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With plans on hold and echoes of 2008, millennials turn to the security of savings

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Maybe your job won't come back. Your industry might be completely transformed. You might be homeschooling for longer than you imagined. 

Welcome to trying to get off the ground during the age of coronavirus.

Nichole Young, 34, was in the final stages in March of interviewing with a company that paused on new hires. 

The uncertainty was rough at first, says Young, who lives in Sunnyvale, California. "If I'd been a week sooner, maybe I would have made the cut."

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Instead, Young started an Etsy store for cross-stitch patterns, which is less about the money and more about having something to do. In fact, she broke even on the software she bought to create patterns. A relatively new mom, she is enjoying spending time with her 5-month-old. 

Here's how life looks for people in their 30s as they try to make plans and look to the future. Keep in mind, it's not the first time they've watched the economy upend. 

Spending turns into savings

Cheynne Whitfield, 31, says unnecessary spending is out and beefing up her emergency fund is in.
Source: Cheynne Whitfield

A busy lawyer who ate dinner out five nights a week, Cheyenne Whitfield, 31, has cooked every night since March 13.

Since the pandemic began, Whitfield, a defense attorney in Tampa, Florida, says she's cut out most unnecessary spending — not the challenge it might have been, now that most stores are closed.

"I've never bought more groceries in my whole life," said Whitfield.

Last summer, Whitfield made some financial changes, investing more in her Simplified Employee Pension IRA and taking her emergency fund to four months of expenses. She is now working on getting it to a six-month cushion.

Her income has definitely taken a hit. It's hard to ask people who aren't working to choose between keeping a roof over their heads or paying legal fees, says Whitfield, who owns her law firm.

With much of her work stopped until the courts fully reopen, Whitfield says she is even more determined to grow her real estate investments and other side hustles that bring in more income.

Recession flashbacks

Lauren Bringle Jackson, 32, has occasional flashbacks to the 2008-09 recession.
Source: Lauren Bringle Jackson

Lauren Bringle Jackson, 32, graduated during the last recession, and that time is cemented in her head.

She learned to live on very little, and one of her many jobs was volunteer work at a farm in exchange for food.

"Even though my current job is stable, it's almost like I have PTSD from my previous experiences, and feel even more pressure to succeed and save in light of the current crisis," said Jackson, who lives in Austin, Texas, and is a content marketing manager with financial services company Self.

Jackson is the primary earner in her household. "It feels very stressful some days," she said.

Though her bottom line is unaffected, her underlying money fears are triggered. She scours her accounts, looking for ways to economize.

Despite her fears, Jackson knows her foundation is solid. "When you have a plan for your money it's just a matter of tweaking some of the numbers," she said.

Four months on a dream job

Janet Vickers, 34, had finally gotten the position she'd hoped for since graduating law school. Four months into it, she was furloughed without salary. "It's devastating," she said. She pinballs between waiting for the job to return and wondering if she should look for something else.

Her company said in March they'd have staff return in August, but Vickers isn't counting on that. "My department is mostly large shopping centers and hotels," said Vickers, a commercial real estate attorney in Atlanta. "Obviously those are all greatly affected. 

"I don't know what my field is going to look like in a few months."

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Vickers says it's time to return to basics: stocking the emergency fund, canceling the gym membership, not spending on extras like eating out and considering switching from a 15-year to a 30-year mortgage.

She is keenly aware of possible similarities between now and the Great Recession. Then, Vickers became a nanny even though she'd just earned a degree in international business law. 

One current regret: She treated herself to an expensive car last year. "It was my first fancy purchase," she said. "I like it, but I wish we would have waited.

"Going on a nice vacation or having a nice car is not as important as having the money in your savings account."

"This is the first time in my life I have been unemployed for an extended period of time," Vickers said. "I still feel shame, even though it is not my fault and even if I was the best at my job I would still be in this predicament."

Shifting priorities

Joy Vines
Source: Joy Vines

Before the coronavirus hit the U.S., Joy Vines, 34, a writer and child-care provider in Cheyenne, Wyoming, had three part-time jobs. Now she has one.

Vines used to do child care through her church, which allowed her to bring her own small child with her. With both kids home from school, she no longer has as much time for blogging and writing books. She is still able to do marketing and advertising for her husband's side hustle, writing young adult fantasy.

On hold are the couple's plans to buy an investment property. "There's financial uncertainty for our family, and as far as what housing values are going to do going forward," Vines said. "We don't want to end up in a situation where we are over-leveraged."

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They had planned for their children to attend the same school next year. "Both kids have medical needs that make them high risk," she said. "Instead, we've ordered homeschooling curricula." Summer camp is also closed. 

Even if things open up for people who aren't at risk, Vines thinks it will take longer before they can go out safely.

Priorities have shifted. Vines and her husband paused contributing to their IRAs, though her husband is still putting money in a 401(k) in order to get the match.

They're working on boosting emergency savings. "We had three months of expenses saved up," Vines said. "Our new goal is 12 months."

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