How women can lower financial stress, take control of credit card debt during COVID-19

Amid the great financial distress caused by the coronavirus, many Americans have cut spending. And millennials, specifically women, are highly stressed about paying off debt.
Katarina Trautmann

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By Nicole Dienst

This article originally appeared on Invest in You: Ready. Set. Grow., a CNBC multiplatform financial wellness and education initiative, in partnership with Acorns.

Despite the economic turmoil and mass unemployment resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, consumer revolving debt decreased by $24 billion in May, according to recent data from the Fed. It is the third straight month of decline in consumer debt.

COVID-19 has devastated many Americans’ finances, with lost jobs and wages, but there has been at least one silver lining: The economic shutdown and extensive lockdowns have forced consumers, including many millennials, to cut back on discretionary spending. This has given some of those in debt, and not facing imminent financial emergency, a chance to pay down credit card balances.

“People have been not spending at all and have been using this money to pay off their debt,” said Bernadette Joy, founder of #DebtCrushers, an initiative to help millennials, and women in particular, who are stressed about debt and financial pressures.

Joy started #DebtCrushers in early March, before the pandemic hit the U.S. economy, and based on personal experience: She successfully paid off $300,000 in debt and wanted to help other women achieve the same debt-free lifestyle. Joy does charge for consultations and a Crush Your Money Goals membership. So far, #DebtCrushers has helped millennial women pay off $500,000 in debt.

Her debt-management program has helped women pay off an additional $160,000 since the pandemic began, using what she calls her C.R.U.S.H. system:

Cultivate a new mindset to feel excited, not exhausted by money issues.

Reverse-engineer how to break down big money goals into small steps.

Use your time, energy and money more efficiently.

Spend unapologetically on what you love.

Hustle to make your income meet your money goals, starting today.

A new, COVID-19 debt-reduction mindset

Recently, Joy has shifted to assisting individuals with broader COVID-19-related financial concerns, as the pandemic has made it more difficult for individuals to meet basic financial goals, like saving a little each month and paying down debt.

“The traditional advice of ‘Put away this amount of savings this month’ ... is just not working for people right now. A lot of people are making decisions due to stress and anxiety,” Joy said. “They are thinking about the financial security of their loved ones and their family, and it’s hard to do that based on traditional advice we received pre-pandemic,” she said.

Unexpected expenses, including medical bills, for example, have become an issue for many.

Here is Joy’s advice to those struggling with debt and a lack of savings throughout the pandemic.

An emergency fund takes precedence over maximum debt payoff. Joy suggests that people pay only as much debt as they need to pay — in some cases, just the minimum monthly payment. Take advantage of receiving concessions on fees and interest from creditors, which some financial institutions have been willing to grant during the crisis.

Joy’s reasoning for paying less debt at this time is so individuals can work toward establishing a 30-day emergency savings fund.

Emergency funds are critical for individuals to have on hand if a personal crisis hits, as the coronavirus recession has proved yet again. Many Americans never recovered from the financial hit of the Great Recession, and even in recent years, when the economy was booming and unemployment was at a historic low, the percentage of Americans who could not afford a $400 emergency expense remained dangerously high.

If you can’t cut debt to the max, do cut the number of total accounts held. Joy also has been advising her program enrollers to lower their account balances and cut the number of accounts they are managing or need to repay. “Let’s not focus on the total amount; let’s lower the number of accounts you have to specifically manage. It’s still a way to keep track of one less thing,” Joy said.

Don’t deprive yourself of everything — that won’t help you reach your goals. Even amid financial cutbacks, the emotional toll of coronavirus losses has prompted Joy to advise her mentees to do something seemingly counterintuitive: budget for a discretionary item once a month that they can look forward to.

“Having that one thing to look forward to every month makes it feel a lot more manageable to stay on their journey and manage this emotional stress,” Joy said.

Be accountable, but don’t get derailed by blaming yourself. Joy started her program so women would not become their own worst enemy when it comes to taking the financial blame, and that remains a consistent aim.

“Blame and shame on debt was on themselves, a lot of women saying they got themselves into this situation,” she said. “A lot of women, despite having different circumstances, are feeling a lot of the same stress and anxiety. ... while in personal finance there is individual accountability ... you can’t have shame on things you can’t control.”

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.