Our Essay Question
- How has the pandemic informed your outlook on your financial future, and what money lessons have you learned from such a high-impact event?
Essay Response from Holly K.
We’ve all heard the saying “save your pennies for a rainy day”, but what happens when a rainy day turns into a rainy year? During the COVID-19 pandemic, things quickly spiraled out of control for even the most diligent of savers; students are taught that a healthy savings account will have at least enough money to sustain them for 3 months, but when an emergency is on a scale as vast and long as the COVID-19 pandemic even the best of savers will start to sweat.
I have always prided myself on my ability to manage my income, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. I had just gotten a new part-time job and was about to graduate University. My plan had been to work for a year, putting 50% of my paycheck into an untouchable savings account, then return to school and use those funds throughout the year so I could focus entirely on my studies. However, by the time that I graduated in May, the world was different. I’d been sent home from University in March and believed that this interruption was going to last only a few months. I bought a cap and gown, believing I would walk the stage in June once the pandemic had all blown over. I, my family, my classmates, and my coworkers all believed that the world was going to be back to normal within no time. Now, a year and a half later, we can look back and laugh about how naïve we were!
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I had planned to continue working my part-time job throughout the summer and pick up another one in the evenings, but about a month into the pandemic I was officially laid-off due to a lack of work. As I began my search for a new job, I utilized numerous money-saving tools at my disposal. I kept track of my job applications in a large spreadsheet, so I could know where I’d applied and where I had interviewed. I treated job hunting as my full-time job, working from 9am to 5pm on researching jobs, workshopping my resume, and writing cover letters. I applied for jobs in numerous different fields, with different levels of expertise required. I applied for everything from a Hostess at Denny’s to an Autopsy Technician with the local university. I noticed I tended to receive more interviews for positions in the scientific field that matched my degree, so I doubled down on applications to local researchers and scientific societies and tailored my resume to each position. However, each rejection was the same; I would get a call from the interviewer, apologizing for the inconvenience but explaining that the position had hundreds upon hundreds of applicants, and although I’d been in the top 3, I wasn’t the top candidate.
This was an eye-opening experience for me. I had gone through numerous jobs during my time as a student and excelled in each. The COVID-19 pandemic was (and still is) an unprecedented time to be searching for a job. Any given position has hundreds of applicants, sorted through by machines looking for key-words and so many years of experience. Within three months, I was beginning to put a strain on my savings account; I’ve always kept enough to keep me afloat for six, but I’d never had to go through it before. I was surprised at the amount of stress that financial hardship incorporated into my life. I told myself that I had scrimped and saved for times like this, but watching the number in my account actually drop was extremely stressful regardless.
I learned 2 extremely important lessons from this time of high-impact financial stress: 1. know what resources are available, and 2. take an extremely active role in your own financial management. The obvious resource introduced during the pandemic was the CERB benefit, offered by the Canadian government. I immediately signed up, thankfully having an existing CRA account with which to apply. However, that benefit was not unlimited; I could only claim 5 months of benefits, and even 5 months was not enough to overcome the vast barriers to finding a full-time position. And so, I applied for unemployment benefits.
Applying for unemployment benefits is a process with two steps: The initial application, and the biweekly check-ins. I submitted my initial application and told it would be evaluated within 3 weeks, and that I should start doing my bi-weekly check-ins. At 3 weeks, I had heard nothing. At 5 weeks, I began to panic. I had no income at all, and my rent payments were looming over my savings account. At 6 weeks, I began submitting support tickets. At 7 weeks, I received notice that my application was suspended because my previous employer had failed to submit a Record of Employment, and therefore there was no proof I was eligible for benefits.
I had always believed I was good at managing my finances, but this mishap made me realize a crucial piece of financial management is taking initiative and responsibility for all your financials, regardless of if certain paperwork is typically your responsibility. Had I taken initiative before the pandemic and ensured my employment records were submitted, I would not have been left without benefits when I needed them most.
Thus, I began to email and speak to my old employer about submitting my ROE. I submitted support tickets, I called the help desk, I sent emails to HR managers. Ensuring that my paperwork was submitted meant taking an extremely active role in each step of the process, asking questions and making sure I understood each step. Once my ROE was submitted, I needed to do the same thing with the Employment Insurance office to explain my situation and have my application re-opened. Finally, after a period of 9 weeks with no income and no benefits, my situation was resolved and I was able to start receiving my income. Ironically enough, 2 weeks after I had resolved my situation, I received a job offer and began working full-time.
Financial literacy is often about understanding which factors are under your control, and which factors are not. In my case, the COVID-19 pandemic forced me out of my comfort zone and made me take a true step forward in managing my finances beyond my savings account. I couldn’t control the number of applicants I was completing with in each job, but I could control my application, using those rejections to fine-tune my cover letters and resume. I couldn’t control the time it took to process my application for the CERB benefit, but I could control how I used my savings and stretch them as long as I could. I couldn’t control the submission of my Record of Employment, but I could take responsibility for it by speaking to my employer and checking that each step of the process was completed in a timely fashion.
Understanding your finances is about so much more than understanding how to save; it’s about understanding the whole picture, from your own savings to the paperwork behind your income. The broader your knowledge of the financial systems in place around you, the better you can manage and understand your own financial situation.