Some grim (but not surprising) facts from a Pew Research Center survey:
Of non-retired U.S. adults, 51% believe the COVID-19 pandemic will make it at least somewhat harder to reach their financial goals.
About 1 in 4 (24%) of those aged 50 and older expect the pandemic to affect their ability to retire. That includes 17% who think they’ll have to delay retiring and 7% who already have put off retirement.
Even if you’re hanging in there despite the pandemic, it’s still a great time to take stock of your finances. And if you aren’t doing so well right now? It’s even more important to take a look at the bottom line.
Here are some atypical tactics that can help keep your retirement on track. Because we’re hoping you don’t need to hear how important it is to track your expenses and take advantage of catch-up contributions for the umpteenth time.
1. Stock up
Food Business News recently reported this about our groceries:
“With major grain, oilseed and edible oils prices at or near eight-year highs, crude oil prices six times the year-ago level, freight rates soaring and prices for materials (cardboard and aluminum, for example) and other input costs rising, can food price inflation be far behind? Not according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or many food manufacturing companies. If the expected post-pandemic demand surge develops, as many expect, price increases may be greater later this year and into 2022.”
That’s why you should buy as many shelf-stable groceries as you can at today’s prices. Even if all you can afford is one or two extra cans of tuna or boxes of pasta per shopping trip, you will slowly build a stockpile. If you’ve got pets, stock up on their food (and supplies) as well.
For tips on getting the best prices, see “15 Ways to Slash Your Grocery Bill You Probably Never Considered” and “8 Ways to Save Money on Pet Food.”
Think long-term in other ways, too. Suppose you’ll need new tires by the end of the year. Start looking for deals now.
Look at your birthday/holiday/special occasion gift list and start scouting for things to give. Specifically, for discounted things to give. Both garage sales and thrift shops can be excellent places to look. At a recent yard sale, I found a brand-new pair of ski gloves for my partner. They would have cost $60 or more at the sporting goods store. I paid $5.
Looking for the best prices and stocking up when you find them is a time-honored frugal hack. Use it all year, every year.
2. Join a Buy Nothing Facebook group
If there’s a Buy Nothing group on Facebook in your area, join it. These groups are similar to Freecycle but arranged by neighborhood rather than region. The idea is to “give where you live.”
The folks in my group have offered appliances (!), clothing, toys, baby items, gardening items, sports gear, craft supplies, books, furniture, decor and housewares. Some of the things I wind up receiving are in such great condition that they become birthday or holiday gifts – which can be a major budget boost when you’re trying to save for retirement.
The most pleasant surprise has been all the food we’ve gotten: pasta, milk, yogurt, spices, dry beans, cereal, rice, split peas, dried fruit, oatmeal, yeast, teabags, canned fruits, vegetables, soups, fish and meat. Sometimes people overbuy, and other times they try an item and find they don’t like it, so they give the rest away.
Not every group yields treasure, of course. But sometimes you don’t need riches — you just want a lamp, or some free books, or a new-to-you snow shovel.
Learn more in my article “Need Something? Buy Nothing!”
3. Learn to cook
This one can’t be overemphasized. The savings could be enormous if you cook even half the time.
And don’t say, “But I don’t know how to cook!” You didn’t know how to drive a car or use a smartphone, either, until you made it your business to learn. You can learn how to cook, too.
Search online for “easy recipes for [whatever you like to eat]” and dive in. If that sounds scary, look for online tutorials. Watch the videos a couple of times, then try it yourself. Make it a couples project or a family project. Invite friends over so you can all learn together.
Besides, slow cookers and Instant Pot multicookers make at-home meals pretty much foolproof. Tons of recipes online. Entire websites devoted to this. Seriously: You can do it!
4. Don’t deny – delay
You want to replace your aging (but still functional) smartphone. You wish you could trade in your 6-year-old car. You long to spend next Christmas someplace warm.
Or maybe your dreams are smaller: buying a cowboy hat, getting a kitten, picking up a new hobby.
You can probably do these things — just not yet.
To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with wanting things. Nonstop deprivation can lead to depression and sometimes to wild spending sprees. (“This has been a stressful year, so I’m giving my family a great Christmas!”)
But delaying your purchases gives your budget a little breathing room. You can beef up your retirement savings, emergency fund and liquid cash, and work on the stock-up idea mentioned earlier.
Think of it this way: You’re not denying yourself anything. You’re just picking your spots about when to buy.
5. Start using shopping apps
Apps like Ibotta and ShopKick make it possible to save money when you shop online. It takes very little effort, and the points you earn can be traded in for gift cards or cold, hard cash.
These apps are good for everyday necessities, too. I’ve saved big bucks on food, beverages and toiletries. Sometimes the items are free, and on a few glorious occasions, I wind up earning money on these things. The best part is when you pay for these items with gift cards that you earned from previous shopping trips. Score!
The Swagbucks app is another easy and fun way to earn points for gift cards or cash. A big chunk of my holiday shopping is paid for this way.
6. Take 20 minutes to save
Overhauling your finances and making savvy choices to keep them healthy can seem daunting. So, don’t do it all at once.
Instead, get in the habit of spending no more than 20 minutes at a time to look for budget boosters. A few big-ticket items to start with:
- Am I getting the best car insurance rate?
- I wonder if I could get a better deal on cellphone service?
- Why aren’t I using a rewards credit card?
- How much could I save if I cut the cable and went with streaming services?
Doing 20 minutes worth of research once or twice a week is a lot less onerous than trying to do everything in one night. This means you’re a lot less likely to quit.
7. Revive old talents (or learn some new ones)
Remember when you used to mow your own lawn, iron your own shirts, clean your own house and make minor repairs?
Question: Why did you stop doing those things? And how much is it costing you to hire them out?
It’s one thing to have serious back problems that make yard work impossible or to want to spend those few precious evening hours with your young children. But is there any reason you couldn’t, say, listen to a podcast or audiobook while you iron five shirts for the workweek?
If you don’t know how to do these things, or if your skills are a little rusty, the internet abounds with articles and step-by-step videos. For example, a lot of us didn’t grow up learning how to sew, so watching a YouTube video on “how to sew on a button” or “how to make an invisible repair” means clothing lasts longer. That’s a big money-saver.
You’ll be surprised how simple it is to do a quick drywall patch, plant a container garden or groom a goldendoodle. And you’ll be delighted by the budget boost. As the savings add up, move some of that money to your retirement account to ensure the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t derail your future plans.
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