More than 90 million American households have now received their third stimulus checks.
The $1,400 checks, which are part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill, are expected to help recipients cover immediate household expenses and pay down debt.
And given that many qualifying households are receiving additional checks for dependents — that is, children and non-working adults – a large number of Americans are seeing a bigger one-time influx of cash than they’ve ever seen before.
And Suze Orman, one of America’s most prominent personal finance experts, has some strong opinions about how you should not spend your windfall.
Read on to find out where she thinks some people may go wrong — and what you can do instead.
1. Spending it all right away
After a full year into the pandemic, Orman recognizes you may be keen to use your stimulus funds to pay off some of your outstanding balances.
But, she says, that would be a mistake — especially if you’re still looking for work.
“Do not rush, especially if you do not have a job yet and everything isn’t going the way you want it to be, do not rush to take that money and pay off your credit cards.”
If your bills are piling up and expensive interest is adding to your troubles, a better option would be to get a lower-interest debt consolidation loan to help you better manage what you owe — and pay it off sooner.
2. Skimping on saving
Before the pandemic hit, Orman had long counselled her followers to build up emergency funds for at least eight months.
Other finance experts had suggested that was more than necessary and three or six months was all you’d need.
“What happened last year? Three months would have gone in three months,” Orman says. “And then what would you have done? Now it has come to pass that eight months wasn’t even enough.”
Because of the pandemic, Orman now recommends having at least 12 months socked away in an emergency fund.
“I don’t think you can have too much of an emergency fund,” she adds.
Taking some of your stimulus money and putting it into your emergency fund is Orman’s top suggestion.
But make sure your cash isn’t going to just sit in your bank, working for someone else. A high-yield savings account can help your emergency savings grow on its own.
3. Overpaying on bills
Not all bills have the same priority status. Orman cautions against taking all of your stimulus money to pay down your credit card or car or even to catch up on your rent: “Don’t do it. You’re going to be very sorry.”
“The key to your freedom is having that security, that emergency fund. Keep it right there and do not spend it.”
Her advice is to continue to pay the minimum on all of your bills and play it safe until you’re gainfully employed again. Or at least until things in your life are back to normal, financially speaking.
If you can, shop around for better rates on recurring expenses like your auto insurance bill — you could save up to $1,100 a year by comparing rates. That way you’ll be able to hold onto more money without having to give up all of your stimulus.
4. Forgetting about insurance, retirement
We might be dealing with a prolonged crisis right now, but it will eventually end. If you have the bandwidth to think a bit about the future right now, you won’t regret it.
If your health insurance has lapsed during the pandemic, now’s the time to shop around for an affordable plan before the current open Obamacara enrollment period closes May 15.
Looking further down the road, if you can spare some of your $1,400 check, putting it towards retirement is a great idea. If you haven’t already set up a retirement account, the sooner you do, the sweeter your golden years will be.
5. Tossing it away on the stock market
If your emergency fund is looking fat and happy and you’re current on all your bills, you may be sitting on your check figuring out how best to spend it.
Orman is adamant about one thing: “Don’t you dare use it to invest in the stock market.”
It’s not so much that investing is a bad idea in general. But pouring your entire $1,400 stimulus into meme stocks like GameStop is what concerns Orman most. Investing shouldn’t be a game, she says — it should be a well-thought-out strategic component of your personal finances.
Instead of taking cues from the internet, once you’ve already set aside what you need for savings and retirement, pick an investing option that allows you to build a balanced portfolio that will grow steadily and reliably over time.
These days, such a portfolio is easily achieved. A DIY investing app can automatically invest your spare change and keep your money growing without your having to take a big swing at a trendy stock or cryptocurrency. Some companies are even allowing accredited investors to invest in U.S. farmland.
So, what should they do instead?
Orman’s overall lesson is to make that stimulus check last as long as possible. There’s no guarantee we’ll get a fourth check so if your household already has or is set to get a check, stretch those dollars as far as you can.
If you didn’t get a check this time or maybe the money doesn’t look like it will last as long as you like, you have some options.
You could trim your budget to “make your own” stimulus check.
For example, maybe it’s time to permanently log off any streaming services or other monthly subscriptions you’re not actively using.
Or do you have a hobby or special talent? Turn it into a side hustle to bring in extra income.
Finally, download a free browser extension that will automatically scour for better prices and coupons whenever you shop online or install an app that nets you cash when you take photos of your grocery receipts.
Just by finding a few creative ways to cut back, you can possibly wring out another $1,400 from your current budget.