While Congress and the White House are stalled in negotiations over more stimulus checks and additional unemployment relief, most Americans are feeling more cash-strapped than ever.
But before you let your financial situation overwhelm you, know that there are some mental tricks to help you manage your money during this time.
CNBC Select spoke to Mariel Beasley of Duke University’s Common Cents Lab, a behavior science lab focused on the financial well-being of low income people, for advice on how financially strained families can organize their spending during this economic crisis.
Below, Beasley shares her top three budgeting strategies for managing cash shortfalls.
1. Use “mental accounting”
If you’re tight on money, it’s important to be disciplined about how you spend. To make it easier, Beasley suggests using “mental accounting” to label and physically separate your money. This way, you can prioritize how you’re spending your limited money and cut back in areas that are not as important.
“This strategy will help you stick to your spending plan by reminding you of your opportunity costs — i.e. what trade-offs you might be making with each purchase,” Beasley tells CNBC Select.
To start, Beasley recommends trying this method with at least these three different accounts:
- Your bills: This category includes monthly bills that are non-negotiable high-priority expenses, including rent or mortgage, utilities, child care, car payments, insurance, phone and internet.
- Your current expenses: This is the spending that you plan to do within the week. These costs vary but include things like groceries, gas, food delivery and any other miscellaneous expenses.
- Your future expenses: This is cash you set aside for later use and might include retirement savings or an emergency fund. It includes any money that’s left over after covering the cost of your bills and current expenses. Consider depositing the cash for your emergency fund into a high-yield savings account that earns you over 16X more money than the national average. Some of the best high-yield savings accounts have no monthly fees and no minimum deposits or balances, like the Ally Online Savings Account, the Synchrony Bank High Yield Savings and the Varo Savings Account.
2. Budget your cash outflow vs. your cash inflow
Instead of building a monthly budget based on the cash you have coming in — whether you’re getting a regular paycheck, collecting unemployment or some other form of government benefits (such as social security) — think more about your money on a per-spend basis, Beasley says.
For example, first decide how many times you need to go grocery shopping between paychecks and then budget for the trip, not for the month.
“So, instead of budgeting $200 for groceries for the month, decide how many times you’ll go to the supermarket during the month (5 times) and then adhere to a per trip budget ($40),” Beasley says. “This helps us stretch that budget category longer between paychecks.”
3. Plan ahead
It’s easier to cope with the worsening financial circumstances by planning ahead. Instead of waiting for the worst to happen, act now to soften the impact the pandemic is having on your finances.
“Don’t wait until your cash runs out to find ways to meet your needs,” Beasley says.
Consider applying for government assistance programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid and HEAP (heating your home), or look into how local organizations, such as churches and charities, are helping, whether it’s providing assistance with the job hunt or offering food donations.
“Identify local programs or check with your local food pantry before you get to the point where you can no longer purchase groceries,” Beasley says.
City and state government websites often have links to local resources. To search for the nearest food bank near you, visit Feeding America, which is a nationwide network of food banks.
If you’re worried about affording your rent or mortgage, have a clear plan for dealing with the worst-case scenario, whether that’s reaching out to family and/or friends for help, renting a room out in your home to make extra income or seeking out financial assistance from your mortgage broker. It’s also important to understand your tenant’s rights if you’re concerned about eviction.
If you’re struggling to pay your credit card bill, contact your creditors to see if you qualify for a reduced interest rate on any of your payments, ask for discounts and deferment options. Many card issuers are offering financial hardship assistance during the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s worth going back to them to see what continued help they can offer.
“Think of these as ways to supplement your cash to help your own cash last longer,” Beasley says.
Learn more: CNBC Select’s 5-step guide to creating a budget
Information about Ally Online Savings Account, Synchrony Bank High Yield Savings, and Varo Savings Account has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the bank prior to publication.
Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.