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Many people started 2020 feeling good — even great — about their finances. There’s always a sense of optimism at the beginning of the year, with endless possibilities for what we can all achieve.
But of course COVID-19 changed everything in completely unexpected ways. As pandemic restrictions locked down the country and many industries shut down all together, everyone was hit in different and unique ways, including millennials. As some of the youngest employees of companies, they became easy targets for layoffs, and their age makes them less likely to have robust savings to help them through a crisis.
Among the millions of people whose lives and careers will forever be changed by COVID-19, we wanted to bring you a few stories that highlight the pain, uncertainty, and the ingenuity of these workers. Thanks to a combination of smart money moves, emergency funds, and career changes, these four millennials were able to pivot their financial lives during this tumultuous year.
- Who: 30-year-old living in Atlanta, Georgia
- Pre-pandemic job: Engineering project manager
- Post-pandemic job: Pastry cook
“I was well prepared for emergencies, thanks to a wake-up call in 2018,” says Nasiera Foflonker, who said the government furlough that lasted 35 days made her realize it was time to get serious about her emergency fund. By 2020, she had roughly six months’ worth of expenses saved.
Then things started to go sideways. Right before quarantine, Foflonker’s roommate moved out of the condo she owns in Atlanta. And Foflonker, who worked in the airline industry, had her hours cut by 25%.
“I was definitely worried about whether I would have a job or not by the end of the year,” says Foflonker. But an opportunity came up. The airline she worked for offered retirement and voluntary separation packages to help reduce the workforce and to avoid involuntary layoffs. Foflonker took the package, hoping the severance and other benefits would tide her over until she found a new job. At the same time, she got serious about reducing her expenses.
Major Money Move: Reduce her cost of living
“Before I made the decision, I knew I had to reduce my expenses as much as possible to make the severance last,” says Foflonker. “I ended up moving out of my expensive condo in the city, and rented it out, fully covering my mortgage. I moved into a house I share with two roommates in the ‘burbs, which really reduced my rent and utilities.”
Combined with the natural decrease in other lifestyle activities like travel, eating out, and shopping, Foflonker was confident her decision would leave her with plenty of financial runway. “After leaving my Project Management job, I decided to use my free time to pursue one of my passions: baking!” says Foflonker. “I started baking a lot at home, like many people during quarantine, and built up a portfolio of pictures and experience.”
This experiment sparked an interest in pursuing it professionally. Foflonker found a mentor in her new industry who helped her assess the most strategic and cost-effective way to build her new skill set.
Lesson Learned: Invest slowly into career pivots
Her mentor advised her to get a job before pursuing culinary school (which costs thousands of dollars) to see if she liked the work. “When I saw an online job posting for a Pastry Cook at one of my favorite restaurants, I applied in person, a foreign concept for a former engineer, and showed the Executive Pastry Chef some of my baking photos,” says Foflonker. “She was really intrigued by my story and my passion and gave me the job!”
After nearly three months of being unemployed, she’s working again, now in an industry that fuels her creativity and passion. Her reduced monthly expenses make it easier to handle the pay cut that came with her career pivot — and renting out her condo covers the mortgage of the property she still owns.
- Who: 32-year-old living in Chattanooga, Tennessee
- Pre-pandemic occupation: Restaurant general manager
- Post-pandemic job: Self-employed technician/handyman and insurance sales
Doug Silvera and his family finally felt in control of their finances coming into 2020. Silvera’s efforts to track expenses and implement a family budget had broken them out of a paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
“We had a tidy little rainy day fund, had been making regular payments into a retirement account and were primed to take on the last of our remaining consumer debt from our 20s,” says Silvera, who is the sole earner for his family.
When the pandemic hit, Silvera’s income and bonuses from his management position instantly vanished. He was also dealing with a lingering, non-COVID, illness from December 2019 and felt that returning to a public-facing industry wasn’t the right move. And when his health did improve, those higher-paying management positions were in short supply.
Major Money Move: Selling off items and starting a side hustle
“The pandemic sent us into liquidation and saving mode. We drained savings accounts, took advantage of the exemptions provided for IRA distributions, and even sold some of our larger assets like cars, large unused furniture items, TVs, etc.” explains Silvera. “All of that was to give us a buffer so we could make a career pivot that would match our needs without having to defer creditor and mortgage payments and be left with a huge tab when those deferments would run out.”
