Your post-pandemic financial checklist: 7 steps to manage your money for long-term success

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By now, you’ve probably heard all the buzz about a post-pandemic summer.

Consumers, flush with cash from stimulus checks and a year of lockdown-induced savings, are ready to go big on the activities they’ve been deprived of — now that vaccinations are more widely available and restrictions are being lifted. That could be as simple as dining out or traveling; it could be as big as buying a house or a car.

Appetite for what some experts are calling “revenge spending” might be astronomical, especially if Bankrate’s financial milestones survey is any indication (39 percent of Americans have delayed a big-ticket purchase or milestone like marriage or having children because of the pandemic).

“There are plenty of people who feel that they were robbed, that this took a chunk of their life away,” says Jerry Patterson, senior vice president of retirement and investor services with Principal Financial Group. “This is an effort to gain back that lost ground.”

Although the COVID-19 crisis isn’t over yet, financial planners say you absolutely should reward yourself for getting through the most challenging pandemic and recession in generations. But before making this your own version of the roaring ’20s, here’s what you may want to consider doing with your finances to set up your wallet for long-term post-pandemic success.

1. Revise your monthly budget

Before restarting that gym membership or going on that long-overdue shopping spree, consider doing a hard audit of your cash flows and revise your monthly budget. You might not be able to afford resuming everything you did before the outbreak.

It’s also safe to say the virus likely transformed the way you spend your money. Department of Commerce data generally shows that Americans spent more money on groceries and durable assets in the darkest months of the outbreak, shifting to spending on goods instead of on services, with vacations and dining out seemingly off limits.

Examine your recurring expenses and how much money you were spending on certain goods and services before the outbreak. Then, get familiar with how your expenditures look now.

Think about what you need to include to get by and then the categories that are discretionary. Compare that with how much income you have coming in. You might find yourself feeling fine about eliminating some of those pre-pandemic bills, memberships or subscriptions. And as always, be sure to incorporate saving for retirement and emergencies into that monthly budget.

“For many people, commuting costs might not be part of that budget anymore; spending money on work clothes might not be part of that budget anymore,” Patterson says. “Americans are in a better position than they were a year ago to take action, and part of that action might be just putting together a budget and not spending it all right away.”

2. Set aside a savings fund specific for post-pandemic activities

When you’re putting together that monthly budget, that’s the perfect time to assess how much you can afford spending on those post-pandemic activities you’re looking forward to most.

If you’re itching for a vacation, you might consider estimating how much that trip will cost now. Check out how much hotel and airfare prices are for the dates you’re currently considering. The farther in advance you plan, the easier it’ll be to ramp your savings to afford those expenses.

But maybe you’re still deciding how you want to spend your post-pandemic free time. Consider allocating a specific portion of your monthly budget toward a savings fund specifically for your post-pandemic spending. That way, you’ll know exactly how much you can afford to spend at any time just by checking that account’s balance — and you also won’t have to feel bad about wiping it out. That money is there to be spent.

3. Delayed a financial milestone because of the pandemic? Think about your income and expenses first

Beyond changing the way Americans spend their money, the pandemic also cratered their financial plans.

Here’s a look at what some of those life events could be, according to Bankrate’s April poll:

  • 13 percent delayed buying or leasing a car.
  • 12 percent put off buying a home.
  • 11 percent decided to delay pursuing career advancement.
  • 10 percent said they didn’t further their education.
  • 6 percent decided not to get married.
  • 6 percent didn’t have children.

Americans mainly look like they’re waiting for the end of the pandemic. Individuals who’ve put off buying a home or a car, for example, most commonly see themselves making that purchase in 2022 or beyond. Workers thinking about pursuing career advancement, meanwhile, see that happening most often occurring between six months from now or the end of the year.

When deciding whether to pick back up on a milestone, experts say you’ll want to take a glance at your wallet and income. That includes looking at your employment outcomes and measuring how confident you are with job security. It also comes down to making sure you’re saving for emergencies and retirement, paying down debt and not leaving money on the table if your workplace matches your retirement savings contributions in an account such as a 401(k).

