There’s really no way to write the beginning of this post that doesn’t sound like the 42 billion other coronavirus-related pieces of media you’ve read in the last few months. So let’s just get past all the repetitive “We’ve all been hit hard by COVID-19” stuff, and the “so much has changed in such a short etc. etc.” We know. We all know.
Instead, I’ll say I hope you’re staying as safe and healthy as you can. And I hope that this post can be of service to you if you’re in a rocky place financially. I’m going to offer up what bits of advice and resources I know of, plus provide links to other communities with helpful information. If you have recommendations, stick them in the comments or @ me on Twitter so I can boost them (I’m @MissSerenaReads there).
Let’s jump straight in.
Get Intimate with Your Finances
This should be your first step as you figure out how to make it right now. Even if you know your bank balance is negative right now, knowledge is power. Drill down into your finances. Calculate your immediate necessary expenses (shelter, food, utilities, healthcare, transportation, etc.) and add them up. That’s the amount you need to come up with to stay afloat right now.
Add up other recurring expenses that aren’t as immediate: credit card payments, student loans, subscription fees. These are all nice-to-haves. If you recently lost your job or had your hours cut, put any cash you can toward your necessary expenses. The nice-to-haves can fall by the wayside for now. No one likes to be in debt or pay late fees. But these are exceptional times, and right now you need to focus on prioritizing.
What do I do if I can’t pay a bill?
If you’re worried about paying certain bills, notify the company or person you need to pay as soon as you realize you can’t pay. It will also help to have documentation that your financial difficulties are due to the coronavirus. Pay stubs that show your hours were cut or an email from your workplace stating that they are letting you go because of their reduced revenue are great pieces of evidence to have on hand.
Thankfully, many people realize the financial difficulty that the virus is causing. Everyone from landlords to banks to utility companies are offering payment relief, or at least deferment until a later date. It’s in your best interest to reach out as soon as possible and let whoever is expecting a payment from you know you aren’t going to be able to make your payment. When you do this, state very clearly that your loss of income is due to the coronavirus. Most customer service lines have to follow strict rules, and if you aren’t specific, they may not be able to offer you all the resources their organization has set aside for people impacted by COVID-19. Unscrupulous organizations may try to skirt the law by claiming that you didn’t say your financial difficulty was due to the virus, therefore they can’t help you. Don’t give them that opportunity!
Once you let them know you aren’t going to be able to pay, ask what kind of relief they can offer you. Be willing to ask for more than they offer. If they say they’ll defer your payments for 30 days, for example, ask if they’ll do 90. The representative you’re talking to may not be able to comply with your request, but it’s absolutely worth asking. Many utility companies have existing relief programs for customers who can’t pay and have expanded those services. Others are instituting new programs in light of everything happening, including making some services like internet and electrical entirely free. Take advantage of what’s available to you.
Lastly, don’t forget to be as kind as possible when talking with customer service representatives. This is an extremely stressful time for everyone. Being patient and kind benefits us all.
Everything I pay for feels necessary! How do I cut down on expenses?
This advice is pretty standard pre-pandemic advice, but it is truly evergreen, so I don’t mind repeating it.
First: Cancel any extra subscriptions and other excess spending and look for better deals. I won’t tell you to cancel Netflix and Hulu because that would just make hunkering down at home miserable for most of us. Still, subscriptions are definitely worth evaluating, and it’s also worth looking into whether you’re getting the best deal. For example, my partner gets both Hulu and Spotify as a bundle for $4.99 a month, which is a huge savings for us.
Take advantage of student or senior discounts, and ALWAYS check Google for coupons for anything you’re about to buy. That goes for groceries, video games, Disney+ subscriptions, ordering takeout, clothes–you name it, there’s probably a coupon.
If you are currently on SNAP or Medicaid, you qualify for a reduced-price Amazon Prime subscription that comes out to $5.99/month. That would mean paying no extra shipping costs for anything on Amazon. You’d also get access to a huge variety of Amazon services, from audiobook streaming through Audible to grocery delivery through Amazon Fresh. You can read the full list of services you get with a Prime membership here. You can also pay for an extra add-on, Prime Pantry, and get free delivery on orders of pantry staples over $35. (Ideal when you’re trying to avoid going to the store, or your local stores have been completely wiped out. You can also use your EBT card to pay for SNAP-eligible items on Amazon in some states (full list of states here).
There are other grocery stores that allow you to use EBT to pay online, too. Food Stamps Now has a great roundup of stores that let you use EBT online, and also information about how to use EBT online.
It may also make some sense to get “family plan”-style accounts and share with friends and family you trust to chip in regularly, lowering payments for everyone. On the flip side, if you’re single and currently paying for a family plan, evaluate whether you should switch to a cheaper plan that suits your needs better.
