The start of a new year is always an opportune time to take stock of household finances, but the exercise seems especially important this time around.
The pandemic has been tough on household finances for so many. Millions lost their jobs while millions more earned less with fewer work hours. The unemployed and underemployed dipped into savings and borrowed to pay the bills. Yet many of those working remotely watched their savings rise smartly since the pandemic curtailed activities like shopping and entertainment. Some people took advantage of the unusual year to change careers. Others started their own business.
Whatever your household circumstances, a worthwhile exercise is to take stock of lessons learned about money in 2020. Here is one train of thought: The pandemic was extreme in its global scope and deadliness, but trauma, disappointment and upset is part of the everyday human condition. Yes, there are critical degrees of intensity, of course. But how common difficulties are should shape household spending and savings.
A passage in "Jolt: Stories of Trauma and Transformation" by journalist Mark Miller resonates with one lesson learned from 2020. "We all walk around with a self-constructed sense of our world — what has happened to us in the past, expectations for the future, who and what matters to us, and how we hope to spend our time. Traumatic events can blow these self-constructed world views to pieces. They can force people to answer piercing questions about their priorities and values. These internal struggles can inspire profound and lasting personal growth," Miller writes.
The year of the pandemic has emphasized the importance of personal finance basics — essentially the mantra of save more and borrow less. A strong household balance sheet lets you ride waves of uncertainty. Healthy finances provide the money resources to pursue personal and career opportunities. Most important, sound finances make it easier to spend your money and your time in ways that reflect your "priorities and values."
Much of personal finance commentary in recent decades has been largely focused on picking the right assets and investments that will earn large returns. Deep down, we've always known we shouldn't rely on the financial services industry's lush return promises. Personal finance is tactics to support living the kind of life that reflects your values through good times and bad.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace," and Minnesota Public Radio.