Lessons from a Financial Coach: Prioritize Expenses, Identify Resources, and Make a Plan

By Chris Capellan, TrustPlus Financial Coach

If you’re like many of TrustPlus’ clients, the last few months likely have been a trying time, and you’ve been doing the best to get by. Perhaps you or someone in your family may have lost a job, access to reliable childcare, or God-forbid, a loved one. Expenses may have gone up, like groceries and electricity, because your kids are home all day and doing remote schooling. You may be stressed about money, feeling overwhelmed, and unsure how to start planning for a future that is so full of uncertainty and unanswered questions.

You are not alone.

Based on our conversations with hundreds of clients in this situation to date, we’ve put together a brief summary guide that we hope can help you: prioritize your expenses, identify resources that you may now qualify for, and make a plan to help you get through this time.

Prioritize Expenses

Assess expenses. Conduct extreme triage with your expenses: Consider freezing or canceling subscription services. As you look at each expense, ask yourself, what are the consequences of not paying that expense? If the consequence is unknown, seek out a professional who can help you plan. If the consequence is known and you can live with it, cut that expense for now.

Flexibility and liquidity. Consider how flexible those expenses are and whether they need to be paid via cash or credit. Is there a grace period? How lenient is the creditor? Is negotiation possible? Can those expenses be trimmed? It may be possible to take advantage of hardship relief programs that could reduce or even freeze payments and late fees. Does it require a cash payment? Can it go on a credit card? If your cash is limited, consider putting what you can on credit and reserve the cash for an emergency.

Your food and nutrition. As financial coaches, we’ll always tell you that no bill is as important as this. A few ways you can make this cost more manageable include:

  • SNAP assistance (food stamps) — Some requirements have been eliminated so that more people can receive them. Some localities, like NYC, are providing SNAP cards to every family with children, regardless of income. Check out Benefits Kitchen, a to-the-dollar screening for 18 federal, state, and local benefits in eight states (AZ, CA, LA, NJ, NY, TX, VA) to see if you qualify.
  • Food banks or food pantries provide free food to folks in need. Find the closest food bank near you.
  • For additional ways to spend less money on food, The Kitchn has a helpful guide.

Your Home. If your rent and meeting your rent obligations will be a challenge, contact a legal service provider to learn about your rights and your options. Some cities have a moratorium on evictions, and others have recently launched rental assistance programs. Check out our Housing Assistance Guide for more information on options in your area. If you own and your mortgage will be a challenge, contact your mortgage lender. Mortgage servicers have a lot more flexibility these days than they might initially tell you, so it’ll be helpful to get an advocate on your team like a HUD Certified Housing Counselor or a legal service provider.

Your Utilities. Consider your internet and cell phone service part of necessary utilities as access to information is more important than ever. Many providers have pledged to support consumers in keeping services going. This is especially true if you have students at home. Communication is a high priority due to the need for information during this global crisis. Reach out to your cell phone provider to ask about how you can reduce your monthly bill and to make sure you know their policies for suspension of services. When you reach out, ask for more affordable plans, downsize the package, ask if they can offer free access (yes, seriously! Especially if you have students in your home). For example, Verizon gave out 16GB of data for no charge. Check our Findhelp.org to find out what carriers (as well as energy, water, sewer, and trash removal services) are offering in your area.

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Your Transportation. This is the biggest expense that changes from family to family, place to place. Is there flexibility here? If you have a car note, see if you can speak with your lender about flexibility in your payments. Be careful of predatory lenders and title loans. If someone offers you a solution that involves taking out a new loan, be careful; the terms might not have your best interest in mind. Reach out to a financial coach who can help you evaluate the loan terms.

Your Credit. In normal times, over-reliance on credit is certainly not advisable. But these aren’t normal times and your approach to credit should reflect that. A few ways you can use your credit while protecting yourself and your credit (just as one would tuck and roll to help minimize the impact of falling down) include:

  • Review your credit cards and group according to your current balances. Have you maxed out certain cards and are short on cash? Call the credit card companies of the maxed-out cards first to ask to postpone your payments. In a worst-case scenario, the credit cards with little to no available credit limit left would be the ones you stop paying first.
  • Preserve at least one card for ongoing expenses. For the next group of cards, ask yourself “Which card(s) do you still have a decent credit limit to run on?” Say you have a $5,000 limit, but only a $1,000 balance and your minimum payment is $80. While your income remains completely unpredictable, pay the minimum on this card to preserve access to your credit limit. That $80 minimum might mean you can spend $300 in groceries to feed your family, which is the right decision in the short run. While paying off credit in this way is not sustainable, neither are the financial realities of the pandemic. People will either work hard to figure out how to bring some kind of normalcy to their income, or that credit card lifeline will eventually suffer the same fate as other maxed-out credit cards. This is not an inevitability and there’s a lot of planning that can be done beforehand, so speak to one of us if this is what you’re facing.
  • For additional tips on negotiating with a creditor, consider this helpful guide.

