Jun 9, 2020
What to Do When Work Dries Up?
Personal finance writer Sarah Netter considers all her options during Covid-19.
The emails and text messages came fast, almost seeming to pick up speed — this project has been postponed, that gig is cancelled, we no longer have the funding to pay you.
Within a matter of days, the work that pays the bills in our house had almost entirely vanished. I am a freelance writer. My fiancée is a cellist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which has cancelled the rest of its season, and two quartets, which can no longer perform. A pandemic is not a great time to be in a creative profession.
We also live in New Orleans, which had one of the fastest COVID-19 growth rates in the world and a death rate about double the national average. We lived under a shelter-in-place ordinance for weeks on end, but that didn’t stop some New Orleanians from throwing ad hoc parades, called second lines, as a way to beat the boredom. We are now in Phase 1 of reopening society, and I’m happy to report that New Orleans is largely behaving itself.
While I am still working some, most of my clients have paused, postponed or eliminated their projects and I’m earning a small fraction of what I was bringing in this time last year. It’s certainly not enough money to pay the bills.
And on top of that, I got sick with classic Covid-19 symptoms just as New Orleans’ coronavirus numbers began skyrocketing. Then my son and my fiancée got sick, though thankfully with much milder symptoms. My Covid-19 test came negative, but the anxiety over whether or not we had it and the test was a false negative plus the illness wasn’t conducive to working efficiently.
New Orleanians are used to hunkering down and preparing for disaster. Whether it’s hurricanes, tornado warnings or floods from the summer rain, we know how to stock up and stay put.
But the threat from Covid-19 is a whole other level of disaster.
For the first time in our professional lives, it’s not a matter of hustling or networking or applications or auditions. Those opportunities have, for the most part, vanished. It’s not that we can’t find work, it’s that the work isn’t there to be found. Not the work that will pay enough to foot the bills, at least.
And still, we haven’t panicked about money—yet. Instead, we are working together to change our approach.
We are cutting way down on our discretionary spending. That means reading the books we have on our shelves, mastering the video games we’ve already bought, and watching Netflix that we already have a subscription for.
That means meal planning with the food we bought on our last big trip to the grocery store before the shelter-in-place order, and freezing the leftovers. We also keep an eye on the perishables and expiration dates so that nothing goes to waste. We stretch leftovers by adding rice or pasta.
That doesn’t mean we are depriving ourselves. We have to seek out enjoyment of life wherever we can find it right now. In April, I ordered Easter egg hunt supplies to keep that tradition going for my six-year-old son. For fun, my son got an inexpensive pogo stick, my fiancée got $30 of workout gear and I ordered a couple of new puzzles.
We have reprioritized our savings. Money that was once meant to be socked away is now going to be used to pay for rent, utilities and groceries. Between the two of us, my girlfriend and I had big plans for our respective savings — retirement, investments, travel. Before the Corona-crash, we had talked about passive income like running an AirBNB or managing a rental.
Those plans, much like our careers, are on hold for now. Because we still have bills to pay.
Many utility companies in our area and across the nation are offering deferred payments or waiving late fees. But the bills will still be due when life starts returning to normal, so we’d rather pay them while we can than let them pile up and risk potential debt.
We are being smart about the stock market. We have watched in horror as the stock market plunges then freezes, plunges then freezes. I lost a five-figure amount from my investment portfolio in February alone. The March statement will be filed in the trash bin without ever being opened.
My fiancée has seen her accounts plummet similarly with some stock options completely wiped out.
It’s easy to say out loud that we will be okay because we are investing for the long haul, but watching your money disappear like it’s being lit on fire is panic-inducing. Yes that money is for the long haul, but how long will it take to get it back? What would that portfolio have been worth if this had never happened?
In the interest of not panicking, we’ve decided to not touch the accounts until the economy rights itself. That means no taking money out, no putting it in, no buying or selling.
We have buckled down and done the work that is available to us. In creative industries like ours, we don’t have the option to just sit back and do nothing. I’m staying in touch with clients and editors and she is practicing her cello several hours at a time. I’m taking whatever work comes my way and she is recording music both for the LPO and her quartet.
When we start coming out of this, we will need to be first in line to get back to work so we are doing what we can now to stay relevant.
We have considered options for the future if we need more cash. We recognize how lucky we are that we have had money to put into the savings that is keeping us afloat. But no one knows how long this pandemic will keep us housebound and the money will run out eventually.
So we’ve begun chatting about next steps. We may have to start taking work that is significantly underpaid — and shame on anyone who isn’t paying a fair wage—just to bring in something, anything that can offset what we are taking out of savings.
We’ve discussed whether one or both of us should start looking at jobs such as Uber Eats or Postmates, something that provides a service but that wouldn’t put us in a lot of contact with other people.
And even though we are well into adulthood, we may also have to borrow money from our parents and pay them back once we start working again. It will hurt our pride for sure, but it’s better than falling behind on our bills.
But we will figure it out. There is no other choice.