Questions About Unemployment, Screen Time, Grocery Runs, Predictions 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. Getting nothing done
2. Unemployed but okay; what’s next?
3. Emergency fund or debt repayment?
4. Buying a house right now?
5. Retire now?
6. Summer vacation plans
7. Keeping kids off of screens
8. Unemployed and scared
9. Grocery run strategy
10. Kids need haircuts
11. What will change?
12. Some Good News

Hope all of you are staying safe and staying home out there.

For us, we’re learning how to manage distance education with three school-aged kids at home while also figuring out how to manage being a little stir-crazy. I’ve been reading a lot and trying to maintain social connections. We’ve been preparing the garden little by little, but the nights are still often dipping below freezing, so we’re not to the point where we can plant anything yet.

In short, we’re trying to keep each other sane, healthy, and happy.

On with the questions. A lot of the questions this week deal with handling unemployment or dealing with issues of working from home.

Q1: Getting nothing done

I am finding it so hard to get anything done at home. I spend all day reading the news and visiting my favorite websites over and over again and I feel like the work I am doing is meaningless. Even when I sit down and try to focus I can’t get anything done. My boss has really dialed back deadlines and expectations but I know I need to snap out of this.
– Briana

There are really two different ways to answer this, so I’m going to drop both answers.

First of all, you’re not alone in feeling like this. A lot of the world is feeling like this. This moment in time is mentally and emotionally overwhelming in so many ways that it’s really a success to get through the day holding yourself together.

So, don’t sweat it if you’re not as productive as you typically are. No one is. From the sheer emotional overwhelm of the moment to the environmental challenges of working from home, we’re all suboptimal right now. Don’t try to pretend you’re a super productive worker right now; you’re not, and no one is.

I can’t offer any sort of perfect advice for getting work done, but what I can say is that the only way I’ve been able to get writing done is to have a daily schedule that involves having a block in the middle of the day where I simply lock out all social media and all news sources entirely and I focus on writing.

So, basically, my daily schedule right now starts at the latest end of when I wake up — if I get up earlier, that’s free time or time to start early on the first block of the day. The rest of the schedule is a series of blocks. I have a work block, during which I literally leave my cell phone in another room and block a ton of websites on my computer. I have a family time block. I have an exercise block (both physical and mental). I have a reading block. I have a household chores block (when I’m usually listening to a podcast). I have an education block (where I’m helping my kids learn). Outside of those blocks, I’m free to do whatever, but within those blocks, I have pretty strict rules on looking at news and social media, and I usually just have my phone elsewhere.

This has really helped me stay sane. The key is to simply not have distractions or electronic devices around me during those blocks, and if I have to, then I literally block certain websites so I can’t visit them. Specifically, I’ve been using Cold Turkey for this on my computers and simply putting my cell phone in another room during parts of the day. If the news of the day won’t change what I’m actually doing, the news is probably blocked. I can catch up later on in the day.

Q2: Unemployed but I’m OK; what’s next?

I lost my job as a shift manager at [a chain restaurant] on March 18 and have filed for unemployment. Between my unemployment benefits and the coronavirus check I will keep the lights on and food on the table, but I am already afraid of what happens when unemployment runs out in September. My boss says that I will be back when the restaurant reopens but I don’t know when that will be or if it will happen. So let’s assume the restaurant doesn’t come back. What should I be doing right now?
– Adam

I’m going to throw a question back at you: if that restaurant didn’t come back, would you still want to work in the restaurant industry? Is this what you want to be doing for the rest of your life?

If it is, then I would be spending this time studying everything I could about restaurant management, service management, hospitality, leadership and things like that — material that’s in line with running a restaurant. There’s a ton of free material to absorb out there, but you may also be interested in pursuing a degree or certification of some kind. I’m not an expert in this field, so I don’t know specifically what you should be looking for, but I do know that furthering your education is a great option for any field and this is a great opportunity for that.

If you want to be in a different field, then spend some time thinking about what that field might be, then start pursuing educational opportunities in that field. Again, this varies a lot depending on what you want to be doing with your life.

Whatever you do, don’t stay idle. Figure out something to work toward in the next few months and work toward it. When you do return to work, in whatever capacity, demonstrating that you were a self-starter during this downtime is going to be a positive for you.

Q3: Emergency fund or debt repayment?

Software developer working from home. No one has been let go yet but employer had to emergency reduce salaries by 25%, very open with the books and I understand it, but I am worried about company going under in 6-12 months because business clients not buying our product right now.