“As with managing personal finances all during the course of our lives, the question whether to spend or commit to a major decision such as getting married or having children should be viewed within the context of our other goals,” says Mark Hamrick, Bankrate senior economic analyst. “As the economy continues to broadly improve, it is reasonable to believe that some, many or most of these decisions and activities will resume.”

4. Separate the emotions from your financial decisions

One thing that just comes natural to a post-pandemic spending boom: Emotions might be running high.

Just one example of that, Patterson says Americans might be focused on getting back to where they were before the pandemic. “Maybe if I were someone who went out to eat before the pandemic once a week and I hadn’t gone out to eat in a year, I’m going to double down and go out to eat twice a week,” Patterson says.

That’s at least understandable, considering the pandemic largely interrupted more than a year of Americans’ daily lives. But it could also open up a spending trap door if you don’t carefully mull over your finances.

“Don’t let emotions get in the way of smart financial decisions,” says Tony Molina, CPA, product specialist manager at Wealthfront. “Obviously, over the past year or so emotions are the big part of financial decisions. You can’t completely erase those. But if you’re ever in a moment of making a rash financial decision, especially if it’s significant, it’s all about taking a step back.”

5. Continue sticking with the financial practices that got you through the worst crisis in a generation

If you managed to build up your savings during the pandemic, try to keep a lid on your expenses, so you don’t have to tap into it. If you started investing this year, stay the course.

“Think about what got you in this place to where you can get through one of the worst times in recent memories of our economy,” Molina says. “If that was for the majority of Americans an increased savings, try to keep that up as much as possible.”

Part of that means managing your wallet in a post-pandemic world will be all about factoring your future self into your financial decisions.

A January Bankrate survey found that fewer than 4 in 10 Americans would pay a surprise $1,000 bill with their savings. Meanwhile, Americans indicated in a June 2020 Bankrate poll that their biggest financial regret was having an insufficient emergency fund, likely speaking to the sudden and severe economic toll from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I can totally sympathize with anyone who wants to essentially ‘let it rip’ with respect to making up for lost time, whether it is taking a trip, dining, and enjoying life entertainment,” Hamrick says. “For those who’ve delayed these decisions, expenditures and other milestones, the most important thing is to manage personal finances in a way that is sustainable. There will be other financial challenges down the road, but not likely associated with a pandemic. Even under normal circumstances, savings helps to prepare us for unforeseen expenses and events. It isn’t a question whether those things will interrupt our lives. It is only a question of what and when.”

6. What individuals who dealt (or are still dealing) with job loss should consider

There’s one group of Americans in particular who might feel excluded from any post-pandemic spending boom: Those who dealt with joblessness.

Restrictions to stop the contagion’s spread wiped out 22.2 million positions, with only 63 percent of those jobs recovered. The labor market’s recovery has also been uneven, with the Black and Hispanic population not being called back to work as quickly as their white counterparts, women disproportionately dropping out of the labor force and lower-income individuals bearing the brunt of the crisis.

When dealing with job loss, it’s crucial to address both your expenses and your income — the money flowing out of your wallet and coming in. Trim how much you owe by utilizing all federal support programs that are available to you for as long as you can, such as a federal student loan payment pause. After that, reach out to lenders and firms you regularly pay a bill to, who might be able to work with you on crafting a forbearance plan specific to your situation.

Experts typically say workers should leverage their network for non-public opportunities in historically tougher job markets and focus on sharpening their skills in the meantime. And if you faced job loss and had to turn to credit cards to afford your expenses, consider focusing on paying down that overhanging debt first and perhaps transferring what you owe to a balance transfer card.

“That debt accumulation, especially if it’s credit card or high-interest rate debt, can really hold you back long term from making these big purchases,” Molina says. “Try to take advantage of low-interest offers that are out there, whether it’s consolidating their personal loans or balance transfers to take care of that debt.”

7. Reward yourself for getting through tough times

After thinking through all of these steps, Americans should remember: It’s OK to reward yourself, especially after getting through a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m not preaching that people don’t spend anything, and I would also even argue that people deserve to do some revenge spending, because this has been really hard,” Patterson says. “But it’s all about how you moderate revenge spending and get yourself off to a good start.”

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Written by
Sarah Foster
U.S. economy reporter
Sarah Foster covers the Federal Reserve, the U.S. economy and economic policy. She previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily Herald.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor