As COVID-19 continues its rampage against Americans’ health and financial well-being, Suze Orman says it’s one of those times you need to face fear and become a “warrior.”
The personal finance author, TV personality and podcaster acknowledges that it’s a tough task, as jobs disappear, hours are shortened, markets gyrate and retirement savings are threatened.
Still, she says you just need try to look past the “now” and stay focused on your long-term financial goals.
Here are 18 do’s and don’ts Orman has been sharing, to help you survive the coronavirus financial crisis.
1. Do put your bills on hold, if you can
During the coronavirus crisis, 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 put off 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.
2. Don’t panic-sell your stocks
When the stock market’s coronavirus crash began in February, 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, this year 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 fighting the temptation to sell by hiring an affordable financial adviser of your own. Those services are available online now — so you don’t have to worry about social distancing.
3. Do look into refinancing your mortgage
Have you been paying attention to falling interest rates? The Federal Reserve chopped a key rate to virtually zero, and consumers have been snapping up the lowest mortgage rates on record.
If you own a home and haven’t refinanced yet, consider shopping around for a new loan — especially if the rate on your existing mortgage is 3.75% or higher. This year, rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have been well south of 3%.
But “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 on for five years, don’t take out another 30-year mortgage.
Instead, try to refi into a 15- or 20-year loan. You’ll save big on interest over the long run, and rates are so low that your mortgage payment might wind up being the same or even lower versus your current 30-year loan.
4. Don’t blow your 2nd federal stimulus check, if you get one
Earlier this year, the federal government gave Americans up to $1,200 in cash to relieve economic pain from the pandemic and stimulate the economy.
Leaders in Washington are negotiating over a possible second round of “stimulus checks.” You’ll want to conserve that money if you get it, particularly if you’re unemployed, Orman says.
“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 — including on your credit card bills. You might cut the cost of that debt by rolling it into a low-interest debt consolidation loan.
5. Do keep investing more money, if you can afford it
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.
“I can’t tell you when stocks will recover, but if you have time on your side, the focus should be on the fact that they will eventually recover,” the personal finance expert writes, in the CNBC article.
If you are retired, she says you probably have at least half your portfolio invested in bonds, and you likely have a heap of cash investments, too. She says those accounts are “safe” and solid.
6. 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 coronavirus crash 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: “In the last years 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.
7. 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 retirement balances may be beaten-down now, but they’ll come back — and you don’t want to miss out on that rebound.
“If you take the money out, you’re racking in a 20-some percent loss right now, and you’re going to pay income taxes on that money, which will be another 20% or so,” 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.
“If you take that money out and spend it, if you’re not frugal, if you’re just still living your lifestyle on some level, you will miss the best opportunity and the best time to have your money in the market that there’s ever been in about 10 years,” Orman says.
8. Don’t get carried away with online shopping
With so many of us still largely stuck at home to avoid getting sick, it might be tempting to combat cabin fever with some online retail therapy.
Suze Orman says resist those urges. “Stop acting like everything is OK and that you’re continuing to spend, even though you’re inside your home,” she says in her podcast.
Before you decide online shopping will make you feel better about the current situation, consider some tough questions: “If you didn’t make another penny for the next year or two, would you be absolutely, financially fine? Would you be able to pay all your bills? Would everything be OK?” Orman asks.
If you’re bored, don’t spend money on the internet but earn some free gift cards there instead, by joining a program that rewards you for taking surveys or watching videos.
9. Do be careful about making big purchases right now
Even if you’ve got the money, now is not the time to be buying a new car or a new smartphone, Orman says.
“You want to cut your expenses, fine. But 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, in her podcast.
The author and financial personality has put her own household under financial lockdown. “I have asked for absolute conservation of water, of electricity, of every possible thing,” she says. “If the grass has to die, the grass is going to die. If your pool isn’t heated, your pool isn’t heated. Stop it, people.”
If you’re determined to spend, you might pick up something really practical — like life insurance, to protect the people who depend on you. Orman has said term life insurance is “incredibly affordable,” and it’s easy to buy online.
10. Don’t go without health insurance
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.”
The author of the new book The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+ warns that COBRA is expensive. Orman says one option is to look for a policy in the Obamacare marketplace at HealthCare.gov.
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.
11. 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.
12. Don’t assume the job market will snap back to normal
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 be coming 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 said in her March 26 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.
13. Do respect the recession
Months after the pandemic started hammering the economy, experts say the U.S. is still looking like a nation in recession. Massive layoff notices continue to come, including 28,000 job cuts announced by the Walt Disney Co. in late September.
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 take other steps to protect yourself from the COVID-19 downturn.
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. “If that is the case, when the markets are down significantly like this, this is the time.”
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, and stocks have gone down 50% so 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 is a good reminder of why you should have some dividend-paying stocks in your investment portfolio. Even when the market tanks, 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 they’ve been crushed for no reason. Just because the market’s gone down, they 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 miss out on the break from student loans
The government has allowed borrowers with federal student loans to put their payments on hold through the end of the year, and has slashed the interest to 0%.
Orman says it’s a great opportunity, even if you’re not struggling with your loans.
“If any of you are in that situation and you can afford to pay your student loan, don’t,” she said on Today. “Take the deferment; it’s not charging you any interest on it, and take the money that you should have been paying towards your student loan … and put it in your emergency fund.”
If you’ve got private student loans from a bank or other nongovernment lender, interest rates have plunged this year — so you could refinance your student loans to slash your payments and interest costs.
17. Do consider paying off 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.
18. 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 mounting 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.