21 financial tips for 2021: Experts help you navigate the year ahead

With 2020 finally in the rearview mirror, Long Islanders who were hit hard financially by

With 2020 finally in the rearview mirror, Long Islanders who were hit hard financially by the COVID-19 pandemic are looking for ways to recover in the new year. And even if you didn’t take a financial hit, you may be wondering how to prepare for whatever comes next.

Here, Newsday offers a roundup of financial advice for you, no matter what your situation — unemployed, recently graduated, retired and living on a fixed income, working and parenting young kids. Maybe you’re struggling to make the rent or stay current on your house payment, or you might be wondering if you should take advantage of the hot real estate market and sell your home for a windfall. The tips come from experts on financial planning, budgeting, getting a job, finding affordable child care and keeping up with the high cost of homeownership or renting.

For job seekers, Michelle Kyriakides, executive director of Hofstra University’s career center, said it’s important to stay positive about prospects for finding jobs and advancing careers. “There are opportunities,” she said. “It’s going to take a little more persistence than it has in the last few years, but there are opportunities out there.”

Our experts also recommend playing it safe financially, since there’s no telling what 2021 will bring.

“Now’s the time to revisit your budget,” said Reggie Nance, associate state director at AARP New York, which represents more than 2.5 million people age 50 and over. “Look to see where you can maybe trim or shift some things.” Your family budget is something within your control at a time when so much is uncertain, he said.

And all of our experts agree: If you’re getting behind on your rent, house payment or other bills, reach out for help sooner rather than later.

For more resources, visit newsday.com/resources. — Maura McDermott

FOR EVERYONE

1. Beware the “add to cart” button: Check your household budget for unnecessary expenditures, and don’t overdo online shopping, which may boost spirits short-term, but can blow a hole in the budget, the AARP’s Nance said.

2. If you’ve already racked up card debt, reach out to creditors: Avoiding credit card debt in high cost-of-living areas like Long Island was already challenging before the pandemic, said Leslie Tayne, a debt resolution attorney with the Tayne Law Group in Melville. “What the outbreak has done, for so many, is exacerbate those challenges,” she said. “But there are things people can do.”

The first step? “Call your creditors,” said Tayne. “Many creditors have set up specific ‘pandemic forgiveness’ programs or payment plans and are willing to work with you to avoid delinquent accounts.” But don’t leave it to the last minute, she warns. “Don’t wait until after your bill or payment is due to make the call … the trick is to get ahead of it, otherwise you run the risk of getting slammed with late fees.”

3. Save, even if you think you can’t: People in a tough spot financially usually neglect to put money away for emergencies. “It’s a common mistake,” Tayne said. “The trap is thinking that you either a.) have to put a lot of money away or b.) should use all your money to pay down debt. But the reality is that even putting $5, $10 or $20 away every week will make a difference.” She suggested setting up recurring, automatic payments to a bank savings account. Before long, Tayne said, you could have “a pretty substantial amount of money saved up.” — Daysi Calavia-Robertson

FOR RETIREES

Seniors and others living on fixed incomes shouldn’t expect a windfall because investment gains are unpredictable and the increase in Social Security will average just 1.3% this year, said Nance, of the AARP. Consult a financial adviser before making any big moves, and don’t make hasty decisions.

4. If money is tight, look for help: Participate in programs that offer free meals and groceries, if you’re eligible, such as Meals on Wheels. Find a program near you at mealsonwheelsamerica.org.

5. Boost your income: Consider turning a hobby into a moneymaking business by selling a product or service you can offer — but be skeptical of get-rich-quick schemes.

6. Minimize your tax liability: “Taxes will go up, we just don’t know by how much,” said Craig J. Ferrantino, president and founder of Craig James Financial Services LLC in Melville. “Look for ways to make yourself less tax-toxic: Get out of a traditional IRA and into a Roth IRA, put money in a 529 plan for your grandchildren’s college education, gift money to family.” James T. Madore

FOR JOB SEEKERS

The pandemic has managed to make the tough job of looking for work even harder, with less chance to meet potential employers face to face — and definitely no chance to shake their hands. To navigate the job market in 2021, career counselor Jim Eddings, with Suffolk County’s One-Stop Employment Center, and Rita Maniscalco, a Huntington-based career coach, offer these tips:

7. Tap into resources: Connect to job search services (including local job boards, resume review services and mock interviews) by visiting SCNYForward.info or thewp.org. You can also reach out to the area’s One-Stop Employment Centers, including Hauppauge, 631-853-6600; Massapequa, 516-797-4560; and Hicksville, 516-934-8532.

8. Brush up your skills: Review job postings “and see what they need,” Eddings said. “Are there specific computer skills that they’re looking for?” If so, look to upgrade your skills through free or low-cost options. New Yorkers have free access to Coursera and its catalog of nearly 4,000 online courses and certificate programs for in-demand jobs in advanced manufacturing, health care and technology through the state’s Labor Department website. Find it at nwsdy.li/coursera.

