How to Stretch Your Money During an Emergency

mother working while watching small child

As you’re hunkering down at home and self-isolating during COVID-19, you’re most likely trying to make your dollar stretch as far as possible. With the rapid shifts in our economy during this ever-evolving, unprecedented situation, you never know what might happen. If you recently experienced a job loss, a drastic cut in hours, or are simply erring on the side of caution, here’s how you can stretch your budget during an unexpected emergency:

Reassess Your Budget

To start, see where you can cut back. Now that you’re in self-isolation mode, it’s worth going through your list of expenses and seeing what you can cut back on or drop entirely. For example:

  • Hold or cancel gym subscriptions
  • Hold on haircuts
  • If your kids are being homeschooled or are out of school for the time being, the costs of childcare might drop
  • Costs of dog care or dog-walking might decrease
  • Now that you’re not eating out, consider ordering takeout less frequently
  • If you currently work from home and no longer commute or drive much, call your auto insurance carrier to see if you can reduce your monthly premiums because you aren’t using your car as much. You can also look into a pay-per-mile car insurance company.

On the flip side, there might be some spending areas that have increased, but there are still ways you can save on costs. For instance:

  • Do you need all those streaming video subscriptions, or is there only one you’re really using? Can you download movies for free from your library?
  • Do you need faster home internet speeds? Call your service provider and see if they can offer you a promotional discount, or a faster speed for the same price.
  • If you’re getting groceries delivered, compare different services that are available in your area. Look at the cost for a monthly subscription, shipping costs, and the minimum thresholds you need to meet to get free shipping.

These are just a handful of examples of how shifts in lifestyle could affect your spending. And how, in turn, you’ll need to make adjustments.

Next, see if you can cut back on non-essentials, such as spending on clothes, gadgets, and what-have-you. Now, you don’t have to cut back so drastically that you’re completely depriving yourself, but see if you can lower your spending here and there.

Take Advantage of Hardship Programs

In any emergency where your income suddenly drops, your top priority should be the health and safety of your family. You need to keep a roof over your head, you need food and essentials, and you need to ensure that your healthcare needs are met.

Secondary to that are things like debts and bills. Of course, some bills are more important than others, but the point remains that your basic human needs come first. Depending on the circumstances, however, lenders and service providers may be able to offer some assistance. Be sure to proactively reach out for help as soon as you know that your income is going to be reduced. A temporary deferment or hardship reduction can help a ton when you’re in-between income sources.

Don’t Panic Buy

One way you can help limit your expenses is to avoid panic buying. The shortage of certain supplies — toilet paper, flour, paper towels — stems, at least in part, from consumers overbuying. So unless you anticipate not resupplying for a long, long time, be cautious and buy only what you need for the immediate future. Remember that stores are still open and new products are still arriving every day.

If you do stock up, focus on purchasing low-cost food staples. These are groceries that can be shelved for an extended period. For instance, rice, beans, and canned goods. Or you can buy items that can sit in the freezer, such as frozen veggies and meat.

Avoid overloading on perishables. This might include fresh produce, dairy, and eggs. Otherwise, that food will spoil, and you’ll end up wasting money.

Shop Smart

Before you hit the grocery store, make sure you're shopping smart by minding a few simple tips. For instance, make a list of what you really need. Look inside your kitchen cupboards and fridge to see what you already have. I personally have discovered extra bags of flour and other key staples in my kitchen.

And if you buy something, have a plan for it. For instance, if you buy a large bag of carrots, come up with a handful of recipes that include carrots. That way, you don’t have sundry items sitting in your pantry or fridge that don’t have a purpose.

Other ways to shop smart? Meal prep and cook in bulk. That’ll help you save on the cost of groceries. You can also put on your creative hat and drum up culinary concoctions based on stuff you already have in your kitchen.

If you’re doing the majority of your grocery shopping online, you might want to shop less frequently to nix the delivery fees.

Go on a No-Spend Challenge

Because it might take more effort and a higher health risk to head to the store, consider thinking twice before making a purchase. Do you really need a specific item on your shopping list, or can it be crossed off or delayed? See if you can wait a week before you buy more groceries.

When online shopping, before you hit “add to cart” or “buy” button, go through that list and see what you might want to move to “save for later.” What’s more, look at the grand tally at checkout. If it’s more than you can afford to spend, take a few items out of your virtual shopping cart.

Staying afloat with limited income is an incredible challenge. If you need additional help getting your debt under control or understanding your mortgage options, MMI is here for you. 

Tagged in Coronavirus, Budget tips, Reducing expenses, Managing a loss of income

Jackie Lam - author photo

Jackie Lam is an L.A.-based personal finance writer who is passionate about helping creatives with their finances. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Mental Floss, Business Insider, and GOOD. She blogs at

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