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When Life Seems Out of Control, Control What You Can

August 2020

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Distinguished Professor and Extension Financial Management Specialist Emeritus
Rutgers Cooperative Extension

COVID-19 reached American soil months ago and, for many people, mental and/or physical fatigue are palpable. Sheltering in place has gotten very “old” and weeks with a reduced (or no) income have thrown the finances of millions of households into a tailspin. Studies show that prolonged “paycheck to paycheck” living can sap mental bandwidth and stress mental health to the point that people are simply not fully functioning.

Throw in the fact that the duration, severity, and lethality of COVID-19 are still unknown. Further, add the consensus from numerous observers that many things in life will be different, at least until we get to “the other side” (whenever that is) and, perhaps, much longer. Examples include: more working from home, new travel procedures, crowd control measures, and fewer people making advance plans that require big deposits.

What to do? The only thing that we can do. Create some semblance of a routine and focus on things that we can control. Below are nine small steps to navigate change, loss, and uncertainty in this turbulent time:

  • Marshall Resources - Look for sources of monetary support and human services in your community, if needed. Examples include food pantries, job training programs, and utility assistance. For information about local resources, call 211 or visit or reach out to local human services agencies.
  • Create a Spending Plan (Budget) - Make your best estimate of current income and expenses and consider various ways to close the gap. For example, money saved by getting free food at a food pantry or by spending less on child care, gas, and travel preserves scarce income for rent or utility payments.
  • Develop a Daily Schedule - Plan out your days to avoid feeling “unmoored” from normal routines. Include some type of physical activity every day. The Center for Financial Social Work has a useful e-book with helpful scheduling worksheets.
  • Increase Your Financial Literacy -Set a goal to learn something new about personal finance every day. Financial knowledge helps build financial preparedness, which can increase resilience in tough times. Rutgers Cooperative Extension has useful worksheets, videos, and other resources.
  • Seize Control of Controllable Things - Draw a table with three columns: Control, Adapt, and Monitor. List events and actions you have control over in column 1, followed by those you can adapt to, and those you should pay attention to, in columns 2 and 3. “Controllable” items include scheduling daily routines, self-care activities, home organization tasks, and new spending patterns.
  • Protect Your Credit - Contact your creditors before you are late with a payment and discuss options for leniency and a payment plan. Confirm all agreements with creditors in writing with a follow-up letter or e-mail. On-time payment is a key factor in credit scoring so make sure your credit history is not damaged.
  • Upskill” Yourself - Use newly found free time to prepare yourself for re-employment with your current employer or elsewhere. Focus on gaps in your skill set and making yourself as marketable as possible with a college degree, certification program credentials, new technology skills, and other employer-valued traits. 
  • Be Grateful, Helpful, and Creative - List five things that you are grateful for every day. Doing this can help foster optimism. Also find ways to support others. It will help other people cope with COVID-19 and make you feel good also. In addition, develop creative COVID-19 work-arounds. Zoom parties, COVID-19 themed songs and videos, artistic face masks, and drive-by graduations and parades are just a few recent examples.
  • Take Deep Breaths - Acknowledge that you may be feeling confused and overwhelmed right now. Big parts of your life have been turned upside down. Many people are not balancing work and family. They are balancing work with family. You are not alone. Many others are feeling the same way. Health experts often recommend deep breathing as a way to lower stress. Try it and see if it helps.