When it comes to money, coronavirus has split the nation. Financial stress dominates for many of the 9.5 million employees on furlough, potentially facing unemployment as the scheme unwinds, and for those whose small businesses have been disrupted or whose finances were already precarious before the crisis. By contrast, if you are one of the lucky ones whose income has been uninterrupted, you may have found that your spending has dropped and, as a result, you might have been able to pay off debts and even build up your savings.
Whichever camp you fall into, here are some ways to weather the pandemic storm and plan for your financial future.
With the Bank of England base rate slashed to 0.1%, the returns on savings accounts are at record lows. But the government needs your money. Pre-coronavirus, National Savings & Investments (NS&I), the UK’s state-owned savings bank, was tasked to raise £6 billion in 2020-21 for the government. That has now been hiked to £35 billion. To attract your savings, NS&I has some of the best deals, such as 1% per annum on its direct saver account and 1.4% per annum in prizes on premium bonds.
Even with low interest rates, saving still makes sense to provide a buffer against further disruption and emergencies. For longer-term goals, such as pensions, you should consider investments.
For higher returns than savings offer, inevitably you must take on more risk. One option is peer-to-peer investing, where investors are matched directly to borrowers through online platforms, such as Ratesetter and Zopa. Make sure you understand that you could lose money if borrowers default and that peer-to-peer investing is not covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (unlike savings accounts).
The stock market fell sharply at the start of the crisis and is largely treading water in the uncertain climate of changing policy announcements and fears of further coronavirus outbreaks. Some see this as an opportunity for stock-picking – always a high-risk activity. Stocks that are “in” include online businesses and green technology. Those that are “out” are high street retailers, airlines and carbon-based industries. Some investors are turning to commodities, including gold, but prices are already high.
In general, profound uncertainty about the economic and inflation outlook makes diversifying your investments across a range of different assets more important than ever.
3. Retirement contributions
The current climate is a perfect storm for pension schemes, suffering low interest rates, the stock market fall and widespread dividend cuts. On top of that, if your budget is currently squeezed, you may feel tempted to opt out of your workplace pension scheme.
Bear in mind, though, that you will lose your employer contributions and tax relief, which in effect double your money from the start, regardless of investment returns. So, try to keep paying in if you can.
Payment holidays on mortgages, credit cards and other loans are a welcome source of temporary respite for millions of borrowers. But bear in mind that interest still builds up during the so-called holiday and, when payments restart, they could be higher than before.
Also be aware that, although using a payment-holiday scheme will not be noted on your credit records with credit reference agencies, it may still affect your ability to borrow in future. This is because lenders must carry out affordability checks to make sure you can manage any new borrowing on top of catching up with existing loans once the payment holiday stops.
So only use or extend payment holidays as a last resort. And, if your money problems look like they will be more than temporary, talk to your lender about other options. Consider getting help from one of the free, independent debt advice organisations. You can find one near you via the Money Advice Service.
It is natural to spend less if you are worried about the future. But this creates a classic dilemma, first analysed by economist, John Maynard Keynes, during the 1930s depression: if consumers don’t spend, the economy contracts. This results in job losses, falling household incomes and further spending cuts in a damaging downward spiral.
This is why the government announced various incentives in its March budget and the July summer statement. This included VAT cuts for the tourism and hospitality sectors, discounts on eating out, raising the stamp duty threshold on home purchases, a deal for green homes to subsidise the cost of double glazing, insulation and energy-efficient heating, along with an extension of discounts for buying electric cars.
So if your household can afford it, spending will help to support and revive the economy. It will also gain you, for example, up to £5,000 off making your home greener and up to £3,000 off the purchase of an electric car.
One area of spending that is proving more fraught is holidaying abroad. The recent surprise announcement that tourists returning from Spain will have to self-isolate for 14 days was a sharp reminder that the world is far from getting back to normal.
If you are planning a trip abroad, check carefully what your travel operator’s policy is in the event of a coronavirus-related cancellation. Also make sure that your travel insurance includes coronavirus cover (many don’t) and whether this cover is limited to medical expenses or extends to cancellation as well. Consumer choice company, Which?, has a useful guide.
Jonquil Lowe is an independent consumer representative on the Finance and Leasing Association Consumer Code Group and its Stakeholder Advisory Group.