Questions About Job Losses, Health Insurance, Journaling, Gym Memberships and More

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Stretching food
2. Cancel gym membership?
3. Filing taxes, now or later?
4. First steps after losing job
5. Great time to start journaling
6. Health insurance lost; now what?
7. Real estate investment time?
8. Homeschooling or nothing?
9. Selling used stuff is impossible!
10. Move toward prepping?
11. Don’t listen to MLM pitches
12. Please support local businesses!

During these incredibly uncertain times, my approach has been to take things one day at a time and appreciate what that day gives me. It is giving me time with my kids. It is giving me time with my wife. It is giving me beautiful morning sunshine. It is giving me lots of conversations with my parents.

I am holding onto and appreciating these things as much as possible because, more than ever, it’s clear to me how fragile those things can be.

Appreciate the good that each day gives you.

On with the questions.

Q1: Stretching food

We are trying to stretch food as much as we can so that we don’t have to go to the grocery store often. We don’t have a car so we walk to the store and back and try to fill up our two backpacks.
– James

What you’re looking for are foods that don’t take up a lot of space when you bring them home from the store and expand into a lot of food at home. What you really want is dry stuff, since you don’t want space in your backpacks to be taken up by water, since you can hydrate stuff at home.

You want to buy things like dry rice, dry beans, barley, quinoa, flour, yeast, dry soup mixes and so on. For example, rather than buying a couple of loaves of bread, buy two bags of bread flour, a bag of sugar and a container of yeast. You’ll be able to make eight or ten loaves of bread from that while it takes up about as much space as two loaves in your backpack.

Given this, I’d start by asking myself what I can make at home that I would like using dried beans, grains, flour, pasta and such. What seasonings turn those things into meals I like? Accompany those things with fresh produce as needed.

This will mean a fairly heavy walk home, but you’ll have enough food to last a long while. The key is to just minimize the amount of water you’re carrying. Choose dry beans over canned beans. Choose flour over bread. Choose denser things with minimal water content, because you can add water at home.

Q2: Cancel gym membership?

My local gym has been closed for about 2 weeks. I was about to cancel online but they sent out a message saying all memberships were “paused” until the gym reopens so no one is getting charged. Still considering canceling. I use it in fits and starts and have about 3 weeks paid for out of last month.
– Anna

Given that the membership is paused right now, it makes no direct financial difference to you at the moment, nor does it matter to the bank. What matters is the impact in terms of what will happen when the gym reopens.

If you intend to go back and use the gym regularly when it reopens (assuming it reopens when it’s perfectly safe), then there’s no reason to cancel it. If you’re not sure, and you didn’t have a history of using it enough to make it worthwhile, I’d cancel it now while you’re thinking about it.

On the other hand, if you don’t cancel it right away, it will just become something you put off and likely forget about, one of those subscriptions that you’re annoyed with yourself for not canceling when it automatically renews. My usual approach is that if there’s a membership or subscription that I’m not using at all for a while, I should cancel it.

So, my feeling is that unless you’re dead certain you’re going to return as a regular user when the gym reopens, I’d cancel the membership now. You can always reopen your membership there or at another gym when things return to normal. I don’t know how often you used the gym in the past and whether you’re finding new fitness routines right now, so I can’t really answer that question for you.

Q3: Filing taxes, now or later?

Am I better off filing taxes ASAP or waiting until the July deadline?
– Brian

If you’re receiving a refund, I would file as soon as possible. If you’re paying in, I would wait for as long as possible.

The reason is simple. The earlier you get your refund, the earlier you can put that money to work for you in whatever way makes sense in your life. Even if you just stick it in a savings account, it’s at least earning a little interest for you.

On the other hand, if you’re paying in, holding onto that money for as long as possible is probably good for you. Again, even if it’s just sitting in a savings account, it’s earning a little interest for you.

Time your return so that the money is in your hands for as long as possible. If you’re getting a return, file ASAP. If you’re paying in, file later. It’s that easy!

Q4: First steps after losing job

The furniture store where I worked closed a few weeks ago. The boss gave us all some cash and told us that he’d bring us all back when he reopened but he just called all of us and said the shop is going to go out of business. Don’t even know where to start.
– Julie

The absolute first thing you should do is file for unemployment in your state. The exact rules and requirements for unemployment vary a lot from state to state, so start by simply looking up how to file for unemployment where you live. Google “file for unemployment” followed by your state to see what you need to do.

