Those articles about how you can save for retirement while you’re unemployed are pretty frustrating, aren’t they? You have no income! What’s the point of opening a self-employed retirement account or Roth IRA when you’re dipping into your savings to buy groceries?
There actually is a point. You can take various steps with your finances during the free time you have while you’re unemployed, steps you might not have had the time or the energy to deal with while you were working. Do these things now, and you’ll minimize the damage to your finances that being unemployed can cause. You’ll also put yourself in the best possible position to start saving for retirement again once you’re back on the job.
Rethink Your Budget
Rethinking your budget (or creating one, if you haven’t yet done so) is an essential step to dealing with unemployment. But the new budget you create now can also help you save faster when you get employed again. Remove expenses you can live without, then plan to make only incremental increases once you’re working again.
For example, say you completely cut out shopping at an upscale grocery store while you’re unemployed and start shopping exclusively at a low-budget one instead. You might be able to cut your food spending in half. If you choose to stick to your new grocery shopping when you start working again—or if you only allow yourself to visit the fancy store at the end of the month if you still have money in your grocery budget—you’ll be creating an important new habit that will help you long term.
Look to make significant changes like this in every area of your budget, especially housing, which is most people’s biggest expense. Strive to cut every spending category in half. That’s a big goal that will require creative thinking and sacrifice, but it might alleviate enough financial stress to be worth your trouble.
Maximize Your Savings
If you have money in a savings account, how much interest is it earning? Let’s say you have $1,000 at one of the big banks that’s paying 0.01% APY. That’s virtually the same as earning no interest, which means your $1,000 is shrinking every year because of inflation. You can do better.
Use a website that shows which banks are paying the highest interest rates on savings accounts. In today’s market you can easily find options that will pay as much as 1.2 percent. While that’s still less than inflation, which increases the cost of goods and services by two to three percent per year, it means your $1,000 earns $12 of interest each year instead of $1.
No, $11 won’t save your retirement, but it will buy you five pounds of pasta and five jars of tomato sauce to eat for dinner. More important, using some of your free time while you’re not working to put your savings in a better place will serve you well when you’re back to work and able to increase your savings. Every little bit helps.
Don’t Raid Your Retirement Accounts
Not having money to put into a retirement account hurts, but undoing the progress you’ve already worked so hard for will hurt much more. Depending on the type of account, your age and the plan’s rules, you may have to pay taxes and penalties on any withdrawals, which will set you back considerably. But if you leave the money in the account, you can keep it invested and growing. And, yes, that money should stay invested even if the stock market is currently slumping—it will turn around eventually.
Optimize Your Portfolio
A period of unemployment is a great time to optimize your retirement investments. You might want to roll your 401(k) or other retirement plan from your former employer into a Roth IRA. Any good brokerage can guide you through the process, so you don’t make any mistakes that could incur taxes or penalties. Why consider a rollover? It can give you access to lower investment fees and more investment choices than the limited options in your employer’s plan did.
Regardless of where you’re going to park your existing retirement savings, take time to make sure you’re paying the lowest possible fees. Also, adjust your asset allocation if your portfolio isn’t properly diversified. All you really need is an S&P 500 index fund or an SPDR S&P 500 exchange-traded fund and a U.S. bond fund, each with a rock-bottom expense ratio around 0.05 percent. People who are more comfortable with investing might choose to further diversify with a small-cap fund, corporate bond fund and international fund.
The younger you are—and the more risk you feel comfortable handling—the more you should allocate to stocks. If you’re not sure what to do, go for 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds or 50 percent stocks and 50 percent bonds. When you’ve got money coming in again, you’ll already have everything set up, and you’ll just need to channel your income into your new funds.
Write Down Your Recovery Plan
Don’t wait until you have a job again to figure out how you’ll get your retirement savings back on track. You’ll be overwhelmed with learning the ropes, meeting new people and adjusting to a new routine. Make a plan now for how you’ll manage your money when you’re employed again.
Plan to max out retirement savings to both an IRA and the employer-sponsored plan to which you’ll hopefully have access. Vow to replenish your emergency fund with three to six months’ worth of essential expenses. Choose to accelerate debt payments if you did something like defer your student loans or make only the minimum monthly payments on your credit card while unemployed.
Further, open a Traditional IRA, Roth IRA or self-employed 401(k), if you don’t have one already. It might seem silly to open an account to which you can’t contribute. But by doing it now, when you have plenty of free time to figure out where you want to open the account and fill out the forms, you’ll be ready to go when you can afford to to put funds in it.
Start a Side Hustle
Let’s say you’re in a best-case unemployment scenario: You have enough in your emergency fund and maybe even a severance package to help you get by. You’re able to meet all your essential expenses.
If you can get any kind of work at all, you can funnel all that income into a retirement savings account. Even an extra $1,000 now can grow to a significant sum over time: Over 20 years it will turn into about $2,200 in a tax-deferred account that earns an average of six percent annually. Can you freelance? Tutor? Consult? Even if you’re not in the best place, you may be able to put a little aside for retirement from your side jobs.
Being unemployed stinks. It’s demoralizing, boring, exhausting and frustrating. It can set back your career and finances, and force you to rethink all your big plans. So take a positive step. Do everything you can to maximize the financial situation you’re in now and plan for a more financially comfortable future.
As soon as you get that new job, you’ll be in an ideal position to regain your lost ground. In fact, you’ll be in a better position than people who’ve been working all along but have never seriously examined their finances or their retirement accounts.