Student loan debt. Federal student loan borrowers do not need to take any action to suspend payments: Your federal student loan servicer should have suspended all payments through December 31 without any action from you. But if you have a Perkins loan, Federal Family Education Loan, or a private loan, call your servicer to see what your repayment options are.

#4 – Visual Appeal

Another key reason why updating a website is a good idea relates to the visual side of things, and more importantly, how easy your customers find it to use your website. Over time, the design of a website will become outdated; this is perfectly normal. Regularly updating your website with new images of people, products, or projects is a great way to keep things fresh.

According to new research by Google, simplistic website design is best for both user experience and conversions. As such, you may also want to periodically check and update your website to ensure it remains in line with modern preferences.

While there are lots of other valid reasons why a website should be updated on a regular basis, these four are the most compelling of all.

Assess Your Income

Emergency Relief Programs. Are there any emergency relief programs assisting you? Do you qualify for any cash relief programs? How can you make the most of that extra income? Talk to a financial coach for some recommendations.

Economic Impact Payments (EIP). File for your income taxes, if you haven’t already, especially if you can anticipate a refund.

Unemployment Benefits. Benefits have been extended to people that were traditionally ineligible, like gig workers. While the initial $600 in extended benefits has expired and it remains unclear where, when, and how long President Trump’s Executive Order for an additional $300 in extended benefits will go into effect, it’s still worthwhile to apply if you qualify. Unfortunately, this may take hundreds of calls. But hang in there! We recently had one client who, after trying several times to connect with the unemployment office, finally got through and will now be getting retroactive unemployment from when he first filed — nearly $8,000!

Update Skills or Incorporate New Industries. With all of the economic turbulence, many industries are suffering, particularly retail and the foodservice industry. But there may be some surprising opportunities that you may not have considered. This may also be a good time to update your skills to switch industries. Upwardly Global is offering free online job search and skill-building courses to help people impacted by COVID-19.

Ask Yourself

  • What does it mean for your mental health if some bills or debts go unpaid?
  • Will cash on hand bring you peace of mind?
  • 6 months from now, will interest or additional debt feel like money well spent to help you get through the crisis — or a big setback?
  • If you defer a payment today when will the payment be due? How much will it cost you tomorrow in interest or fees?
  • What is vulnerable today versus tomorrow?

Make a Plan

Track Your Cash Flow. Check your spending weekly and make sure you have a budget that can help you see what’s coming in and out.

  • Use an app like Mint or your bank’s app to help you to quickly see summaries, categories, and scheduled expenses.
  • Write down a list of all your bills and their due dates. Will you have enough coming in when they are due?
  • Are there any automatic payments coming out? Does that still work for you?
  • We typically love automatic payments because you can schedule them and know that you won’t get a late fee. But if it’s going to stretch you too thin, we might take a different approach.

Get Organized. Create the paper trail. This is especially important when in communication with landlords and other creditors.

  • Create a document or email yourself with verbal updates.
  • Create a folder with communication from your creditors.
  • Confirm they are making a note on the account.
  • Send a follow-up email to customer service or somewhere confirming the agreement.
  • Make a note of bills or costs that have been deferred so they do not surprise or overwhelm you when they’re due.
  • Document the financial impact of the coronavirus. Hold on to any documents about changes in work status and keep receipts for COVID-related purchases.

Take Action Today

Write a short action step so that you can start doing today to feel in control of your finances.

I will _____________________________________ (the action you want to take) by____________________________________________________ (date).

I will accomplish this by ______________________________________(doing something specific).

I will call my credit card company to get a hardship plan by the 10th of next month (my credit card is due on the 17th). I will accomplish this by organizing my expenses and my bills.

Other ways you can take action include:

  • Creating a written budget for your priorities and bills,
  • Reviewing your credit report, or
  • Trimming a variable expense or non-necessity until other expenses are stabilized.

