The raging delta variant of COVID-19 has caused infections and hospitalizations to surge, and has led the Centers for Disease Control to go back to recommending that all Americans wear masks indoors, even if they've been vaccinated.
Lockdowns have returned in other countries, though not in the U.S. — at least not yet. But experts at Bank of America warn that the economy faces the risk of consumers hunkering down again.
"Persistently high case counts nationally could ultimately impact behavior of consumers that have been vaccinated, raising the downside risk to our growth outlook," the economists write in a note.
In times like these, personal finance expert and author Suze Orman says people need to become "warriors" to protect themselves and their money. Here are 15 Orman's do's and don'ts for keeping your finances strong during the pandemic's new chapter.
1. Do be careful about making big purchases
Even if you've got cash in the bank, now is not the time to buy a new car or smartphone, Orman says.
“Stop with major purchases right here and right now, because the future is unknown, and this is the time for you to conserve in every possible way,” she says on her podcast.
Though if you're convinced you're in a good position, you might want to open your wallet for something practical — like life insurance, to protect the people who depend on you.
“If you somehow have gotten this far in the pandemic without focusing on life insurance, I have one question for you: Are you crazy?” asked Orman in a December [blog post[(https://www.suzeorman.com/blog/Your-Year-End-Financial-Checklist).
“It’s easy to buy online, and inexpensive," she adds.
2. Don't blow your pandemic relief money
Orman says you'll want to conserve any new relief you receive — particularly if you're out of work.
"You should seriously save every penny you can. Do not go taking that stimulus check and using it all to pay off all your credit card debt, if that's all the cash that you have," she tells NBC's Today show.
Instead, she says, sort your bills into two piles: essential and nonessential. Pay only the essential ones, and pay as little as you possibly can — and that includes your credit card bills. At the same time, you might cut the cost of that debt by rolling it into a low-interest debt consolidation loan.
3. Do refinance your mortgage
Have you been paying attention to interest rates? A year ago, the Federal Reserve chopped a key rate virtually to zero, helping to usher in the lowest mortgage rates on record.
If you own a home and haven't refinanced yet, shop around for a new loan that will slash your monthly payment. Thirty-year fixed mortgages are still averaging just 2.80%, according to mortgage company Freddie Mac.
But "do not refinance and extend your years," Suze Orman warns in an interview with People. In other words, if you've got a 30-year loan that you've been paying for five years, don't refinance into another 30-year mortgage.
Instead, try to refi into a 15- or 20-year loan, to hold down your interest costs over the long run.
4. Don’t panic-sell your stocks
When the stock market's big coronavirus crash began last year, Suze Orman's initial reaction was that investors should "rejoice," because they could buy great stocks at bargain-basement prices.
"Could stocks keep going down? Of course," she writes in an article on CNBC.com. "But since World War II, we have had 12 bear markets. The average loss was around 35%, and though stocks fell for an average of a bit more than a year, they typically had made back their losses in another two years and then rallied to new highs."
In fact, it took only a few months for the S&P 500 to rally to new all-time highs.
If you're ever panicking over your investments, you might get some help by hiring an affordable financial adviser of your own. Those services are available online now, with no social distancing issues.
5. Do try to put some bills on hold
During the pandemic, government programs have offered consumers relief from their usual financial obligations, and many creditors have been more understanding.
"If you can’t pay your bills, or could really use some short-term relief, call anyone you owe money to and ask them what help is available," Orman says in her "Women & Money" podcast.
Call your credit card issuers to find out what they can do for you, because some have suspended interest charges. "Are there long wait times on customer service lines? So what? You’ve got time," says the money maven.
Taking advantage of offers to sideline bill payments shouldn't hurt your credit score, but check your score regularly — which you can do for free — just to be sure you're not getting dinged by mistake.
6. Don't assume the job market will snap back
Suze Orman has some sobering words for people who've been laid off because of the pandemic and are now sitting at home: Some of your jobs may not come back.
In June, 9.5 million U.S. workers were unemployed, including 4 million who'd been out of work for more than six months, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Are we looking at a total change in the jobs that do come back, jobs that don't come back, and where those jobs are performed? Yeah, I think we absolutely are looking at a total revamping of how business goes on after this over," Orman says on her podcast.
So work on your resume and try to learn some new skills during your downtime. See if you can pick up freelance or gig work that might lead to something bigger later on.
"I do not expect us to go back to business as usual," Orman warns.
7. Do keep investing, if you can
Not only should you not sell stocks, but you also shouldn't stop putting more money in. "If you aren’t yet retired, now is not the time to stop investing. Focus on the long term," says Orman.
If you're making regular automatic transfers from your bank account into an investment account, or if you've got a portion of every paycheck going into a 401(k) or other retirement plan, just keep doing what you're doing.
And if delta sparks a new financial crisis, now is probably a good time to make sure you have the right mix of stocks and bonds — one an automated investment app that can help you set up the optimal portfolio.
“Whatever your asset allocation goal is, you need to check your retirement portfolios at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track,” Orman writes in a blog post.