You should also get really comfortable with saying no to yourself. Stress buying is very real, and especially with the world being a terrifying disaster, it’s very easy to say “You know what, I deserve this!” and buy something you truly do not need. (RIP my bank account after the month of March. In my defense, it was my birthday month, but I might have overdone it a little.) Maybe you do deserve it, but if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it! You also deserve to be financially solvent. Find other ways to manage your anxiety and give yourself that little endorphin high.
Most importantly: get shit for free! My friends, there is a wonderful world of free stuff out there, thanks to the internet and libraries. (I know, I know, I’m a freak about libraries. But they’re really cool and offer so much more than just physical books!)
In my city, public library branches are currently closed, but there’s a ton of electronic content available. That may be true for you, too. I use the San Francisco Public Library and have access to ebooks, audiobooks, movies, music, and comics on Kindle, Axis360, Overdrive, Libby, Hoopla, Kanopy, and OverDrive. There are also tons of e-learning resources with information on everything from learning Mandarin to painting in Photoshop. Not every library system is as well-equipped, but if finances are tight, looking into library resources can mean reducing your entertainment budget to $0. (Or at least just the cost of internet.) (Which you might also be able to get for free, or at least super cheap.)
You should also take a look at local buy-nothing groups on Facebook, who may be able to provide you with items you need but can’t afford. Freecycle, the free section of Craigslist, and Nextdoor’s free section are also great places to get free items. On Nextdoor, you can also ask for help and see if your neighbors are able to offer assistance just by posting. Nextdoor also set up a “Help Map” feature where you can In my neighborhood, people have been offering to go to the grocery store for high-risk neighbors, walk people’s dogs, do free housekeeping, and do phone check-ins. Reach out to your community. People are doing their best to come together and create a safety net right now, and it never hurts to ask.
I know how much staying alive costs. How am I supposed to afford it?
This is the real question. It’s relatively easy to cut costs and get your finances down to brass tacks. But covering rent can seem impossible when you’ve been out of work for three weeks and you have no idea when it’ll even be feasible for you to find work again.
In the short term, I’d suggest applying for jobs in industries that are still hiring. Most grocery stores, delivery companies, and warehouses are hiring in huge numbers right now, and if that’s work you’re willing and able to do, now is a perfect time to apply.
There is also a coronavirus relief bill coming down the pike, and many Americans will qualify for the stimulus checks the government is going to send out. You can read more details about the bill, whether you qualify, and the amount you may receive here: F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Plan.
If you haven’t already, you may also want to get your taxes filed. Tax refunds are a lifeline for many of us, right now most of all. The government will also be using your tax information from 2019 in order to figure out whether you qualify for the checks mandated by the coronavirus relief bill. If they don’t have your 2019 tax info, they will use your 2018 tax information, which may make a significant difference in how much you receive. Even if you didn’t make enough to technically need to file taxes, it’s still in your best interest to do so for 2019.
If you’re unsure of how to file your taxes or find the whole thing confusing and nightmarish, I highly recommend using FreeTax USA to file your return. It’s completely free (except for the cost to file your state tax return, which can be paid for with your return). It uses plain language and simplifies the process as much as possible. I’ve been using it for several years and can’t imagine using anything else at this point.
While we’re still on the topic of government-related income, you should also take the time to apply for unemployment, SNAP, Medicare or Medicaid, TANF, and any other government assistance programs you may qualify for. While that money may not add up to what you’re used to bringing in with a regular paycheck, it can help keep you in your home and stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.
That assistance is likely to not be enough, though, so I’ll talk about ways you can make money. These aren’t get-rich-quick schemes, but ways you can make a little money here and there that will hopefully add up.
This post deals specifically with a bunch of different ways you can earn money from home. It covers a ton of bases–everything from credit card reward churning to Amazon Mechanical Turk to Redbubble. I’ll talk in a bit more detail about some of the stuff mentioned in that post below based on my own personal experiences, as well as a few more.
I also cover some different ways to organize your finances and make some extra money in this post.
One of the first things I’ll mention is Swagbucks. Swagbucks allows you to fill out surveys and earn cash back in the form of “swagbucks” or “SBs.” You can then redeem your SBs for gift cards or cash in the form of PayPal deposits. You have to reach specific SB amounts in order to buy the gift cards–you can’t cash out with 5SBs (or 5 cents) for example. At the lowest, you’ll be able to get gift cards in 500SB (or $5) amounts. PayPal can take the longest to save up for since you need 2,500SBs ($25). You definitely won’t get rich with it, but I have actually used it to pay bills in the past. (I actually just checked and I’ve earned a little over $140 on Swagbucks since 2018 with some periods of heavy usage and then many months of not touching it at all.)