At first, Silvera relied on his side hobby of vehicle restoration to supplement his missing income, but the jobs were time-intensive and required personal money invested upfront before getting reimbursed by clients. The family’s liquidation strategy and his side hustle gave him time to be selective with the next step as he pivoted into another field he felt better matched his family’s needs and financial goals.
Lesson Learned: Be conservative with your spending
“We scrutinize everything, we evaluate the needs of every transaction, and our first goal once I start this career in sales is to rebuild our safety net,” says Silvera. “It has just shown us the worth of the conservative strategy and we are doubling down on that to prepare for whatever the next ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ crisis may be.”
- Who: 36-year-old living in Southern California
- Pre-pandemic job: Training manager at a software company
- Post-pandemic job: Corporate Trainer
“Prior to the pandemic, I was starting to feel really good about our family finances. I’d been in a high-wage job for a couple of years and made sure to keep lifestyle creep at bay,” says April Lokar, who felt she and her husband were on the way to purchasing a home by the fall of 2020.
The couple still had student loans, but his job as an assistant college basketball coach allowed the family to avoid childcare expenses. In late 2019, Lokar had started working as a training manager for a software company and was the family’s primary source of income.
When the pandemic hit, the company preemptively cut headcount and Lokar was one of the employees let go. But it wasn’t her first time experiencing a layoff, and Lokar felt prepared. She immediately filed for unemployment and was able to receive severance at the same time. The family also had a solid, six-month emergency savings fund.
“That meant I didn’t need to rush and find the first job that would hire me,” says Lokar, who also relied on the additional $600 a week unemployment benefits from the CARES Act to give her some breathing room. But she still got aggressive with her job hunt and applied to over 100 jobs in the first month of unemployment.
Major Money Move: Cutting spending and slowing down
“Pandemic unemployment felt like my chance to take some time, think about what I was doing, and actually start something of my own,” says Lokar, who was able to keep the family’s emergency fund intact thanks to unemployment benefits and by cutting daily expenses.
Despite appreciating the chance to reassess her work life, she did end up accepting a job that paid less than her pre-pandemic job. She is dedicated to spending time each week on her side business and the family has extended their homeownership timeline to begin looking to buy in late 2021.
Lesson Learned: Look out for your future self
“The most important financial lesson we learned during the pandemic is that planning for the worst-case scenario won’t always keep bad things from happening, but it drastically reduces the stress during an emergency. If we didn’t have a fully funded emergency fund pre-pandemic, we would have been extremely stressed out due to my loss of employment. As far as planning for the future, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of looking for a home within a comfortable budget, not stretching to buy as much house as we possibly can.”
- Who: 25-year-old living in Sarasota, Florida
- Pre-pandemic job: Actor
- Post-pandemic job: Financial coach
“I felt really good about where I was financially before the pandemic,” says Brooke Benson. “I finally had a really great system for managing my money as a freelancer and on track to max out my Roth IRA for the first time ever. I had a fully funded emergency fund as well as an off-contract buffer for those periods in-between gigs without work.”
Benson was performing in a show when the pandemic hit, resulting in her and the entire cast — and the theater industry as a whole — to shut down.
Major Money Move: Starting a “Survive 2020” fund
“Since my degree is in Theatre Arts and almost all of my experience was on stage, the job search was extremely difficult, especially emotionally,” says Benson. “With so many others out of work as well, it felt like yelling into the void. This was taking a toll on my mental health, so I decided to grow my side hustle (Not Starving Artists) into my main source of income instead, which is blogging and financial coaching.”
Prior to the shutdown, Benson joined the union Actors’ Equity Association and had plans to move to New York City in April. After COVID-19 hit, she moved in with her partner in Florida to reduce living costs and applied for unemployment. Benson saved her extra $600 a week to prepare for the eventual end of unemployment benefits and created a “Survive 2020” fund to help her survive without a job until her industry re-opens.
Lesson Learned: Certain expenses are worth the money
Her unexpected move ended up causing a surprising pain point. “About two months into the pandemic, my partner and I realized our roommate was not being as cautious as we were, and our safety was threatened,” says Benson. “We decided to take the financial hit and move into our own place before our lease was up, and it was the best decision we have made all year. We are paying more, but we also feel more safe, more calm, and have more privacy.”