8. Don't get carried away with 'revenge' shopping
If you’re like many Americans, a lack of spending over the last year-plus has your savings looking pretty good. Don’t blow it all on something frivolous just because you can.
“I get it. And yet, I am still going to ask you to fight the urge if you’re still hard at work making sure you and your family is financially secure.”
Before you make a big purchase, consider the alternatives: “Please don’t spend dollars on gifts if those dollars can be used to build an emergency fund, pay down credit card debt, or help you make more progress with saving for retirement."
For those occasions when you do need to shop, download a free browser extension that will help you find better prices for whatever you're buying.
9. Do use credit cards — but wisely
Though you want to keep your spending under control during this period of financial turmoil, it's all right to fall back on your credit cards if you find yourself in a bind.
"If you don’t have enough money in your emergency cash fund to cover expenses, use a credit card for essential purchases," Orman writes in the CNBC piece.
"But if you do this, do everything possible to pay the minimum due each month. Staying current — paying the minimum is fine during a crisis — is key to maintaining a good relationship with the card issuer," she says.
If find yourself relying on a credit card, try to use one with cash-back rewards, so you’re essentially saving money each time you use it.
10. Don't keep too little in your emergency savings
Right now it's probably very difficult to beef up your savings for emergencies, but Orman is hoping consumers will come away from these difficult times with a new determination to put aside even more money for when things get tough.
Most experts say you should have enough saved — maybe in a high-yield savings account — to cover three to six months' worth of expenses. Suze Orman says the pandemic calls for a new standard: a three-year emergency fund.
She explained it this way, in a HerMoney podcast with personal finance expert Jean Chatzky: "A bear market (that is, a 20% decline in stocks), from where it goes from the top to the bottom, back to the top again, is usually 3.1 years."
Orman says you need a financial cushion for a bear market because you don't want to be forced to sell stocks when markets are falling, and you don't want to raid your retirement money, either.
11. Do leave your retirement money alone
If you have an IRA or a 401(k) or other employment-based retirement account, Orman says you shouldn't tap it unless you absolutely have to.
She tells Deadline that even when retirement balances get beaten down, they come back — and you don't want to miss out on the rebound.
"If you take the money out, you’re racking in a (loss), and you’re going to pay income taxes on that money," she says.
Not to mention that, with a 401(k) or a traditional IRA, withdrawals before age 59 1/2 trigger a 10% early withdrawal penalty.
12. Don't go without health insurance
Orman’s own health scare last year was a wake-up call. Your physical well-being is just like your physical well-being — “you can’t just put it off,” she said during a November CNBC virtual summit.
You've been laid off? If you had health insurance, you can keep it going. You don't want to be left without coverage, especially not in the middle of a national health crisis.
"You can now take over the payments that you were making and your company was making on your behalf, to the health insurance policy that you currently have. That’s called COBRA," Orman says in the Deadline interview. "That will last for 18 months."
Thanks to subsidies in the most recent COVID relief bill, health plans purchased through HealthCare.gov — the Obamacare marketplace — are even more affordable now. For lower-income policyholders, the new subsidies can reduce premiums to $0.
13. Do put dividend-paying stocks in your portfolio
Orman says the market crash last year was a good reminder to have dividend-paying stocks in your portfolio, whether you're investing your pocket change or substantially more. Even when the market goes into a tailspin, you'll still have some returns to show.
She says many good, quality stocks pay dividends. "There are so many out there that are paying 4.5%, 5% right now that (were) crushed for no reason" when the market went down, she says in her podcast.
The dividend yield is a company's annual dividend divided by its share price. If the business pays an annual dividend of $1 per share and its current stock price is $20, that's a dividend yield of 5%.
Dividends are usually paid out quarterly. So if you're invested in a company paying $1 per share annually and you have 1,000 shares, you receive $250 every three months that can be reinvested into the firm.
14. Don't miss out on a chance to convert your IRA
With a traditional IRA, you make contributions to the retirement account from your pretax income. Withdrawals will be taxed as current income after age 59 ½. But with a Roth IRA, the money is taxed upfront, so withdrawals are often tax-free.
"Many of you have been wanting to convert from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA," Orman says on her podcast. That can be expensive, but if the market dips significantly again, act quickly.
The reason is that the amount you take from your traditional IRA and put into a Roth will be taxed as income.
"When the market is down ... maybe, rather than having $20,000, you have $10,000 now," Orman explains. "So, when you convert, you would only owe taxes on $10,000."
15. Don't confuse 'want' with 'need'
Now is one of those times when it's particularly important to understand what you need, as opposed to stuff you just want. It's a distinction that Suze Orman often talks about.
"I can afford a new car, but why would I want to waste money like that? Just because you have money doesn’t mean you should waste money. You should never waste money," she told Jean Chatzky, in the HerMoney podcast.
That's especially true at this moment, with layoffs continuing and incomes shrinking.
But still, "we are wasting so much money," Orman says. Going back to the car example, she says instead of buying a new one she'd rather spend $2,000 to fix up her current car.