If you use my code to sign up, you earn 150 SB (or about $1.50) just for signing up, and Swagbucks kicks back some of your earnings to me. Also, use it on a laptop or desktop computer if you can. Swagbucks can be really glitchy, especially on mobile. I recommend focusing on doing surveys, which will garner you the largest return on your time investment. You can also shop online with the Swagbutton (trust me, I hate the name just as much as you do) browser extension and earn SBs that way, and use referral links on the site to earn points when you shop online. It takes a while for shopping referral SBs to make it into your account, though. You can also earn points by printing coupons, signing up for new services and websites, and playing games, but those options require you to spend money you likely don’t have right now. Sticking to surveys is going to be the most worthwhile use of your time, in my experience.
Ibotta is one of my least favorite ways to earn money, but still worth mentioning. It takes f o r e v e r to cash out, especially if you aren’t uploading literally every receipt from literally everywhere you shop every time you shop.
Still, I’ve managed to cash out with it once before, and every little bit helps. You can also use the different bonus bundles they have on the app to boost your earnings. You can cash out once you hit $20, and it only takes a couple minutes to upload your receipts.
Etsy can be a great way to make extra cash, especially if you’re a crafter. I ran an Etsy store for a while selling solid perfume, and I can attest to the fact that the platform is really great as both a seller and a buyer. Etsy has a really solid overview of how to get started selling. It may require some startup funds depending on what you decide to sell and whether you have the supplies to make it and mail it out to customers, but it can make you a decent chunk of change once you get started. Also, I’ve heard some rumors that there’s kind of a huge market for hand soap right now for some reason, so now’s as good a time as any to learn how to make it and cash in.
If you have a lot of extra stuff lying around that you no longer want and that might actually be worth something, opening an eBay store is a great idea. You can research prices by searching for the same or similar items that are already listed on eBay. You’d be surprised at what sells. Just make sure to factor shipping costs into your prices if you decide to offer free shipping!
I wrote a post a bit ago about the self-publishing process. With people hungry for things to do during self-quarantine, it’s a good time to self-publish content and earn a few extra bucks while doing it.
If you can offer a service that can be delivered entirely online (think writing, editing, digital art, logo design, making videos, etc.), you might want to offer your services on Fiverr. Fiverr is a digital marketplace where freelancers can offer their services. I have used it in the past, and while I won’t necessarily recommend it as a great option for long-term income, it can be a good way to gain experience, build relationships with clients, and build a portfolio. I recommend checking out the Fiverr forums to talk with other freelancers and get a better idea of how to use the platform.
Use Your Free Time to Build Self-Reliance
As we start to run into supply chain issues, we’re beginning to see shelves empty at the grocery store and everywhere else, too. Easy access to goods isn’t necessarily guaranteed now. Right now, it makes sense to look into alternative solutions. Grocery store empty? Maybe start growing some of your own food or sign up for a local CSA. Out of paper towels? Use rags and towels in the kitchen instead. Can’t get outside to exercise? Look up routines you can do at home online, or find videos on YouTube. No hand soap available at the store? Pick up some bar soap from an Etsy store, or learn to make it yourself.
Now is a perfect time to get back into old DIY hobbies or pick up new ones. They could save you money in the long run and they’ll give you something to do while you’re stuck inside.
Get Involved in Mutual Aid
The coronavirus has brought a lot of us closer together, even as we’ve been required to stay further apart. Many of us have more free time on our hands. So why not use some of that time to help neighbors in whatever way you can?
There are tons of new mutual aid organizations popping up in response to the coronavirus crisis, often with the aim of serving the most vulnerable in the community. Right now, you may be able to offer help. Or you may be the one in need of help. Regardless, it’s a great time to reach out and get to know your neighbors (from a distance of six feet or more, of course). Start a phone tree or a group chat for your apartment building or street or town. Ask your neighbors (especially elderly and disabled folks who are more at risk) what they need and keep in touch with them. Stay in touch with friends and family, too. We all need people to reach out to right now, and it’s important to strengthen our bonds within our communities.
To find a mutual aid network near you, you can do a quick google search with a phrase like “mutual aid network [your city].” You can also check out It’s Going Down’s list of mutual aid networks.
Advocate for Yourself and Others
This might seem like a weird thing to add to a post about trying to stay financially solvent. In America, we’re often taught to prioritize ourselves and our families, but right now is a time when we need to stand up for our friends, neighbors, and vulnerable people in this country. Take the time to call your city council, write letters to your local and state representatives, and make calls to your senators.
You can advocate for eviction moratoriums, rent freezes, and mortgage freezes in your county that can help keep people secure in their homes during this crisis. You can also ask your representatives to prioritize continued cash aid to individuals and ensure people get the support they need to make it through this, on top of the relief that should hopefully be coming from the federal government toward the end of April. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but your voice does matter, and taking the time to make yourself heard could encourage changes in policy that will help millions of people.