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Take these steps to build financial stability, even in tough times

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In a year that has thrown a pandemic, natural disasters and economic calamity at us while we lurch closer to a presidential election, stability can feel elusive. No matter how well-laid your plans, some new crisis might be lurking around the corner, waiting to upend your life.

While it’s never been more clear how much is out of our control, you can still take steps to improve your financial stability. And it’s not just about cash flow.

Find your idea of stability

Financial stability is both a state of money and a state of mind, says Ed Coambs, a certified financial planner and certified financial therapist near Charlotte, North Carolina.

On the money side, stability is straightforward. “You have a budget, you know where your money is going, and you know how much you should be saving to meet your bigger goals,” Coambs says.

“What’s a little harder is more the state of mind,” Coambs says. This financial peace of mind is subjective and looks different from one person to the next.

Also see: How to cope with seasonal depression in an already challenging year

Do some self-reflection to pin down what stability means for you. Maybe you don’t want to feel anxious when you check your bank balance, or you hope to save enough for retirement so you won’t have to worry about the future. Whatever your focus, feeling stable means you won’t have to constantly worry about money.

If you find yourself overwhelmed because the pandemic has destabilized your finances, follow the advice of Tara Tussing Unverzagt, a Torrance, California, certified financial planner and financial therapist. She advises people to think through the worst that could happen rather than avoiding the topic out of fear.

“This often helps people open up a way to reframe the situation from, ‘There’s no way out of this,’ to ‘I have some choices — this isn’t my preferred path, but I can move forward with this,’ ” Tussing Unverzagt says.

Once you’ve defined what personal financial stability means to you, you can build a sense of control through proactive money management.

Knock off money tasks one at a time

You can probably rattle off half a dozen serious issues to worry about right now. But how many of them can you do anything about?

Rather than hand-wringing and doom-scrolling through social media when you feel anxious, focus on actions you can take. Namely, work to improve your financial basics.

Read: I am 66 years old, retired, and now need to go back to work full time — how can I start over?

Get a grasp on spending

Pin down a budget, if you haven’t already. The 50/30/20 budget is an easy tool for this. Half of your take-home pay goes to necessities, like housing, groceries and utilities. Then, 30% of your budget takes care of wants, like takeout from your favorite restaurant or home décor to spice up your pandemic shelter. Lastly, 20% of your income goes to debt payments and savings.

If you find that your debt payments or housing costs eat up more than the allotted percentage, you could increase financial peace of mind by getting them back in line. That might mean concentrating on paying down debt or looking for less expensive housing. Tackling one or two big expenses does more for your budget than canceling a handful of streaming services.

Look into refinancing debt

With interest rates at record lows, see if you can refinance your debt. You might be able to refinance your student loans or your mortgage to get a lower interest rate. Note that you should generally only refinance private student loans, because if you refinance federal loans you will give up important options such as access to income-driven repayment plans.

But in general, paying less in interest will make your debt more affordable and free up cash in your budget. Note that you’ll generally need a steady income and a healthy credit score to qualify for the best rates.

Build your emergency fund

Increasing your savings helps you cover an unexpected expense, like your car breaking down.

Watch: What happens if my debt goes to a collection agency?

“People should focus on creating a safety net, which is the emergency fund,” says Jovan Johnson, a certified financial planner in Decatur, Georgia. Start with a goal of $500 to $1,000, which is enough to insulate you from common emergencies, then keep building over the long haul.

“A rule of thumb is three to six months of nondiscretionary expenses, and I like to include maximum out-of-pocket health care expenses in that,” Johnson says.

Stick with steady retirement savings

The stock market will go up, and down, then back up again. It’s best to be a steady investor. Make regular contributions to your IRA or 401(k) every month or every pay period to smooth out fluctuations in the cost of investments.

You can take further steps to ride out market volatility by rebalancing your 401(k) or other retirement and investment accounts, says Daniel Granucci, a certified financial planner in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

“By doing systematic rebalancing, historically that’s been proven to minimize risk in times of distress and can add to your long-term returns,” Granucci says.

More From NerdWallet

Sean Pyles is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: spyles@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @SeanPyles.



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‘I could live on my Social Security and still save money’: This 66-year-old left Chicago for ‘calming’ Costa Rica — where he now plans to live indefinitely

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Editor’s note: This article was first published in September 2019.

A school break changed 66-year-old Martin Farber’s life forever.

In 2007, his daughter — who at the time was attending Illinois State University — decided she wanted to spend a college holiday volunteering in Costa Rica and staying with a local family, he explains. She came home raving about the experience, so, in 2008, Farber — who at the time was living in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, and selling cars — took his first trip there.

“It was a big surprise to me — bumpy roads, dogs barking in the streets,” he says. “I wasn’t enamored at first.”

But as his daughter began traveling there more and eventually moved there for a year, he took additional trips to Costa Rica. It quickly grew on him — in particular, the people. “The Costa Rican people are warm, open and friendly. I felt less invisible in a strange country in a strange town where I didn’t speak the language than I did in Evanston.”

