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How the pandemic changed the rules of personal finance


In the last half of last year, we heard a lot of talk (and we at NPR did a lot of talking) about the Great Resignation, aka the Big Quit. This was a trend that started right around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and saw — anecdotally, at least — large numbers of people leaving their jobs voluntarily. There was some controversy about the Big Quit, not the least because some reporting on the trend made it sound as though many of these workers had decided to leave the labor force forever.

But the hard data — particularly here in the U.S. — suggests that in fact the labor force participation rate, which plunged at the beginning of 2020, recovered pretty quickly. That included workers close to retirement age. Which suggests that people weren't actually quitting work altogether, but were, rather, just switching jobs — in many cases leaving jobs that paid well but required long hours, and finding jobs that perhaps paid less but gave them more control over their lives. In other words, it was less the Great Resignation and more the Great Reshuffle.

That's certainly the conclusion that Jill Schlesinger reached. Schlesinger is a certified financial planner and a business analyst at CBS News. She's also the author of a new book, The Great Money Reset, which draws on her experience talking with callers to her personal finance podcast, Jill on Money. Many of those callers were considering their own Big Quit, but they weren't sure whether they could do it, or how to go about it.

/ St. Martin's Press
St. Martin's Press

Schlesinger says questions about switching jobs with a view to achieving better work-life balance aren't unheard of in the personal finance world, but they became a lot more common during the pandemic. She describes herself as inundated. And she says that is the first in a number of big changes that she thinks will affect the personal finance world going forward.

"Amid the pandemic, people who called my show were seeking more control over their time and work conditions," she says. "With the benefit of time and the quiet of the pandemic, many concluded that they want to work less or differently, enjoy more flexibility in their jobs, work at a less stressful job, or shift to a new career. They don't necessarily wish to forgo the comforts of life, but they are willing to make at least some financial sacrifices in order to do it."

It's not only about the numbers

Financial sacrifice! That's not a phrase you hear much in the personal finance world. That's because, for the most part, personal finance specialists and planners are focused on increasing assets, with an eye on a long-term time horizon: retirement. In that world, the concept of financial sacrifice doesn't really fit. Schlesinger believes the pandemic has changed that because investors have been made acutely aware that they may not make it to retirement, and it's a good idea to think about how to enjoy some of that money now. To factor that into the financial planning process, Schlesinger says, advisors are going to have to get to know their clients better.

"What's hard for a lot of financial planners is they don't like to get into the emotional stuff," Schlesinger says. The best — and most expensive — planners do, of course: they see their clients as complex human beings, who have diverse needs and messy lives. Most of the financial services industry, however, is geared towards treating people as widgets that are expected to have a certain life span, punctuated by a specific retirement point. There's not much room for the human factor there. Schlesinger says good financial planners were already turning against that approach before the pandemic hit.

"They realize that you cannot just hand a client a list and say, please populate the assets, liabilities, income expenses," Schlesinger says. "You actually have to learn about who they are. And I think that the pandemic has accelerated that trend."

The reserve fund is the most important thing

Schlesinger says that before the pandemic, she would give people some pretty standard advice about their money. She would start by telling them about the three mainstays of personal finance.

"I would say to people, you're just starting out. Here's what you have to do: You need an emergency reserve fund, you need to pay off your debt, and you need to try to put money into retirement. And I would often give those things equal weight."

People saw the wisdom of paying off debt and saving for retirement, of course. The emergency reserve fund? That was a harder sell.

"People would yell at me and say, 'How can you tell people to keep six to 12 months of their living expenses in an account that's paying no interest?' Because remember during the pandemic and early days, it really was 0% interest," she says. But the pandemic underlined the importance of having some kind of cash cushion. "The people I spoke to who had emergency reserves, had funds that they could tap into, went through the pandemic in a very different way than people who were relying on stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits."

Now, she says, she still touts the three mainstays, but today the emergency fund gets much more attention. And not just from her. "I think post pandemic, more people understand that having an emergency reserve fund — having access to money that you can rely on — has become number one, two, and three."

Everyone wants to talk about estate planning now

For most financial planners, the hardest part of conversations is talking about the end game. People are happy to discuss retirement all day long. After all, they're anticipating a good time, when they can travel, or see family, and do all the things they've put off doing for forty years. But talking about what happens to their money and their assets when they die? No one ever wanted to talk about that before the pandemic.

They do now.

"I no longer have to fight with people about getting estate planning," Schlesinger says. "It's been a fascinating shift."

