It’s no secret that hunkering down at home has affected your budget. Some of that has been in obviously negative ways, such as experiencing a drop in income because your job was impacted by the pandemic. But there have been some silver linings, too, such as how much you’re saving in commuting, childcare, gym memberships and other recurring costs you’re no longer paying for.
Some effects to your budget, however, haven’t been quite as obvious — and whether they’re good or bad for your finances really depends on your situation. We outline the pros and cons of four ways your budget could be impacted by the coronavirus, along with some pro tips on how to work them to your advantage.
YOU’RE COOKING AT HOME MORE
Pros: In more normal times, the average American ate out nearly five times a week, spending an average of $36.40 per person at restaurants, according to a national Zagat survey. Over the span of a few months, that could add up to some pretty decent savings.
Cons: Unsure of when this pandemic will be over, consumers are giving into their hoarding tendencies and spending more to stock up on household essentials, including groceries. Unfortunately, that could also mean you end up throwing out food that goes bad before you get a chance to eat it.
This is where meal planning can help, says consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch. Taking the extra time to figure out your menu can help keep your spending in check; for instance, if you select meals for your week’s menu that contain overlapping ingredients, you can help ensure you’re minimizing food waste. Also, consider shopping for and cooking with foods that have a longer shelf life so you get more bang for your grocery buck.
YOU’RE SHOPPING ONLINE MORE
Pros: With brick-and-mortar stores mostly shuttered, you can’t just head to the mall and browse store shelves like you used too — which could be a good thing for your budget. A Slickdeals survey found that the average American drops $450 per month on impulse spending.
Cons: Spending more time shopping online can translate to paying more in delivery fees (or buying more than you need to in order to meet the minimum required for free delivery), service charges or simply spending more on things to entertain your kids, like toys or backyard playthings. Also, ask yourself: Are you succumbing to more flash sales because of bored browsing?
For starters, consider removing the temptation of all those sale emails by hitting unsubscribe so you’re only shopping when you need something. If you find you’re spending more online because of all the money you think you’re saving by staying at home, then run some numbers to see how much it really adds up to.
“The first thing to do is look at your budget and figure out how much you’re actually saving each month, then create a plan for those savings,” says Woroch. Maybe you need to build up an emergency fund or have a goal, like a big trip, that you’re working toward for when the quarantine is over. “You can at least allocate those savings appropriately so that you’re not overspending” Woroch says. Consider automating the amount you’re saving into a separate fund to help meet those goals.
YOU’RE BEING OFFERED MORE FLEXIBILITY WITH YOUR BILLS
Pro: You may have noticed that your various service providers — your cell phone provider, your local utilities, your cable provider, or even your mortgage lender — have been sending more notices about how they’re helping to ease the financial strain. Some are offering extended grace periods, waiving late fees or offering premium services for no extra charge.
These offers can come in handy if you’ve lost income and are looking for quick ways to cut costs from your budget. If you haven’t received any emails like this, Woroch suggests contacting your service providers to see if they’re able to work with you. “A lot of energy companies are deferring payments with no late fees and without terminating your service,” she says. “And many mortgage lenders are allowing customers to defer payments — but note that you’ll still accrue interest for that time period.”
Con: If you haven’t seen an impact to your pay because of the coronavirus, then just because you can temporarily suspend paying some of your monthly bills doesn’t mean you should. That’s because you could ultimately pay more in interest or owe more down the line. If you’re financially strapped right now, you may have no other choice. But if you can afford to keep paying your bills on time, then there’s no reason to kick the can down the road, since you can’t predict what your finances may be like in a few months.
YOU GOT AN EXTENSION ON YOUR TAXES
Pros: Recognizing that many Americans may find it hard to file by April 15, the IRS announced in March that taxpayers could wait until July 15 to file their 2019 tax return and pay any taxes owed — cue the sigh of relief from all the people who usually file last minute. The extension means you have more time to discuss your taxes with a tax professional (via phone or video chat, of course), so you can be more thoughtful about your overall tax strategy and make sure you’re not overlooking any potential tax breaks.
Cons: If you’re expecting a refund, why bother putting off receiving that money? “At this point, there’s no delay for tax refunds,” says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert with TurboTax. “The IRS is still saying they’ll issue nine out of 10 refunds in 21 days or less if you e-file with direct deposit.”
So filing sooner rather than later is helpful if you think you’re due for a refund and could use the money. As of April 24, more than 91 million people had received a refund, with the average refund just over $2,700.