This is an unprecedented time in our history that is hitting American families and businesses hard. Understanding how to navigate these uncertain times (particularly when it comes to your money) is important. 

What to Budget During a Crisis

This is an unprecedented time in our history that is hitting American families and businesses hard. Understanding how to navigate these uncertain times (particularly when it comes to your money) is important. 

Whether you are out of work, worried about job loss or worried about your struggling business during the coronavirus outbreak, learning to budget your money wisely is crucial to lowering your stress and anxiety about making ends meet. Once you do so, you may find you have more money to spare than you had previously thought.

One thing to also keep in mind is that the federal government has just passed a large stimulus package to help struggling Americans during this time. Some families could see upward of $2,900 or more coming in the mail come April or May, depending on their income and the number of people in their household. Not to mention, the added unemployment benefits that are also to come.

Budgeting this money, as well as the money you currently have in your bank account, needs to be done wisely. Here are some things to consider as you budget in this current crisis.

Top 5 Things to Budget for in a Crisis 

According to most financial experts, there are four essential things you should have in your budget. We’ve also added a fifth expense to consider: health.

Grocery Shopping in a Crisis

  1. Food
    Nothing else really matters if you don’t have food on the table. Here are some helpful tips for budgeting for food:

    • Try to plan out simple meals ahead of time, so you’ll know exactly what to buy at the store. Wandering around without a set shopping list makes it harder to keep the total amount in check. 
    • Now is a great time to choose generic brands over name brands. Most generic brands use the same ingredients as leading brands, so the taste is often similar if not the same. 
    • Buy fresh produce. Even though it’s tempting to stock up on canned and packaged food, don’t forget to add fresh produce to the mix, as well; taking care of your immune system and overall health is especially important when stress levels are higher than normal. 
    • Avoid eating out or at least limit how often, as it’s an unnecessary expense that can drain your budget during crisis mode. 

    Also remember to shop safely and sanitize the packaging of your items when you return from the store. Here is a helpful video for how to unpackage your groceries safely and bring home take-out food cautiously to prevent the spread of the virus in your home. 

  2. Utilities
    When it comes to your utilities, you want to pay for only the basic necessities right now. Typically, that includes:

    • Electricity
    • Gas
    • Water

    Cut back on unnecessary extras like gym memberships, online shopping or anything else that isn’t absolutely essential. 

    You’d be amazed at how much you can save simply by cutting out these expenses, and remember that this is just temporary. Once the crisis is passed and life is back to normal, you might even realize that you didn’t miss that magazine subscription and you can put more money back in your wallet.  

  3. Shelter
    Keep that roof over your head! Cutting back on nonessential costs in your budget will free up more money for housing. You do not want your rent or mortgage payment to be last on the priority list. Eliminate as many unnecessary expenses as needed in order to make these payments.

    However, if you’re still struggling to pay rent due to loss of or reduced income, you may be protected from eviction in national and global crises like the one we’re facing now with COVID-19. Check with your landlord or local government’s website. 

    If you’re a homeowner, you may be able to refinance your home loan if mortgage rates are low. There are a lot of factors that should be considered before making this kind of decision, as the state of the economy after a national or global crisis is hard to predict. Consulting a reliable financial advisor may be a practical next step if you’re considering this option. 

    Many banks are also allowing homeowners to delay mortgage payments for up to 90 days. Be sure to check the details, but this could be a key advantage in getting through the next few months.

  4. Transportation
    Now is not the time to lease the latest “bells and whistles” sports car or pick-up truck with lousy gas mileage. If you have reliable transportation, especially if you own it, stick with what you have. Also consider local public transportation if you’re looking for something even more cost-effective. 

    If transportation costs are not a major concern for you, Uber or Lyft could be viable options depending on your situation, though not necessarily the most inexpensive. Keep in mind that some people are trying to make ends meet by driving for these companies, so using their services could help them pay rent or their monthly grocery bill.

    Just remember to practice safe social distancing and use hand sanitizer after touching door handles or seat belts others have likely touched, as well. 

  5. Health
    We’ve included a fifth essential budget piece – health (which includes dental, as well).

    While having a health and dental plan in place during something like this is especially helpful, it’s also important to set aside some money for unexpected health and dental expenses, like doctor and hospital visits or dental emergencies.

    One great way to cut down on those doctor and hospital costs is to purchase a telemedicine service like DialCare.

If you still have money left after covering these five essentials, start paying off other bills in order of importance. 

What Should You Stop Spending Money On?

While everyone’s budget is different and each family has different priorities and needs (beyond the five essentials listed above), you’ll need to evaluate your budget and decide for yourself what is a priority and what you can cut temporarily. 

Below are a few ideas to help you cut out some extra expenses from your budget:

  1. Extra Debt Payments
    While many financial experts recommend spending more than the minimum payment on your debt most months, a crisis is no time to spend additional money on these debts. You need to take care of the essentials first. 

    Some debt can even be deferred for a short time in the midst of a crisis (like student loan debt). You’ll need to research this to understand the parameters of deferring payments.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that some credit card companies may take advantage of crises like what we’re experiencing with COVID-19. Interest rates will likely be sky-high, but they will use techniques to make their offers sound appealing. While this may provide temporary relief, the long-term consequences could be devastating.

  2. Cut Unnecessary Expenses from Your Budget

    • Cable
    • Large cell phone data plan
    • Magazine subscriptions
    • Mobile apps with monthly fees

    When you call to cancel any of these services, first ask if they can help you in any way – deferring payment, dropping to a different service package that is cheaper, etc. You can always add these services back when you get through this crisis.

How Can You Earn Money in the Midst of a Crisis?

  1. Sell Stuff
    Look through your things at home and see if there is anything you can sell to make some extra cash. There are some great sites you can use to sell these items, like Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, Craigslist, etc.

    Odds are, other people will be budgeting like you and decide these marketplaces are better for them to find used furnishings and clothing at a more affordable price.

  2. Get a Temporary Job
    There are a lot of jobs in demand right now due to COVID-19. Most of these are essential services that have seen a large bump in demand with everyone at home. This includes:

    • Working for Amazon to deliver packages
    • Picking up takeout food for Postmates, Ubereats, or Doordash
    • Dropping off grocery orders with Shipt
    • And more…

Should I Use My Emergency Fund?

A good budgeter will have an emergency fund set up and in place for a time like this. But is it something you should use just yet?

While you should budget for seasonal, expected events that come about throughout the year (i.e. Christmas, routine doctor visits, back-to-school shopping), there are some things you can’t budget for, which is what your emergency fund can help with. This includes: 

  • Job loss
  • Pay cut or fewer hours
  • Storm damage to your home
  • Unexpected car repairs
  • Emergency dental and medical expenses
  • Need of reliable transportation
  • Higher tax bill
  • Unexpected travel for family crisis
  • Immediate home repairs like a broken AC
  • Sudden, out-of-state move


We will get through this crisis. And when we do, we all may have developed some healthy habits we’re thankful for, like budgeting our money more effectively, extra time spent with our families and time catching up with friends. 

We hope this was helpful for you and that you are able to budget well during this season.

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