By Lisa, Credit Counseling Center Success Story

At the time of writing, I am sitting in the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine. Information, recommendations, and statistics of confirmed cases are changing everyday. It’s overwhelming. It’s surreal. And financial uncertainty is a harsh reality that is swirling throughout our communities and across the world.

Years ago, I watched a show about people and their “end of the world” bunkers. They gave tours of their underground emergency rooms stocked with food and survival supplies. At the time, these individuals seemed absolutely nuts to me. And now I’m wondering… Is preparing for the “what if’s” really that nuts?

When my husband and I committed ourselves to tackling our debt, I began listening to finance podcasts, and seeking out budget ideas on Pinterest. I continued to stumble across the same advice from financial experts: Create an emergency savings account to cover 3-6 months of your basic monthly expenses in the event of a job loss, injury, etc. In the end, my Credit Counselor helped us get real with our spending, develop a budget, a savings account and start a plan to pay off our credit card debt.

This advice was difficult to digest. When your financial situation is in the toilet, how do you wrap your head around growing an emergency fund? How can you even save a dollar when you are drowning in debt and living paycheck to paycheck?

I’ll tell you that it won’t happen overnight and it requires a total mindset change; but I promise it can be done no matter what your income level. It begins with figuring out how much money you would need to cover your basic monthly expenses: housing, utilities, minimal credit card payments, gas, food, school loans, etc. This amount is your first savings account goal, and it may take you a few months or even a year to achieve the amount needed to cover one months worth of your expenses. Plan to take a portion of every paycheck you earn and put it directly into a savings account. Then, budget the rest of your bill payments and everyday spending around the amount that is left over.

That sounds like a simple concept… right? So why are so many of us not managing our personal finances like this? One major reason is because we don’t discipline ourselves to cut unnecessary spending out of our everyday lives. You may have to make some sacrifices and drastically trim your lifestyle for a period of time to build your savings. Cut the cable, cook at home, host your kids birthday party in the backyard instead of shelling out $500 for sixty minutes of jumping and pathetic pizza at the trampoline park.

Breathe. It is okay that some weeks may be tighter than others. When you have added expenses or additional bills due, remind yourself that moving $10 to a savings account is still better than nothing. Please just move the ten dollars! Move it! Trust me, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you were in control and contributed to your future even when it’s a small amount. When paying a savings account, it needs to be an amount you can comfortably move and still be able to handle your other expenses. As time goes on, you’ll have other debts paid off and be able to save more. Eventually you’ll have two months worth of expenses saved, then three and four…

When we began this process, I remember there were times that I’d move money to various savings accounts, pay bills, and then text my husband, “We have $46 left over in the checking until your paycheck next Friday”. Now the reality was, we had ample amounts of money placed in various savings accounts in the event that something unforeseen came up before that next paycheck. However, our brains were ingrained with this crazy low amount of “$46”, and it prevented us from spending frivolously. So we took the kids to the park instead of the movies that week, prepared all our meals at home with food that was already in the pantry, and held off a little longer on that trip to Target for odds and ends.

Each week our savings accounts grew and we got financially stronger. We are about three years into our journey of taking control of our debt and living cash only, and I will be honest that we have just barely three months worth of basic monthly expenses set aside in an emergency account. Growing this account has been slow and steady, but had I thought a pandemic was going to occur… I probably would have added more to this emergency account and not tackled our other debts quite as aggressively.

The ability to have an income has been ripped away from so many Americans, and many of those that are still working are risking their health just for a paycheck. The harsh reality for our society is that an individual making $25,000 a year and a person making $100,000 a year have the same exact spending habits. We spend every dollar that we earn and put more than we should on credit cards. Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and we have accepted this as the norm. But here we are, and I wonder what our country would be like right now if every single one of us had trained ourselves to have an emergency account prepared to cover 3-6 months of our individual expenses? An added layer of stress would certainly be lifted for many of us. I can’t change the decisions of my past. I can only reflect and prepare better for the “what if’s” of the future.

Lisa became a client of the Credit Counseling Center three years ago, when she reached out to ask for help to take control of spending and credit card debt. Since then, she and her husband have successfully </i><i>developed a budget, established a savings account and emergency fund, and started a plan to pay off their debt. She is the mother of three and lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.