We can make ends meet with 25% less pay especially with working at home because it’s cheaper. I have about $8,000 in emergency fund. Should I put more in emergency fund right now or try to get rid of some debt?
– Alex

To give you a really good answer here, I need some more information. How long will that emergency fund cover your living expenses? Will you be eligible for unemployment if you’re let go from your work? How many dependents do you have? Is your software development a niche one that will make it easy to find new work if you lose your job? Do you have a lot of good connections in your field? Is that debt high-interest?

In short, if you’re answering those questions in a way that makes unemployment look worse, I would bolster that emergency fund. If you’re answering those questions in a way that makes unemployment look not as bad as it could be, then I would pay down that debt.

In either case, I would be taking steps to bolster your resume and maximize all of the professional relationships you have in your field. Those are going to be crucial if you do happen to lose your job.

Q4: Buying a house right now?

My wife and I were looking at houses in January and February but we decided not to buy as coronavirus was starting to appear. The house we liked the best is still on the market and we are considering throwing a low offer at them. We both have extremely stable jobs and no debt aside from student loans but this still feels risky to us right now. What are your thoughts?
– Dennis

If you go into this with the understanding that you’ll probably have to do most or all of the actual moving yourselves and that it may be difficult to get some services and some deliveries in the short term, this might be a really good idea. Not only will they probably listen to a low offer right now, your mortgage (assuming you’re preapproved) will have an extremely low interest rate.

My question would be whether or not this move would raise or reduce your monthly housing costs. It depends a lot on your current rent and bills — if you’re moving from a larger apartment to a modest home, it might actually be cheaper month over month with a low price on the house and a low-interest mortgage.

If you are very confident that your jobs are stable, I would go for it. This is a pretty good opportunity to buy if you ask me.

Q5: Retire now?

I had planned on retiring on April 17 at a pretty young age (54) because I have been careful with my money all along. I am single and had planned to spend my remaining healthy years doing a lot of bicycling and backpacking.

Over the last month the value of my retirement investments has dropped 22%. My plan had been to lock in my withdrawals at 3% of the balance on the day I retire and increase that amount by 3% each year. With that drop, I am facing a tighter retirement than I had planned.

My boss says that I can stay on at my current job for longer, as they haven’t found a good replacement yet. I am currently working from home due to coronavirus so there’s no “get out of the office” issue.

Should I stay or should I go?
– Fred

I already replied directly to Fred so he could use my response to make a fast decision about his situation.

If I were in Fred’s situation, the way I would look at things is this: if I did retire on April 17, what would I do? Are you going to immediately launch into backpacking and biking in the current situation, or would you just lay low at home until things clear up?

If you’re just going to lay low at home, and you could work from home, why not just work from home? It gives your idle hands something to do and it would put some more money into retirement over the next few months.

Then, when things do start to clear up, you can pick a new retirement date then. If you lose your job, eh, you’ll be completely fine. If your boss wants everyone to start coming back to the office and you’re not comfortable with that, you can just decline the option.

If I were in your shoes, I would keep working. I don’t think this is the best moment to transition to that kind of life, and it’s not even about finances. Rather, I’d keep working and sock away money until the situation changes. This might mean another year at your current job, but at that point you will probably feel a lot better about your retirement savings.

Q6: Summer vacation plans

Should we even consider a summer vacation this year? We put aside $200 a month for summer vacation and look forward to doing something each July and start planning in March or April.
– Mary

I wouldn’t bet on a summer vacation this year.

Honestly, we’re in almost exactly this same situation. We were in the process of planning a pretty interesting family vacation that involved visiting a few places in the eastern U.S. when everything changed. We hadn’t actually reserved anything, but we were close to some final selections.

For now, we’re assuming that trip is not happening in any way. The money we had set aside for it is going to roll over to a vacation in 2021, and we may even repeat the plans in 2021 if things look better.

If I were you, if you don’t have a family vacation in 2020, do something together as a family within the constraints of what you can do, keep the costs super low, and roll that money forward to something really amazing in 2021.

Q7: Keeping kids off of screens

How are you handling your kids’ screen time? Are you just letting it be unlimited right now? Are you restricting it?
– Nadine

Sarah and I have been doing something of a “block schedule” for our kids as well. During most of the blocks, they either can’t use devices at all or have serious restrictions on usage. They have free time around those blocks where we’re pretty hands-off about it, though.

In a given day, we have a few blocks that they have to follow. One is a “school” block, where we’re doing our best to follow educational materials from the district, their teachers and adding in a few other things. This is a screen-free time unless an assignment requires a screen. Another is an “exercise” block, usually involving them practicing soccer or taekwondo in our yard or (with taekwondo) in the most open room in our house. We have an “outside” time block where they have to spend time outside in our yard. We also have a “reading” block where they have to read a book of their own choosing. There’s also a “family time” block where we usually play a board game together. On top of that, we have meals and hygiene and household chores. These have different lengths but combined they eat up a large portion of the day, definitely the majority of waking hours.