Schlesinger says COVID-19 put end-of-life considerations onto the front burner for a lot of people. She heard an especially painful story from one caller, who told her about a blowup over a family business. "Someone died and there was a small business involved and there was no instruction. Like, 'what are we doing with this business? Well, dad would've wanted us to keep it, but mom really needs the money.'"

A family fight erupted because the parent who died left no instructions. Presumably not what the parent had wanted to leave as their legacy. And certainly not what the grieving relatives wanted to go through.

"Everybody knows somebody who has a terrible estate story," Schlesinger says. The upside is that those people paid attention to those stories. Now they want to discuss estate planning. But those are tough conversations that force people to make hard choices, and the challenge now, Schlesinger says, is actually getting her clients to put those plans in place.

The triggers have changed

It wasn't unheard of for people to make big changes in their lives before the pandemic, of course, but Schlesinger says it wasn't particularly common. Most people had a career and predictable trajectory to retirement that they did their best to stick to. There were usually only a handful of life events that could shift people from that trajectory. Divorce and death were the big ones, she says, but the pandemic brought a lot more triggers to the fore: Mental health; adverse work events; isolation.

"You're living this very bare, stripped down life, and you're with your thoughts, and you're hearing about terrible things and it's really scary," she says, noting that in that context, suddenly a lot of the decisions we made in order to reach a faraway financial goal didn't seem to make sense. "And maybe that's the moment you say, 'why do I live a thousand miles away from my parents? Why have I chosen to work so hard that actually I'm not sure I really like my job; but I know I really love my kids, and I don't really think I want to work this way anymore.'"

The big barrier to making change — even when it seems the obvious choice — is fear. But the way Schlesinger sees it, the pandemic forced change on a large number of people. And they had to face those fears.

"I just was so overwhelmed by the number of people who were fearful. But who, once that fear started to dissipate, really saw opportunity amid all this chaos. And I'm not talking about market opportunity, I'm talking about life opportunity. What is it that I really think I wanna do?"

She says personal finance specialists and financial planners are going to need to come to terms with the fact that, in a weird way, the pandemic made people feel they needed to take control over their lives in a more active way, and to advocate for their more immediate needs and wants. Now it's okay to look at your career goals and your financial plans for retirement and all the rest of it and say ... What about me? Where does my in-the-moment happiness fit into this?

Schlesinger has made big, bold shifts in her own life in the past: she gave up a lucrative financial planning career to become a writer, journalist, and podcaster — so she knows what's at stake. But it was the experience of a friend of hers, Maureen, that really brought home to her the importance of understanding what the real motivations are for making changes in your life. And how to respond to them.

"Maureen was diagnosed with a very deadly cancer and she had a four month horrible illness and died on November 30th," Schlesinger says. "Everyone has a momentous event that shakes up your life. Everybody does. And you feel the stress. You feel emotions I think even in myself as I went through that event with her, my own ability to understand how the choices we make matter, was amplified. And what I can tell you is that when you have the ability to plan in advance and use that to open up pathways for yourself, it's really beneficial."

Lighten up a little

Wild investing strategies have been around for as long as markets have existed, but the pandemic coincided with some of the craziest, including the meme stock explosion and the crypto craze. Schlesinger thinks this had much to do with people being locked down, without much to do, while there was a lot of money sloshing around the system.

"When I say a lot of money sloshing around the system, remember that we had trillions of dollars of excess savings that built up. Mostly that came from the upper, highest net worth people, but a lot of people were knowledge workers working at home who got stimulus checks and had a lot of time to futz around and had a few bucks in their accounts."

She says the communities that fueled this kind of trading weren't new, but they exploded during the pandemic, and they will likely diminish once COVID and its variants recede. But they won't go away. And that's okay. It's even okay to spend some time on your choice of subreddit and surf the occasional meme stock or crypto asset wave. So long as you do it responsibly.

"I'm not constitutionally against people taking flyers," Schlesinger says. "I mean, have fun, but don't have fun and risk the farm. Have fun and say, 'All right, I put 5% of my total investments in some crazy stuff. That's fun.'"

In other words, personal finance doesn't have to be all asset allocation, income optimization, estate planning and taxes. It can be fun too — if you choose. That's a new rule that everyone can get down with.

Jill Schlesinger's new book is The Great Money Reset. It's out now.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 31, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
This newsletter has been corrected to remove a sentence about Schlesinger's client Maureen, which was actually about someone else.
Paddy Hirsch