2020 was hard on my finances. Here’s what I’m doing in 2021 to get back on track

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2020 was a rough year—emotionally, socially and, for many Americans, financially. The coronavirus recession was the worst economic downturn in most of our lifetimes, setting off a cascade of furloughs and layoffs and eliminating so many jobs that 25 percent of working-age Americans filed for unemployment benefits.

Alainta Alcin was one of them. Alcin, who works in the healthcare industry had plenty of experience making her finances work for her. She went from a negative to a positive net worth in just four years, for example, and takes a keen interest in using personal finance tools like cash back apps to maximize her income.

Being financially savvy, however, doesn’t mean that you can avoid financial bad luck. In December 2020, Alcin got laid off—just a month after closing on her first home. At 32 years old, she quickly realized that she needed to make a plan that would help her get her life and her finances back on track. Three months later, she had a new job that was not only a better fit but also came with a 22 percent increase in salary.

Here’s how she did it—and here’s her advice for people who might be in a similar situation.

A new job, a new house—and a layoff

“2020 was actually a good time for me,” Alcin told us. “Not only did I complete my Master’s degree, but I also closed on a home.”

Alcin got a first-time homebuyer grant from Bank of America in order to purchase a $199,000 house in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was working in healthcare administration, at a job that paid $61,000 per year, and felt confident about her future.

“Then I got the call,” Alcin said. “I was laid off a month after I closed on my new home.”

Alcin knew that furloughs and layoffs had increased nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic, but since she was working in the healthcare industry—and since her job was a remote hybrid position—she thought she was relatively secure. That security disappeared in an instant.

“Like many people, I didn’t know what to do,” Alcin said. “What would happen if I couldn’t pay my bills or my mortgage? Were they going to foreclose on my home?”

Alcin was scared—but instead of leaning into her negative emotions, she decided to take those anxieties and turn them into positive actions.

How to buy a home during uncertain times

Many people decided to buy new homes during the coronavirus pandemic, whether they were hoping to move closer to family or taking advantage of historically low interest rates. If you’re thinking about taking out a mortgage during uncertain times—when the economy is in a recession, for example, or while you are making a major career shift—try to have a backup plan in place.

If something unexpected happens and your income changes, what expenses will you cut to ensure that you can cover the costs of homeownership? Can you set aside enough money to cover six months of mortgage payments in advance? At what point will you consider taking out a 401(k) loan? Asking these kinds of questions before you buy can help you deal with whatever happens afterward—even if you, like Alcin, get laid off shortly after closing on your home.

Changing her mindset—and her budget

How did Alcin turn a negative into a positive? One of Alcin’s first actions was to pare back her expenses. Alcin had savings in the bank, but she knew that her emergency fund wouldn’t last forever—which meant that it was time to start cutting back.

“Everything that wasn’t one of my fixed expenses became a luxury,” Alcin said. “I cut subscription services, stopped getting my hair done as often and tried to save as much money as I could.”

Alcin also applied for unemployment benefits and was able to take advantage of both the supplementary unemployment insurance benefits provided through the 2020 CARES Act and the stimulus checks sent to help Americans manage the financial strains of the coronavirus pandemic.

Then, she began focusing on the second item on her to-do list: getting a new job.

“I went to work,” Alcin told us. “I asked a close friend to help me update my resume. I also connected with fellow students from my Master’s program and told them I was looking for a job. From those contacts, I got two interviews.”

At first, Alcin felt uncomfortable asking for help. “It was embarrassing to go from a situation in which people were congratulating me to a situation where they were feeling sorry for me,” she explained. “But there is an advantage to being vulnerable.” Alcin quickly learned that people were more than willing to share their own resources, from resume-building services to job leads.

How to make a budget and stick to it

If you want to make a monthly budget that you can stick to over time, follow Alcin’s advice and look for ways to reduce the number of recurring payments you make every month. Instead of subscribing to multiple subscription media services, try cutting back to a single subscription—or using one of the free audio or video services that most public libraries offer. Instead of getting your hair cut once a month, see if you can limit your stylist visits to once every six weeks or once every quarter.

Since you won’t be able to eliminate all of your discretionary spending, it’s also a good idea to look for ways to save money on everyday expenses. Rewards credit cards, for example, offer cash back or points that you can apply as statement credits to help you lower your monthly credit card bill. You might also want to consider applying for a 0 percent intro APR credit card—that way, if you have to put a few expenses on credit until your income improves, you can use the introductory zero-interest period to save money on interest charges.

Getting a new job—and a pay raise

In February 2021, Alainta Alcin got a new job and it came with a significant pay boost. “I went from $61,000 to $74,500,” Alcin told us.

Alcin also feels like her current employer is a better fit than her previous one—which not only makes her workdays more enjoyable but is also likely to help her as she continues to build her career. “Don’t choose an employer based on salary alone,” she explains. “You need to fit in with the culture.”

What other advice does Alcin have for people who might be recovering from their own financial stresses? “Have the mentality that everything will be all right,” she said, “but have the proactivity to go with that mentality. Decrease your expenses, revamp your resume and share your story with others.”

Alcin also advises people to keep working towards their goals—even if it takes more than three months to find a new job, rebuild your emergency fund or get your finances back on track. “Push hard,” she said. “Keep striving. Without failure, you can’t appreciate success.”

How to use your network to build your career

Are you hoping to find a new job or use a side hustle to increase your income? Follow Alcin’s advice and share your story with others. Whether you’re asking a friend to review your resume, creating an Instagram account for your small business or letting your alumni network know that you’re in the market for a new job, the more you let people know what you want, the better they’ll be able to help you get it.

2020 may have been an unprecedented year, but 2021 is looking up—and it might be the perfect time for you to launch a small business or make a career change. Keep striving, as Alcin puts it—and don’t forget to connect with the people who might be able to help you turn your dreams into reality.