aberration and more like a new normal. For your budget, that means planning accordingly, starting with reviewing how your spending habits have changed during this time. Case in point: your grocery budget. If you were surprised to see just how much your grocery bills expanded during quarantine, you’re not alone.

“Many people have been spending more money on groceries during the pandemic,” says Bri Bell, a registered dietitian who shares budgeting advice at Frugal Minimalist Kitchen. “Before getting too concerned, it’s important to dig a bit deeper to find the reasons why.” If you’re spending more on groceries because your family is eating more meals at home, that’s probably not something you need to worry about. “School lunches account for 1/4 to 1/3 of kids’ daily intake, so it’s definitely to be expected that your grocery bill will go up without that,” Bell explains. You might be spending more on providing lunch at home, but less on work lunches and expensive restaurant meals — even meals picked up curbside usually don’t include pricey drinks or dessert. Plus, since many families are trying to spend more time at home these days, you might be saving money on other budget line items as well. “I’d check your entertainment budget,” Bell advises. “If you’ve spent more on food but less on entertainment, it’s likely you’ve simply replaced your usual entertainment [spending] with food.”

In addition to spending less on restaurants and entertainment, you might also be spending less money on gas (especially if you’re no longer driving to work or school every day), and you probably didn’t put a lot of money towards a big summer vacation. This year, many people swapped expensive travel plans for less-risky, more affordable family vacations like weekend camping trips. Every dollar you didn’t spend on a flight or hotel room can go towards another area of your budget — or towards the vacation you hope to take when it’s safer to travel.

In short, check your spending. If you’re spending more on groceries and less on other areas of your budget, you’re doing well. If your grocery bills have gone up but you’re still spending just as much money on takeout, movie downloads, clothing and so on, it’s worth doing some rebalancing. See if you can keep your total spending at or below where it was pre-quarantine — and consider adding some simple, affordable staples to your grocery list.

Invest in home-based fun

If your budget evaluation reveals that you’re coming in under your pre-quarantine spending levels, you could put some of that money towards an emergency fund — but you could also put some of it towards some emergency fun.

“For the parents who find themselves saving money because they can’t go out to eat, take trips, or attend events, now is the time to upgrade your home-based fun,” says Olga Zakharchuk, the founder and CEO of Baby Schooling. “If you have small kids and a yard, create a backyard destination of relaxation and fun activities. Set up obstacle courses, get a small pool, go on scavenger hunts and invest in things like hammocks, yard games, furniture and outdoor lights.”

Yes, this type of upgrade will cost you money up-front — but it has the potential to save you money even after quarantine is over. “Unlike a night out at a restaurant, these items will last you through more than one season,” Zakharchuk explains. Investing in at-home recreation will make sheltering at home more enjoyable — and once home becomes a destination, you’ll be able to enjoy yourselves as a family without having to seek out expensive entertainment opportunities.

If you decide to put this advice into practice, start shopping early. Many popular inflatable pools, for example, sold out by the end of May. Families looking to install fall-weather patio heaters or fire pits are also having trouble finding available stock. You can still find fun, unique items to make your outdoor space more interesting or entertaining, but the most popular items could sell out months in advance — so think a season ahead and shop for what you might need three months from now. (Toboggan race season begins… now.)

“For the parents who find themselves saving money because they can’t go out to eat, take trips, or attend events, now is the time to upgrade your home-based fun.”

—Olga Zakharchuk, founder and CEO, Baby Schooling

Budget time for healthy habits

Balancing work and parenting is hard enough under normal circumstances. It’s even harder under the stress of a nationwide pandemic — and harder still if you’re not making the time to take care of your physical and mental health.

Lawrence Gonzalez, government auditor and founder of The Neighborhood Finance Guy, advises busy parents to spend the last weeks of summer shifting to healthier habits. “Start doing simple challenges like drinking only water in August. Move to getting to sleep no later than 10 p.m. for a week or two. Start waking up early to walk, jog or run.” Even a few minutes of light yoga or stretching in the morning can make a big difference.

Going to bed at 10 p.m. may seem like an impossible luxury — especially with all of those clothes you still have to fold or emails you still have to answer — but not getting enough sleep makes it much harder to be an effective parent or a productive employee. Taking breaks to rest and recharge can actually help you get more done, both at work and with your family — which means that rest and sleep are both essential aspects of work-life balance.

On the subject of balance: Gonzalez and Bell both noted that the pandemic prompted many people to pick up stress-eating or stress-drinking habits. If that sounds like you, ask yourself whether it’s time to cut back. “It’s totally fine to stress-eat once in a while,” Bell says, “but as a daily occurrence, it can really take a toll on our health and budget.”

Breaking the stress-eating or stress-drinking cycle can be hard, so start with substitutions: sparkling water, herbal tea, fresh vegetables or cinnamon gum. Getting more sleep can also reduce the urge to snack between meals or use alcohol to unwind.

“It's totally fine to stress-eat once in a while, but as a daily occurrence, it can really take a toll on our health and budget.”

—Bri Bell, Frugal Minimalist Kitchen

Prepare for furloughs and layoffs

Many people were laid off or furloughed during the early weeks of the pandemic — and more people may lose their jobs in the weeks to come. It’s a good idea to begin preparing for the possibility of furloughs or layoffs, even if you currently think your job is secure.

Steffa Mantilla, founder of Money Tamer, suggests that you start spending your money like you would if you lost your job. Ask yourself what expenses you’d cut back on, cut those expenses right now and put that money into savings. “If you think you may be furloughed, save your money like you already have been. This saved money should be put into a separate savings account and built up in the event that you need to cover your day-to-day expenses.”

Lou Haverty, chartered financial analyst and the creator of Financial Analysis Insider, agrees. “There isn’t a perfect way to budget for a furlough or a layoff because of the suddenness of them. The goal should be to supercharge your emergency fund savings. Look for as many ways to cut down on discretionary spending [as possible] and transfer that to the emergency fund.”

Both Mantilla and Haverty suggested starting with streaming services. If you’re currently paying for Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and more, it might be time to winnow your subscriptions down to a single streaming option. You can always switch streaming services every month or so to keep things fresh. “The key is to space out different options over time, especially when you have kids that are getting bored of one network’s streaming library,” Haverty explains.

Gonzalez also advises people to put more money in their emergency funds — and to look for additional ways of earning income. “To balance the real anxiety, start saving for 3x-6x [your monthly income] and start generating side gigs remotely.” Establishing a side hustle is one of the best ways to prepare for a financial recession, so ask yourself where your skills could be the most useful — and where you could earn the most money.

Don’t count on a raise

If you’ve been lucky enough to remain in your job throughout the quarantine, you’ve probably had to learn new skills, take on extra tasks and work longer hours. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that COVID-19 created “significant and durable increases in length of the average workday,” averaging 48.5 extra minutes of work per day.

Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to leverage that extra work into extra income — at least not right now. “I don’t think it’s possible to renegotiate your salary [during a pandemic],” Haverty explains. “But I do think you should keep good records of your accomplishments during this time period so you can remind your manager about them when the business environment improves and promotions are more likely.”

We’re all hoping that life will start to improve soon. Until then, let’s continue wearing masks in public, practicing social distancing whenever possible and finding balance wherever we can. This includes the way we budget our money and our time — so use this time to evaluate your spending habits, your health habits and your family’s habits and routines. Then use what you’ve learned to prepare for the future, whatever it might bring.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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