By LAURA MCMULLEN of NerdWallet
Inflation is a nightmare for many Americans who are already spending their money on basic necessities. What happens when those dollars lose value?
Their choice is probably not to cut streaming services or opt for private label groceries. Instead, they may have to choose between buying enough food and paying rent.
Families hardest hit by inflation usually have few savings and other resources. And that lack of access to wealth may be rooted in a history of inequality, says Phuong Luong, a Massachusetts-based certified financial planner and founder of Just Wealth, a financial education and consulting company.
For example, suppose generations of your family have been underpaid or restricted in where they can live, in part because of racist policies. Then inflation makes everything more expensive.
You may need to raise money to support not only yourself, but also members of your family or community. You may have to spend money and time to get to the grocery store or the doctor’s office.
“Your proximity to people with resources and people with wealth will be different depending on where you live and who you are,” Luong said. “There is a broader context than spending and budgeting.”
Whatever context describes your situation, here’s how to fight inflation if money is already tight.
PRIORITIZE THE ESSENTIALS
Aim to pay the expenses that allow you to live safely: housing (mortgage or rent), utilities and food. Also try to cover expenses that help you work, such as transportation, cell phone, and child care.
The next level priorities are those that trigger major consequences if you don’t pay: taxes, alimony, and insurance.
For credit cards, try to pay at least your minimum because you might need that access to credit.
TAP ON LOCAL RESOURCES
If you’re struggling to pay your bills, find help. Luong suggests Findhelp.org, which lists local programs designed to cut costs in many categories.
Calling 211 or visiting 211.org can also help you find help with housing, health, food, and emergency expenses.
PICK UP THE PHONE
You can also save money by calling credit card and insurance companies, lenders, banks, cell phone providers and other businesses you pay.
With the pandemic affecting so many consumers, these companies “are a little more empathetic than they have been,” says Emlen Miles-Mattingly, co-founder of Onyx Advisor Network, a support platform based in Sacramento, Calif. , for underrepresented financial advisors.
They can suspend or reduce payments, for example, or cancel overdue invoices. Or they could lower your interest rate.
But you have to ask. And often, a patient phone call with customer service yields faster, more efficient results than an email or online form.
CONNECT WITH YOUR COMMUNITY
To overcome financial difficulties, “the community is going to be major,” says Dasha Kennedy, an Atlanta-based financial activist and founder of Facebook community The Broke Black Girl.
Leaning on – or supporting – your family members, friends and neighbors can take many forms. For example, Kennedy points out how temporarily living with others can reduce housing expenses. Or you can pool your resources by sharing a vehicle or sharing a large expense.
To connect with supportive locals you haven’t met yet, check out libraries, religious organizations, and recreation centers. Or use virtual platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor.
In these in-person and online spaces, you can find free or low-cost goods and services. Maybe someone will donate second-hand clothes or walk your dog while you work.
Or ask for advice. Your neighbors can direct you to nearby free health resources, for example, or describe what has helped them get the most out of their money.
ENJOY YOUR SKILLS
Of course, making more money helps too. If you’re already working, Kennedy recommends first trying to increase your income through your employer. Consider working overtime or negotiating raises and role changes, she says.
Or explore secondary work – with caution. Many online gigs could waste your time, take your money or misuse your personal information.
“It’s high time for frauds and scams,” says Kennedy. Trust your instincts and read the reviews. Also check the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau websites for advice on avoiding scams.
The most effective way to earn money? “Monetize the skills you already have,” says Kennedy. These can include anything from cleaning and organizing to writing and designing.
Assuming you start without customers, she suggests reaching out to your community again.
“You may not have time to build trust and reputation, so you’ll have to rely on personal relationships,” she says. Ask your friends, neighbors and family members to promote and vouch for you.
BE CAREFUL OF YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Money struggles are exhausting. So regularly “connect with yourself,” says Miles-Mattingly. Identify what makes you feel better, whether it’s walking outside, calling a friend, meditating or reading.
If time is tight, make your activity fast and consider Miles-Mattingly’s point: “People, when stressed, don’t have the best decision-making skills.” And tough times mean tough decisions. It pays to feel centered before negotiating a lower bill or accepting side work.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed during times of financial stress, Kennedy tries not to think too much about the unpredictable future. Instead, she suggests “focusing on the day.”