The coronavirus (COVID-19) has already caused major disruption in the United States. The economy is suffering, businesses are reducing services or closing their doors and Americans are hunkering down to avoid spreading a global pandemic.

The turmoil can put an enormous strain on the finances of millions of people. Many Americans may experience job loss, reduced income and financial hardship. Now is the time to start planning to stretch your money during the coronavirus outbreak.

How to Manage Your Expenses During the Pandemic

To make your money last longer, you should plan to decrease spending and strategically manage your expenses.

1. Reduce Spending

Review your monthly budget and spending habits to identify ways to save. Recent closings might make it easier to avoid restaurants, concerts and other gatherings. But other optional expenses, including online shopping for nonessentials, expensive hobbies and other purchases can be eliminated. Look for ways to save on groceries and essential items as well.

Some social distancing measures may help you save money. You can cancel or pause your gym membership, cook more meals at home, make your own cleaning supplies and fix things around the home yourself.

Look for creative ways to engage your mind and body, such as virtual tours of zoos and museums, without spending money.

2. Evaluate Your Bills

Take a look at your bills and determine which ones take priority. Necessities like rent, utilities and other essential services should be your first focus. Other bills can be lower priority. Use these other strategies to make your bills more affordable:

  • Making only the minimum payments on your credit card can cause you to rack up debt and accrue interest on the remaining balance. But if you’re choosing between paying down your credit card and affording your rent, choose your rent. If you can’t afford your payment, reach out to your credit card provider – it may be able to work out an alternative solution.
  • Some utility providers may be able to temporarily suspend payments or offer other forms of assistance. Check with your utility companies to see if there is a way to pause payments, reduce payment obligations or receive aid.
  • The Department of Education has suspended interest on federal student loans indefinitely. This isn’t as exciting as it initially sounds, because you’ll still have to make your monthly payments. But you have two other options for your student loans:
    • You can request a deferment or forbearance, which temporarily allows you to stop making payments. There are many types of deferment and forbearance, all with their own set of requirements. For the time being, loans in deferment and forbearance will not accrue interest.
    • You can apply for income-based repayment, which lowers your monthly payments by setting them at a predetermined percentage of your income. For the time being, loans in income-based repayment plans do not accrue interest.

Use Available Financial Resources

Beyond reducing expenses, you should use any additional financial resources that are available to you. Using your own financial resources or seeking out assistance programs can help you weather tough financial periods.

1. Unemployment Benefits

If the COVID-19 outbreak has affected your employment status, you should immediately file for unemployment benefits. Depending on the state you live in, the requirements for seeking unemployment may have changed in response to the coronavirus, including the removal of waiting periods or the requirement to actively seek work while you receive benefits.

2. Food Assistance Programs

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can provide financial assistance to individuals and families who are having difficulty affording food. You can check your eligibility here.

If you’re having trouble affording food, you should also find your local food banks and food pantries. These locations provide free food to those in need; some may have eligibility requirements while others are open to everyone.

Some school districts that are temporarily closed are offering free school breakfasts and lunches for enrolled students. If your child’s school has closed, check to see if they can receive free school meals.

If you are a senior in need of food assistance, Meals on Wheels brings meals to eligible seniors in nearly every community in the United States.

3. Bartender Assistance

Do you tend bar for a living, or are you the spouse or child of someone who does? Bars across the country are closing, and the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program may be able to help bartenders with financial assistance. You do not need to be a member of the United States Bartenders Guild to qualify.

4. Personal Emergency Savings Funds

Do you have cash saved up in an emergency savings fund? If so, a global pandemic certainly qualifies as an emergency and justifies making withdrawals.

However, no one currently knows how long COVID-19 will affect the economy, and you have no idea how long your personal situation may be impacted. It’s wise to minimize your withdrawals and make your fund last as long as you can. To this end, it’s a good idea to work on reducing expenses and finding assistance first, then determining if you need to make withdrawals from your savings.