How to Live on Less During the COVID-19 Crisis

Learn ways to cut costs if you’ve lost your job or are facing other financial difficulties.

woman working on calculator

Updated on April 17, 2020.

In the face of job losses, school closings and other disruptions wrought by COVID-19, millions of Americans are staying home and wondering whether their lives will ever be the same.

No one knows how long this disruption will last. But if your household has lost some or all of its income, it may feel like forever. These simple tactics can help you stay solvent through the crisis.

Examine payment options

First, whether you’ve lost your job or not, you may be able to change the way you pay your regular bills.

For example, federally backed student loans have been put into “administrative forbearance” through the end of September. That means, if you like, you can freeze your payments for a while.

Some credit card issuers are offering special deals during the COVID-19 emergency, as well, such as the option to skip payments or make a smaller minimum monthly payment. Find out what your card issuer is offering.

Another tactic to check out is utility bill averaging. Sometimes called “budget billing,” it involves paying the same amount every month versus having higher bills in winter and summer. Search online or call your local utility companies to check whether they offer this option.

And if you’ve voluntarily been making extra payments on a mortgage, college loans or other debt? Stop. In times of uncertainty, the more cash you have, the better.

Add up your assets

Next, it’s time to tally up your available resources. If you’ve been laid off or otherwise don’t have work, you should apply for unemployment even if you’re not sure you’re eligible. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act has made benefits available to a wider pool of applicants, according to Stephen A. Woodbury of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“This is a case where people who normally would not be eligible are eligible,” says Woodbury. These may include self-employed workers and those seeking part-time employment.

You may also want to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), or if you’re pregnant or have kids under age 5, for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. These programs will stretch your available food dollars. Another option is to call 211, a community resource hotline available throughout most of the U.S. It’s a source of help for things like food pantries, shelters, rent and utility assistance, and other essential services.

Once you’ve explored potential government assistance, make a list of your household’s cash resources, such as a savings account and/or emergency fund. And don’t forget smaller sources of funds.

For example, you can add up points from rewards credit cards or programs such as Swagbucks and MyPoints and plan the best ways to use these points. You might opt to redeem Walmart or Target gift cards from MyPoints, or apply a rewards card benefit toward an upcoming bill.

Another potential money source is refunds from things you prepaid but now can’t use, such as a plane trip, a hotel reservation or sports tickets. In some cases, such as a canceled event purchased through Ticketmaster, you’ll automatically get a refund.

In other cases, getting reimbursed might be more complicated. For example, Airbnb reservations made on or before March 14 with a check-in date on or before May 31 can be canceled and refunded under Airbnb’s “extenuating circumstances” policy. Reservations made after March 14 won’t be covered unless the guest or the host is sick with COVID-19.

Also, to note: The U.S. Department of Transportation has been fielding complaints about airlines and refunds. You have the right to a cash refund if your flight is canceled or significantly changed.

Stretch your existing budget

Once you know about how much money you’ll have, start looking for ways to make it last. Some of your work-related expenses might already have decreased, such as wardrobe and transportation. You’re likely spending a lot less—or maybe nothing—on work clothes, office lunches, gas or public transit. You may be able to cut other ongoing expenses, like these:

Consider pausing or eliminating subscription services. Americans spend billions of dollars on things like meal delivery plans, music and book subscriptions, “lifestyle boxes,” and dating and wellness apps. People tend to greatly underestimate the true cost, according to a 2019 survey from consulting firm West Monroe Partners—or even flat-out forget they’re paying for them. They’re often slow to cancel, even if the items no longer provide much value.

So, take an hour to scan your credit card and bank statements to look for places to cut, or use an app like TrueBill or SubscriptMe. You don’t have to slash everything, but think about how often you use a service and whether it’s worth the expenditure.

Get media for less. If you need a way to pass the time but are low on funds, look into ways to obtain entertainment for free. For example, instead of buying lots of extra books during this challenging time, visit your local library’s website to learn about borrowing e-books or audiobooks.

Or, if you have only basic TV service or plan to drop streaming due to the price, know that you can stream some programs and movies legally at no cost. Services like Pluto TV, Crackle, Tubi TV, Vudu, Xumo and Kanopy are all good options, according to a March 2020 Consumer Reports guide.

Make your own cleaning products. For many Americans, cleaning supplies are particularly difficult to find right now—and if you manage to hunt them down, you might end up paying a premium. So, try some DIY.

Baking soda is a good substitute for cleansers like Comet or Ajax. Vinegar and water in a spray bottle makes a fine all-purpose cleaner (the smell goes away—honest!). And a mixture of one part blue Dawn dish liquid to one or two parts white vinegar works as well as those pricey foaming bathroom cleaners.

Be creative in the kitchen. Just a bit of basic cooking can save you a bundle. Don’t know how? Do a search like “easy recipes for non-cooks” and get going. Incidentally, certain pricey items such as iced tea, baby food, pizza, hummus, spice mixes, baking mixes and salad dressing cost much, much less when you make them yourself.

Beware of price-gouging

Some sellers are taking advantage of the pandemic to drive their profits up. For example, in early April, the Orlando Sentinel reported that one reseller charged 15 times the normal price for a package of Clorox wipes, while another wanted $90 for a 10-pack of toilet paper, plus another $90 to ship it.

Outrageous prices can be easy to spot, but if you’re not sure, then Google what an item should cost. Another option is to use CamelCamelCamel, an Amazon price tracker that includes a price history chart.

Ultimately, while we don’t know how the economy will shake out, we can try to mitigate our losses through smart planning and accessing available resources. The sooner you begin, the better off you’ll likely be in the long run.

Article sources open article sources

Colorado Springs Utilities. “Budget Billing.”
U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid. “Coronavirus and Forbearance Info for Students, Borrowers, and Parents.”
U.S. Department of Labor. “U.S. Department of Labor Announces New Cares Act Guidance on Unemployment Insurance for States in Response to COVID-19 Crisis.” April 2, 2020. “COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic.”
Ticketmaster. “Information Regarding the Cancellation and Rescheduling of Live Events.” March 12, 2020.
Airbnb. “Extenuating circumstances policy and the coronavirus (COVID-19).” Updated April 9, 2020.
U.S. Department of Transportation. “U.S. Department of Transportation Issues Enforcement Notice Clarifying Air Carrier Refund Requirements, Given the Impact of COVID-19.” April 3, 2020.
WestMonroe. “America’s Relationship with Subscription Services.”
James K. Willcox. “Guide to Free Streaming Video Services.” Consumer Reports. March 27, 2020.
Gabrielle Russon. “Florida fights coronavirus price gouging: 10-pack of toilet paper for $90 and $90 to ship it.” Orlando Sentinel. April 6, 2020.

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