These times are overwhelming, things are changing quickly, and there is a lot of uncertainty, so remember: there’s no one-size-fits-all answer; just do the best you can. And if you want more one-on-one guidance, speak with one of our financial coaches today.

Anne-Marie Saint-John, Alva, Long Island City, NY >

What Happens if You Stop Paying Your Debts?

When was the last time you looked at your website through the eyes of a new customer?

For so many small businesses, once a website is set-up, very rarely will it be looked at or updated. Despite key changes the occur in a business, with services and products, many websites remain unchanged. Aside from the visual appeal of a site starting to dwindle, there are other key reasons why you need to invest a little time to update your website on a regular basis.

In this post, we explain why updating your website should be considered an integral part of marketing a small business and set-out the many benefits you will see as a direct result for your efforts.

Woman Typing on Computer

#1 – It Boosts Visibility in Search Engines

Do you know where your website sits in terms of its SEO for your keywords?

If not, it’s definitely worthwhile taking a look to see how visible your company is for its relevant services or products in your local area. Essentially, when a customer looks for a service or product online, they type a specific phrase or term into Google.

Now, when you stop updating your website, it can send the ‘wrong’ signal to the search engines, and it prevents your site from climbing up those page rankings. Search engines love fresh content, and this has an incredible impact on the visibility of your business, which ultimately effects how easy it is for new customers to find you online.

#2 – It Keeps your Customers Informed

More people than ever before now use the internet to find out information before they make contact with a company. In fact, a staggering 81% of people admitted to performing hours of research before deciding which product or service they want to buy next.

Consider how a business changes over time, how products and services are updated, removed, and added in order to meet new consumer demands. If the core services you offer don’t change, then the way you speak to your customers may need to be adapted to suit a changing dynamic.

So, aside from making sure you’re speaking to customers in the right way and always offering up to date information about your current offers, updating content on your website is now an essential, if not the most essential storefront to your business. As such, it should be updated regularly to make sure it accurately reflects your business as it stands today.

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#3 – It Drives Customer Engagement & Loyalty

Do you have a news section or a blog on your website? If so, when was the last time you updated this? Do you have an about us page with information about your team members? The same question applies.

Aside from the many reasons you should write a blog for your business, writing content for your blog or news section is a great way to offer value to customers, and it’s great for engagement on the site too. Similarly, with a news section, it’s a quick and easy way to keep the world informed about key developments in your company, along with news of any new team members or new services/products.

Updating your team or about us, pages with team bio’s for individuals as they join is also important as it helps people put a face to the names of the people they are speaking to, and this only serves to improve your engagement and loyalty.

As a final question to consider, when was the last time you posted news of a project or shouted about a lovely review from a client? All of these events should be seen as opportunities to update your website while boosting the power of your online presence at the same time!

#4 – Visual Appeal

Another key reason why updating a website is a good idea relates to the visual side of things, and more importantly, how easy your customers find it to use your website. Over time, the design of a website will become outdated; this is perfectly normal. Regularly updating your website with new images of people, products, or projects is a great way to keep things fresh.

According to new research by Google, simplistic website design is best for both user experience and conversions. As such, you may also want to periodically check and update your website to ensure it remains in line with modern preferences.

While there are lots of other valid reasons why a website should be updated on a regular basis, these four are the most compelling of all.

Woman Clapping

What type of information can you use to update your website?

We’ve already covered the nuts of bolts of why you should update your website regularly, but to make things just a little easier for you, here’s a list of the different types of information you can utilize in order to keep the content updates flowing.

  • Company News, Announcements, PRs
  • New Team Members or Promotions
  • Business Blogs or How-to-Guides for Customers
  • New Service or Product Descriptions
  • Fresh Images
  • FAQ section using questions from emails or support logs
  • Testimonials from Customers
  • Latest Projects
  • Awards

While most of the usual tasks that relate to the ongoing maintenance of a website are often be viewed as technical, these updates can often be performed quickly in-house by a person with little to no website knowledge. If you have a developer who works with you on your site, they’re also usually happy to add a post or new content for you if this isn’t something you feel comfortable doing yourself.

The key to success is to not overwhelm yourself with content updates, or even to put things off. Instead, try to start with just 30 minutes a week or whatever amount of time you can find on a given day, get into a routine, and keep it consistent. This way, you will start to reap the rewards for your business and maintain your commitments to keeping your site updated.

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