Outside of those things, they can use screen time as much as they like. We’re actually encouraging them to do things like play online games with their friends so that they maintain some social cohesion — they all enjoy playing Fortnite with voice chat activated so they can chat with friends while playing, for example, and we’re fine with that.

The thing is, since so much of their day is screen-free because of those “blocks,” and because they really are missing their friends, we’re pretty lax in terms of time playing Fortnite or other games like that outside of those blocks. If my son spends an hour playing Fortnite a couple of times a day with his close friends and they’re chattering away over voice chat, I really don’t mind it too much. Sure, I’d rather they were playing outside together in a park or something, but that’s not an option right now.

What I tend to resist is when they spend time doing things on a screen with little social element to it. I don’t mind it a little, but if they get into a groove of just watching YouTube videos endlessly, I’ll put a stop to it.

Q8: Unemployed and scared

I was doing babysitting for several people while going to school and now they are all staying at home with their kids and I have no money coming in. Can’t apply for unemployment and don’t think I will get a stimulus check. I am scared and don’t know what to do. I don’t have any family.
– Ellen

You need to start by addressing your basic needs — food, water, clothing, and shelter. I don’t know your exact housing condition, but I’m assuming you’re renting from someone. They probably won’t evict you right now (and they may not even be able to), so in the short term, you should have a roof over your head and running water. You probably have clothing, too.

For food, I would immediately contact your local food pantry and make sure that you have at least enough food to keep yourself fed for a while. They’ll guide you as to the services they can provide, and they can also help you sign up for any programs you might be eligible for, as people managing food pantries often have a good sense as to what programs their patrons can use to get help elsewhere.

You may need to seek employment outside of babysitting if you can. Many grocery stores are hiring right now because they simply need more people who can stock shelves and fulfill orders (as many grocery stores are doing delivery services or drive-up services).

You’re better off having a real conversation with your landlord about your situation and what you’re trying to do to keep rent paid than avoiding your landlord. Talking about your situation openly and looking for an equitable way to move forward for both of you is more likely to keep a roof over your head than avoidance.

Be very, very, very careful with every dime that you spend right now. Get maximum value out of every dollar — if you have to spend a dollar, make sure it’s for a true need above all else.

You are undoubtedly in a rough moment, but focus on what you can control today and what you can actually do to make things better going forward. Don’t get lost in despair at things you can’t control anyway.

The goal, right now, is to establish enough stability in your life so that you have continued access to food, water, shelter, and clothing, and then build from there.

Q9: Grocery run strategy

What should you buy on a grocery trip if you’re trying to minimize time in the store over the next month or two?
– Jenny

If you have a grocery store that will do curbside pickup after selecting your groceries online, that’s one way to definitely minimize your time in the store. Just order online. This might mean using a more expensive grocery store — the discount grocer I prefer to use doesn’t offer this, but a more expensive local chain does — but if you can afford it and are aiming to minimize time outside the home, it’s a good strategy.

Outside of that, the best thing you can do to minimize time in the store is to make a huge meal plan for three or more weeks of meals, make a grocery list that covers all of it, and then hit the store focusing on that grocery list. You can make this more efficient by repeating meals (or meal variants) every several days so that you can just buy a jumbo quantity of particular ingredients. So, for example, if your family likes lasagna, get enough food to make lasagna four times over the course of three or four weeks, so that you’re just hitting those ingredients hard. Stick to meals that require few ingredients so that you’re not buying a whole lot of different items.

If you have a lot of time at home, consider trying to bake all of your bakery items and just buy tons of flour and some yeast and sugar and salt, as you can make almost any baked good with flour, water, yeast, salt, and sugar in appropriate combinations with different amounts of kneading.

The real key is the grocery list. Try to do all of your thinking about what to buy at home and get that list honed before you go so you can just trust the list and focus on getting what’s on that list and getting out of there as efficiently as you can.

Q10: Kids need haircuts

This is so silly. My kids need haircuts. I had been planning on getting them cuts over spring break but that all went down the tubes and now they look shaggy and my oldest one is getting annoyed. Is it really a good idea for me to cut them? (I think I just need a nudge.)
– Amy

Yes, you can do this. You probably have everything you need already at home. Will it look great? Probably not. Can you get it fixed when things open back up? Sure.