The next step is to assess what your real financial needs are in the short term. Do you have enough cash to survive for a while, or is everything a disaster? Do you have enough food on hand? Do you have dependents, and if so, are they taken care of at least in the short term (the next couple of weeks)? Make sure that things are stable at least for the next week or two for you and everyone dependent upon you. If you don’t have enough food, contact your local food pantry to make sure you have enough to get through.

If you have any debts, pause them as soon as possible. If you have student loans, log onto your student loan provider and pause them. If you have other debts, contact your lender and look into the possibility of pausing those debts. Many lenders are working with borrowers right now to pause loans of all kinds.

Do the same thing with your utilities. Many utility companies are offering various forms of short term relief to help people keep their lights on and their phones on. Call them and ask for a break.

After that, start considering what comes next for you. What skills do you have on offer that are valuable to others? What skills can you shore up at home during this period?

I’m going to turn this into a longer post later this week, but I wanted to share this basic advice now because I’ve read similar questions from a number of people.

Q5: Great time to start journaling

Just wanted to drop a note and say that this is an amazing time to start journaling. Just write down everything that’s happening each day especially locally and in your life and your own feelings and reactions to it. This is a historical moment and one you will look back on for the rest of your life, and many of us have the time to do this right now.
– Annie

This is a great idea! Plus, all you need to start journaling are things you likely already have. You just need a notebook and a pen if you want to keep a paper journal, or just some app in which you can store text if you want to do it digitally (an app like Day One is great for this).

I’ve been doing this myself. I write in a journal each day for about 30 minutes and my entries for the last month have been very focused on the events of the day and my own thoughts and feelings about them. I usually don’t save my journals, but I think this one will be saved for a very long while.

Not only is it good for preserving history, but it is also a really good way to work through a lot of challenging feelings. As I’ve said a few times recently, all of us are dealing with a lot of stress and a lot of burdens right now — some of us definitely more than others, but we’re all dealing with things right now.

Q6: Health insurance lost; now what?

Worked as a receptionist and just lost my job. No more health insurance. What can I do?
– Nadine

The first thing to do is to make sure you can’t be added to someone else’s policy. If you’re married, does your partner have health insurance? There’s usually a window after a partner’s job loss during which you can be added to their insurance.

If that’s not available, you can look into COBRA coverage, which basically means you keep your previous health insurance but you are paying for it out of pocket. This is usually expensive, so it’s not really an option if you don’t have other income coming in.

If that’s not an option, you can see if your state’s health care exchange is available. Some states have an open enrollment period right now that enables you to sign up for a new individual plan. This will likely be much cheaper than continuing your old plan under COBRA. Use Google to find if the health care exchange in your state is operating right now.

If that’s not an option, see if you currently qualify for Medicaid. Here’s a list of each state’s Medicaid program to help get you started. If you have children, look into your state’s CHIP program.

Those are the options you should start looking at. It is quite possible that by the time you read this there are additional options available due to the ongoing coronavirus situation. The best place to look for those options is through information about unemployment in your state, which should be just a Google search away.

Q7: Real estate investment time?

Do you think this is a time to buy real estate? Here no one is buying any houses and I have seen some price slashing already.
– Stephen

It depends on why you’re doing it. Are you buying a home for yourself? Are you thinking of buying a place to rent out? Are you thinking of buying property and just sitting on it for a year and then selling it when things return to some degree of normalcy?

I don’t think I would buy developed property right now just to sit on it. That’s kind of a market timing thing and with such enormous uncertainty going forward, I wouldn’t risk it unless you have a ton of money to do so.

If you’re thinking of buying a property to rent it out to others, that might be a good idea in the longer term but in the short term you may have difficulty finding renters or being able to get the property ready to rent.

In general, I think if you’re planning on living on the property or wanting to rent it out, waiting until social distancing is wrapping up and then striking might be a good move if you have the money to easily spare. I would probably not buy property during a period where social distancing is actively in effect, though, as you may find it difficult to actually take care or improve the property. Given the uncertainty, though, I wouldn’t buy finished property to just hold it for a year or two to see what happens.

Q8: Homeschooling or nothing?

Are you guys attempting to homeschool your kids right now? This started as extended spring break for us but now we don’t know what to do and the local district is sending really mixed messages and not much material.
– Jennifer

We’re in the same boat. Our district has been very communicative, but it is clear that they’re uncertain as to what to do next, too.