And the more time he spent there, the more it impacted him: “On one of my trips there, I thought: My daughter’s life makes more sense than mine,” he says. “There was nothing wrong with my life, but I felt that my life was out of context with who I’d become. … I would have bills and make money to pay them, but that had ceased to be satisfying,” he recalls. “I knew I needed to change my life — there was no more joy in what I was doing.”

What’s more, when he’d return from his Costa Rica trips, people noticed. “I would come back, and my friends and therapist would say: You seem better after you go,” he says with a laugh.

A view from the hot springs near Martin Farber’s home in Costa Rica.


Martin Farber

So in 2014, he packed up and moved to Orosi — a picturesque, lush small town with waterfalls and hot springs a little over an hour’s drive from San Jose — promising himself he’d stay for two years. It’s been five, and he now plans to stay in Costa Rica indefinitely. (Though Farber notes that, to him, “it’s not a retirement; it’s a chance to lead a new and different life.”)

Here’s what his life is like, from costs to health care to residency to everyday life:

The cost: While many expats spend way more living in Costa Rica, Farber says: “I could live on my Social Security and still save money.” He says “a person can live on $1,200 per month, two people on $2,000.” The key, he says, is to live more like he does and as the Costa Ricans do — in a modest home, eating local food and purchasing local goods.

Indeed, Farber himself spends just $300 a month for rent (he rents a home from a friend who moved recently and gave him a good deal), roughly $225 a month on groceries and just $50 a month total on water and electricity (the temperate climate in Orosi means you rarely need heat or air conditioning). The veteran Volkswagen
VOW,
+0.96%

 
VLKAF,
+0.98%

salesman saves money by not owning a car (those over 65 ride municipal buses for free), which can be a significant expense in Costa Rica; for his cellphone, “I pay as I go … roughly $10 may last me a couple weeks or more,” he says, adding that “many people handle there their cellphones this way. You can get them recharged anywhere.”

His major expense is travel: He goes back to the U.S. to visit his mother in Florida several times a year and lately has spent part of the summer in Chicago helping out a friend with a dealership there. He also spends a good amount of money on health care. He says that while flights can be had for as little as $350 roundtrip during offseasons, the cost can be much higher the rest of the year.

In the saddle.


Martin Farber

Health care: Farber, who has permanent resident status in Costa Rica, says he pays about $90 per month to participate in the country’s health-care system — adding that the health care he’s received has been very good. (A 2018 study of health-care quality and access in more than 190 nations ranked Costa Rica No. 62.)

When he developed a detached retina, though, he paid for the procedure out of pocket so that he didn’t have to wait for the required surgery, he says — adding that the entire procedure cost him about $5,000. “I would have had to have waited four days,” he says, if he had not paid to expedite matters. “That might have been fine, but it might not.” And he adds that the quality of care depends on where you get it in the country.

Lifestyle: Though Farber says that he “moved here with no goals and no agenda,” he’s found plenty to do. “I take Spanish lessons two days a week for two hours a day. It’s been great. I never thought I would acquire a usable language in my 60s,” he says. He also rides his bike all around the area, does some writing and belongs to a community group that undertakes projects to improve the area.

And he often simply takes in nature, which he says has been an essential part of why he feels calmer and more relaxed in Costa Rica than in the U.S. “I live at 3,000 feet but in a valley surrounded by coffee fields and lime trees and water. At night, if I open the windows, I can hear the river rushing by,” he says. “It is very calming … hundreds of trees everywhere … you know the Earth is alive.”

The historic Iglesia de San José de Orosi.


iStock

Cons: “I don’t want to overglorify. It’s not without its problems,” Farber says of Costa Rica. “There are social problems and downsides.” He notes that crime and petty theft can be a problem (“I am cautious,” he says of his approach) and seem to have increased since he moved there, and adds that he misses out on some cultural things because of where he lives. And, he says with a laugh, “I can’t order Thai food at 9 at night.” But, he adds: “These are trade-offs — in the afternoon, I get to walk in the coffee fields and see flocks of parrots.”

Residency: To qualify for Costa Rica’s pensionado visa, expats must prove that they have a pension of at least $1,000 coming in each month. (Here are the details of that program.) Once you have lived in Costa Rica for three years, you can apply for permanent residency. Farber used a lawyer to help him figure out the ins and outs of residency options; his entire path to permanent residency took about a year, he says.

The bottom line: “After five years I am still amazed and surprised that I made the decision to lead a life I never thought I would,” he says. And while he may not stay in Orosi forever — “the town doesn’t have an ambulance, [and] I don’t know what it will be like to be 80 there,” he says — he does plan to stay in Costa Rica in no small part because of the people and sense of community. “I have the feeling that life is good here,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes, but we are all in it together.”



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Mutual Funds Weekly: These money and investing tips can help you read the market’s signs and stay on your path

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