If you have hair clippers at home, it’s actually very easy to give someone a short haircut. You can’t really mess it up very bad. Just use one of the medium-length guides on the sides and a long guide on the top and you’ll give a short haircut that looks reasonable. This is a good guide to that. I actually use clippers on my own hair and cut it when it starts to seem shaggy.

If your kids have a longer haircut and want it to stay that way, you may want to order a few supplies online — hair cutting scissors and/or clippers, especially — and then watch some YouTube videos on how to do a basic haircut, like this one. YouTube has a ton of great content for this.

Again, you won’t end up cutting their hair in a way that looks incredibly stylish and perfect, but it will be presentable. If you mess up, just cut other parts a little shorter. Remember, it can always be fixed later on.

Q11: What will change?

What do you think will change in the world after this is all over?
– Amanda

Everything I write here is just pure speculation, based on my own reading and sense of what’s going to happen going forward.

I think that over the next year or two, a mix of treatment options and a potential vaccine will emerge enabling most people to return to something approximating their normal life before this crisis.

I think that the economy is going to go through the biggest recession since the 1930s, leaving a lot of people out of work for a while, but that it will gradually recede.

I think that there will be a lot of people in America — not a majority, but a notable minority — who come out of this with a different perspective on how to live their lives. It will be honed a little bit by a return to “normal,” but I suspect this period is going to re-shape, to some degree, the individual choices that people make.

I think many people will be very slow to return to old spending habits, especially at first. People will have learned to live without them and learned to live on a tighter budget. However, as the economy recovers over a number of years, the average person will end up moving back into a lot of similar routines — going out, eating convenience foods and drinks and so on. I think there will be some that do not — they will be a minority, but not a tiny one.

I think there will be a significant ongoing mental health crisis in the aftermath of all of this. There will be some people who are afraid to leave their homes (agoraphobia) and others who shrink away from direct human contact. Many, many people will struggle with some form of depression for quite a while.

I think a lot of businesses will learn that having many of their employees working from home and conducting meetings via teleconference is a big win for them. I think working from home will be a permanent thing for a lot more people after this, and it will be seen as completely normal.

I think that live sports and live events and large scale conferences and conventions are really going to struggle for a while, even after restrictions on such large groups end. People won’t immediately want to go back to them. Having said that, I don’t think this will be the end of professional sports. I predict that sports start returning with some empty stadium games, then fans will gradually return. I think a lot of non-essential conferences and conventions will really struggle to return and those that do will take quite a few years to grow back to where they once were.

I suspect there will be a big push going forward to separate health insurance from employment in some fashion. I think that the individual danger of this practice and the public health risk of this practice is currently being exposed, along with other problems in how we currently administer health care. I don’t know what the result of that conversation will look like, but I think that the old model of people being afraid to seek medical care because it will cripple their finances or only having good medical care if they have a great job is going to change. There are some big risks and flaws in that model and we are seeing them on display now.

I think there will be a lot more frugal people coming out of this who have made a permanent shift to being more frugal, and I think some people will move into some form of being a “prepper” in the sense that it will be more mainstream to have a multi-month food supply at home. I’m not saying that lots of people are going to turn into candidates for the Doomsday Prepper television show, but I think a lot of people will do things like have a few months’ supply of food on hand, have a lot of water on hand, install solar panels so that they’re not reliant on the energy grid,and so on.

I think the concept of a universal basic income will see a significant increase in popular support. I don’t know if we’ll actually move to that in America, but I suspect some nations will consider it and try it, and if it works out well over a longer period, we may see it in America.

In five years, we can look back at these predictions and laugh at many of them, I’m sure, but if I had to guess what will happen, that would be my guess. Also, I will probably write about a few of the more practical ramifications of these predictions in the coming weeks and months. In terms of articles for the site, I’m particularly interested in the “work from home” shift and the “people becoming more frugal and more prepared” shift.

Q12: Some Good News

This is the best thing I’ve seen during this whole mess. It made my day and brought me to tears twice, I had to stop it. Good tears, and laughter too. Some Good News with John Krasinski, Episode 1
– Adam

I don’t usually share links like this in the mailbag, but Some Good News with John Krasinski, both the first episode and the second, has been a genuine bright spot of laughter and also a reminder of the good in the world right now.

(John Krasinski is perhaps best well known for playing Jim Halpert on the NBC sitcom The Office.)

I also had to pause both episodes a few times because of my own response to them. It manages to capture the moment perfectly while being both hilarious and also hitting you right in the heart about twenty times in each one.

I’m hoping there’s at least a third (or more) out by the time you read this. Just check out the full channel to see what else they’ve posted. It’s well worth it.

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.