These are strange times. Income can disappear, of course, anytime. Even regular, predictable, stable-seeming income. But that’s usually an individual or regional phenomenon. This is a strange time in that, for many people, in many places, all at once, sources of income are gone.
It is a dark and difficult thing to go through.
My income is not drastically affected right now.
But we have—as a family—lived through this situation in other times. Not too long ago. Lately enough to remember the pain and anxiety fresh and raw. (One journal entry from that time: “We have $30 in our account. We ate rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”) I also used to do a lot of writing work for finance companies (ironic, I know) so I’ve learned a bit about how some things work… not exactly insider/expert knowledge, but stuff that is often not common knowledge.
The list below is not exhaustive or conclusive in any way and of course it’s not meant to be legal advice or even financial advice; it’s simply some stuff I learned which was helpful. Maybe some will be helpful for anyone who is facing a reduced or disappeared income right now.
1. We have a lot of meaning tied to our money. Meaning creates emotions. So we have a lot of emotions tied to our money. Having emotions about money doesn’t make you a bad person or mean you’re materialistic or greedy, or that anything is wrong with you.
2. It’s common to feel ashamed, embarrassed, or even guilty when you don’t have enough money. Even if, logically, you can trace the cause of “not enough” and you know it’s out of your control. Even if, logically, you know it’s not your fault. Those feelings are powerful and can be debilitating. It can really help to put words to these feelings, get them out of your head. Say them out loud: to yourself, to a partner or a trusted friend. Or write them down. When they stay in your head, they get bigger and louder. When you get them out of you—spoken or written—it’s easier to see what these feelings are and let them go.
3. Get one priority in place before you look at the bills: your basic needs and the needs of your family. Shelter, work materials, clothing, medicine, personal care needs, adequate food, other daily necessities. The stuff of life: enough of it, too. No matter how many bills you have, or how overdue they might be, keeping your needs met is more important than paying the bills.
4. Prioritize your bills in a way that makes sense to you. For us, it was on a scale of personal impact. I focused on paying people—individuals—over organizations or corporations. I figured the corporations could do without my payment a little longer than an individual could.
5. Come to terms with not getting all the bills paid. It doesn’t feel good. Not feeling good about not paying your bills is actually great. It means you’re someone who takes responsibility. But sometimes, no matter how responsible you are, you don’t have the money when you need the money. This lack doesn’t define your character. Let’s repeat that together: this time of lack does not define your character.
6. Limit your decision making to the present and near future. Trying to plan for any further out will make your head spin. You don’t know what good things can happen for you. You don’t know the possibilities until they unfold. When you’re stressed, you’re likely to imagine negative things, worse situations, downward spirals. Stay in the present and the immediate future with decisions. You’ll deal with the rest as it comes to you, and you don’t know what your situation might be then.
7. Get information about your options. During this time, there are a number of assistance promises for small business owners, etc. Find out if you qualify. Find out how to get them. Ask questions. Don’t give up on yourself. Advocate for yourself the way you would for your child or partner or best friend.
8. Remember that everything is negotiable. Everything is negotiable. You can set up payment plans. You can defer payments. You can make partial payments. You can negotiate amounts and interest rates and due dates.
9. A bit of info about credit cards: if you default on a credit card long enough, it will go to collections. At this point, the credit card company will sell your debt to a collection agency. The collection agency will pay a tiny percentage of the actual debt. They want to collect just a little more money than what they paid. They will call you incessantly: block the numbers. They will mail you letters. Great. That’s what you want. They will often include vaguely threatening wording in the letters. They will also make offers: “Pay this (slightly reduced) amount and we’ll call it even.” Let them keep making offers. The offers will get lower and lower. They probably paid 2% to 5% of the total debt. They will most likely keep making offers all the way down to about 10% of the initial debt. You can either let them keep sending letters and making offers, or you can call the collection agency and make your own offer, when you’re ready.
10. When you want to negotiate, do not take “No” from the first person you talk to. You will almost certainly not be talking to someone with the authority to make a significant decision until you are three or four people up the chain. When you get a No, a “We can’t do that,” or “It’s against our policy,” respond with something like: “Okay, I understand that you are not able to make the decision I need made. Please transfer me to your supervisor or someone who has the authority in this area.” Keep at it until you get someone who can do what needs to be done. THERE IS ALWAYS SOMEONE WITH THE AUTHORITY TO MAKE THE DECISION. Don’t give up until you get to that person.
11. Your credit score will suffer when you don’t pay bills. Your credit score can also recover. There may be some measures in place right now to help protect people’s credit scores from being damaged. I don’t know, but it’s worth checking. Most of all, though, it’s good to know that your credit score is not your entire financial identity. And—even if it gets bad—it can get better.
12. When you can, communicate. If you know you’ll only be able to pay half your rent, go ahead and let your landlord know as soon as you can. It helps them to make better decisions. It also reduces the shock effect, which is mostly negative in this type of situation. You’re all on the same team: they want to get paid, and you want to pay them. Remember that, and try to communicate in language of “We’re solving this problem together” rather than “I’m so sorry I am creating this problem.”
13. Let some trusted people know what’s going on and what you’re dealing with. This is something I didn’t learn until later, and it caused a lot of pain in a lot of ways. It’s all great being a self-sufficient over-achiever, until you’re in over your head and you don’t know how to say that you need help. There is no shame in needing help. There is love and support available for you. More people understand this pain than you might think. Sure, your friends may not be able to solve it or fix it, but they can understand and love you and help you see that you are more than your current situation.
14. Parents: it’s okay that you can’t give your kids what you normally are able to give them. It’s okay that you are stressed. It’s okay that you don’t want to answer all the questions. It’s okay that your kids will have to do with a little less. It’s okay and you’re okay and your kid is going to be okay, too. Communicating with your kids is helpful, depending on their ages/ability to understand. Help them be part of the problem-solving, if possible. They know that things are weird; they feel out of control, too. If you can, let them in on the situation (to the degree that feels right for you and them) and either tell them how they can help (for younger kids especially) or even ask them (for older kids mostly) for input and ideas. Sometimes our kids aren’t as weighed down with all the limitations and rules and hangups we have with money, and they can come up with some pretty creative solutions we totally missed.
15. Bring out the barter and trade economy. Make offers. Let people know you’ll accept offers.
16. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to work through a list of what you can’t pay or afford. Instead, try making a list of the necessities and go up from there as you are able to.
17. Take care of yourself. No, for real: rest. Take care of yourself.
18. When good comes to you, accept it. When gifts come, receive them. When people ask, “How are you doing?” or “How can we help?”… let them know. No, you don’t have to give them a full rundown on your situation. You can let them know that your finances are tight. If they want to help, let them. What goes around, comes around. Don’t deny someone the opportunity to build up karmic credit for their own future.
Be good, Do good, and Receive good. We are all in this together, truly.
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of Nick Owuor.