As for us, we’re strongly encouraging our kids to delve deep into things they’re interested in rather than trying to force them into a curriculum right now. What topics are they really interested in? What skills do they really wish they had? Our efforts are focused on those topics and skills.

For example, two of our kids are really into music, so we’ve greatly expanded the time they’re spending practicing music. Another child is a budding engineer, so we’re trying to help him find online materials that really challenge him and projects he can take on.

We’re also doing a lot of “life skills” type things with them. They’re doing a lot of meal preparation and gardening and things like that.

We’re setting aside a lot of time for reading and really restricting screen time, too.

Q9: Selling used stuff is impossible!

Selling used stuff is impossible right now! Very irresponsible advice!
– Tom

Here’s the truth: a lot of advice, financial and otherwise, that works during normal times is a lot harder to apply right now. Selling used stuff to turn the stuff in your closet into cash is one of those things. It was good advice two months ago and will be again in the future, but right now it doesn’t work.

That doesn’t mean that right now isn’t a great time to purge your used possessions a little. It’s a great time to go through your closets, make a big pile of stuff you don’t want or need anymore, and put it off to the side for later. It’s just difficult to sell it at this moment.

In fact, you can actually take every step short of selling the items right now. You can make a big inventory of the stuff you want to sell, figure out what it’s worth using online tools, figure out where you want to sell it (eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, etc.) and write out your sales pitches. All of those matters can be handled right now. Just save it until the time is right to sell it off.

Q10: Move toward prepping?

Do you think there will be a move of frugal people down the road to more extreme prepping as a result of all of this?
– Victor

I suspect that there will be many frugal people who stock up more than they used to when this is all over. There may be people who go even further and take on prepping as a hobby for a while, but it’s hard to tell how sustainable that will be.

Based on our conversations, I can see us moving a little further down the “prepping” spectrum once things return to some normalcy. I can see us seriously amping up our storage of things like dry beans and rice and flour and yeast and such. We have space for this in our home. I can also see us moving in a direction of being less reliant on the grid, particularly with things like installing some solar panels on our roof (perhaps enough to fully power our home) and perhaps digging a well as a water source (that’s less likely, but we’ve talked about it — the water levels at our home would support this). I feel like that’s the kind of response you might see from people with a frugal bent – things that can decrease their bills even more and make them a little less dependent on the grid, but not full-on “prepper.”

I don’t think you’ll see us on “Doomsday Preppers” any time soon, in other words.

Q11: Don’t listen to MLM pitches

Could you make sure to tell people to not listen to “start your own business” pitches right now? I have seen a lot of people trying to get people to “start their own business” right now and it’s all stuff like Scentsy and Pampered Chef. You have to buy a bunch of inventory upfront and be really annoying to sell it. People are pushing hard right now because others are scared. It’s kind of gross.
– Delaney

I’ve seen a couple pitches like this, too.

Right now is not the time to get involved in selling products to your friends or neighbors. If someone is trying to get you into one of those types of businesses, this is a terrible time for it (not that there’s a good time for it).

Right now, people are being very careful with their nonessential spending. Many people can’t or won’t be able to hear your sales pitches. Not only that, you usually have to come up with quite a bit of money yourself for initial inventory or for joining up. The fundamentals of this type of business aren’t in a good place right now.

Unless you are very financially secure, you should not be buying inventory or paying membership fees for any kind of business, especially one that involves direct sales to people. This is always true, but it’s particularly true right now. “Starting your own business” in this fashion is a huge financial risk, one that you shouldn’t take on.

Q12: Please support local businesses!

I hope that you will tell your readers to please support local businesses right now! Buy a gift card from them if you can and when things start reopening use local businesses. It’s the small local business that is really hurting right now! Many of them are “hibernating” and hoping they survive and when they reopen it will probably be very tight for them. Buying a gift card online, if you can, will help!
– Connie

If you have the financial means to do so, you can make a big difference in your local community by buying a gift card for a local business online right now. It can help that business survive and continue to employ people when restrictions wear off.

Again, only do this if you have the financial means to do it easily. If you are facing unemployment or job uncertainty, you should be focused on building an emergency fund and keeping your own financial state as safe as possible.

We have purchased gift cards from a few local businesses that are currently closed, and we sincerely hope that they are able to reopen down the road.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.