9. Network, network, network: Use social media and email lists to network with other professionals, and make sure to let family, friends and former co-workers know you’re looking. “This is not the time to be shy,” Maniscalco said.

Victor Ocasio

FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS AND NEW GRADS

Last spring, many employers shifted to full remote operations, ending internships early and eliminating job training opportunities for many. Despite those challenges, which persist today in some industries, there are some angles to work as you set out to find that first job, said Kyriakides of the Hofstra career center.

10. Let your school help: “Make sure you’re taking advantage of the resources at your university,” Kyriakides said. Many schools have regular virtual networking events and job fairs, and students should reach out to career counselors.

11. Keep an open mind: Consider all career fields that your skill set might work well for, and don’t feel constrained to the jobs your courses might have been geared to, she said. “Students … should really think outside the box and look into an industry that’s growing.”

12. See above: Networking and adding in-demand job skills could separate you from the pack.

— Victor Ocasio

FOR HOMEOWNERS

Many homeowners are in forbearance programs that let them delay mortgage payments for up to a year, but those deadlines will start coming up in just a few months, said Michelle Abreu, director of counseling at the Hauppauge-based Long Island Housing Partnership; many will face hard choices. And for those who are current on their loans, the hot real estate market may make it tempting to sell.

13. Reach out for help: If you’re having trouble paying your mortgage, reach out to nonprofit housing groups for help, since there could be options you’re not aware of. “Don’t wait for the last minute to reach out,” Abreu said. “Let us see if we can help you.”

14. Know your options: Find out if your lender will let you move your missed payments to the end of the loan. If not, make a plan for when all those payments come due, Abreu said. A federally certified housing counselor can help determine whether you could be eligible for a loan modification, or if selling the home might be the best way to go, she said. “Not everyone can afford to stay in their homes so we have to look at transitional options,” she said.

15. Don’t be lured into selling if it’s not time to move: If you’re current on your bills and wondering if you should sell to take advantage of the sharp rise in prices, real estate experts say it’s wise to think of a home simply as a home, not as an investment.

“I’ve never been a big believer in market timing, because then it means you look at the house as a stock,” said Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of appraisal company Miller Samuel. “I look at it as what you need, and when you need it.”

And while the upward trajectory in home prices is unlikely to be sustained in the long term, Long Island also does not seem poised for a significant downturn, he said. The region’s housing market, he said, “has shown remarkable strength and consistency.”— Maura McDermott

FOR RENTERS

The pandemic presents challenges for renters regardless of how they’re faring financially. For those secure enough to relocate, the Long Island market has grown competitive as New York City residents move to the suburbs. For those struggling to make rent, a state eviction moratorium has been extended, but it leaves many questions for the future, said Vivian Storm, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Nassau Suffolk Law Services.

16. If you can’t pay your rent, seek help: Contact your county Department of Social Services and charitable organizations, Storm said. Try to make a payment plan with your landlord. Find resources at nwsdy.li/LIrenthelp.

17. Put it in writing: Put all communication with the landlord in writing. Save letters, emails, rent receipts and proof of maintenance issues. Gather documents that illustrate your income loss, since the state Tenant Safe Harbor Act may prevent eviction of those who prove in court that COVID-19 has caused them financial hardship.

Take seriously rent demands and other concerning communications from your landlord. Nassau Suffolk Law Services may be able to provide advice at 516-292-8100 and 631-232-2400.

18. If you’re considering a move, understand the market: Don’t start looking more than 30 days out, because vacancies are filling rapidly, said Wendy Sanders, a Douglas Elliman licensed sales associate who focuses on apartment buildings. She said some properties she works with have waitlists.

Prepare for applications by assembling documents that establish your ability to pay rent. Sarina Trangle

PARENTS

One in three families spend 20% or more of their annual household income on child care, a Care.com survey found, and the financial squeeze on Long Island can be even worse.

19. Use your FSA: If your employer offers a Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account, take advantage of it, said Jennifer Marino Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk Inc. An FSA reduces your overall tax burden by allowing you to use pretax earnings to pay for child care, summer camp, before- and after-school care and adult day care. Depending on your tax filing status you can put up to $5,000 a year into a Dependent Care FSA, Rojas said.

20. Apply for a subsidy: Working families earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level — that’s less than $52,000 for a family of four — can apply for a child care subsidy with their County Department of Social Services, she said. The subsidy covers a portion of child care expenses for each eligible child. For information on how to apply, visit nwsdy.li/suffolkcare or nwsdy.li/nassaucare.

21. Contact your Child Care Council for help: For information on help covering child care costs, parents can reach out to the Child Care Council of Suffolk (childcaresuffolk.org, 631-462-0303) and the Child Care Council of Nassau (childcarenassau.org, 516-358-9288). Their staff members help LI families find child care that meets their specific needs, including financially.

“For example, right now there’s a scholarship program that covers child care expenses for essential workers who meet certain income eligibility requirements, running through January 10,” Rojas said. “But down the road, other scholarships, programs, grants or assistance opportunities could become available.” — Daysi Calavia-Robertson