With so many Americans feeling uneasy about the economy and their finances right now, we decided to ask some of our financial advisors across the country to share their insights and advice for uncertain times.
Below, Marie O’Keefe, a Northwestern Mutual financial advisor based in Jacksonville, Florida, explains why it’s especially important now for small business owners to have a flexible financial plan in place.
You work with a lot of small business owner clients. What kind of advice have they been coming to you for?
I got a lot of questions about the government-funded Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. There was a lot to figure out, and I would say 90 percent of those I knew who applied for PPP got it this time — but only about half got it the first time around. It was a stressful time for business owners because they were wondering if they would run out of money before getting the loans. A client who owns a food-service business had a tough few weeks and was considering bankruptcy until they eventually got a PPP loan. During that time, I was able to refer them to some accountants and tax attorneys to help them sort through their options and get some peace of mind; they were very grateful for that.
Some clients also wanted to check in on their permanent life insurance cash value in case they need to access it for quick cash or to get a line of credit later. I also had a lot of clients calling to make sure their group life or short-term disability policies wouldn’t be impacted by the pandemic; I was happy to reassure them they wouldn’t. We even helped a few small law firms put group short-term disability policies in place to help cover income for employees who were going to be on maternity leave.
I think generally, many clients also just wanted to know if other business clients were going through similar struggles, even asking me how I handled remote employees. They enjoyed hearing about processes put in place that worked well.
What about when it comes to their personal finances?
For those who were really struggling, I advised them to contact their student loan companies to defer payments, as it would not affect their credit scores. Most federal student loans should have been automatically deferred, but I know from personal experience that doesn’t always happen, so it’s good to doublecheck. Those with private loans can call the lender and many are offering deferral for three months — but read the fine print whenever you are given the option to delay payments. Many credit card companies are also offering help for their cardholders, so it’s worth asking what options you have.
For those who are still working, I’ve been telling them to focus on building their savings right now while they aren’t spending as much of their discretionary money due to staying at home. And now may also be a good time to consider stopping that extra car payment or mortgage payment and save that money instead. The country is beginning to open back up, but you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s important to have some cash on hand.
I always tell my clients to create a budget and track where they are spending their money. These days, they may realize they have $200 to $300 of extra money because they are spending less on eating out or traveling. Saving this now could have a real impact later. Obviously, this is a terrible time, but it has inspired some people to push the reset button. I’m not saying don’t go back to having fun when this is over, but take the time to evaluate: Could you put these funds toward saving for retirement, a vacation or some other big, fun goals?
Has your experience during the coronavirus changed how you work with your clients?
My approach hasn’t changed, but my clients are definitely more receptive to guidance. They now see that they do need to make saving for an emergency fund a priority. This situation has helped them realize that there is more to a financial plan then just having insurance and retirement savings. They also need to consider short-term and long-term goals. Creating a financial plan with an advisor is like working out and having a personal trainer: You won’t see results right away but if you keep at it, you should see results down the road.
With no way to know how long this uncertainty will last, what advice would you give to help people plan for their financial futures?
The state of business has changed now, so you have to take control of what you can make consistent. We should expect that every 10 years or so there might be something that significantly affects the way we think or that changes our plans drastically. We need to be able to change and evolve.
Right now, we have the COVID-19 pandemic. But in 2001, 9/11 happened and forever changed air travel. Twelve years ago, we had the Great Recession. And four years ago, we had an election that brought on big changes to our taxes and health care plans. Then there’s those life-changing personal milestones, such as getting married and having kids, that will have a huge impact not only on you but everyone in your life.
This is all why it’s so important to talk with your advisor, or find one and create a plan that takes into account how your goals and dreams will change along the way — as well as changes in the world, your career, your family, your income, your location and other major life events. You need an ever-adapting plan—and for that, you want an expert to help you navigate all those areas.