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'I want to just hoard all my money': How a personal finance coach who stopped investing in 2020 started again

Melissa Jean-Baptiste is the co-founder of Millennial in Debt.
Courtesy Melissa Jean-Baptiste

When Covid lockdowns started last March, Melissa Jean-Baptiste felt uneasy. The market was dropping sharply, millions of people were newly unemployed, and the future was unknown.

That uncertainty prompted Jean-Baptiste, a personal finance coach and the co-founder of Millennial in Debt, to drastically shift her investing and savings habits. 

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For a few months, she stopped contributing to most of her investment accounts and sent that money toward her emergency fund instead. "I was like, 'I want to just hoard all my money and put it under my mattress,' because you don't know what's gonna happen."

By the summer, Jean Baptiste realized the pandemic wasn't ending and that she needed to "readjust" and make a new money plan. Here's how she got her investments back on track.

Finding an investment comfort zone

After the market began to recover in late March, and she watched her portfolio tick back up, Jean-Baptiste began researching new investment options. "I never like to just jump in without doing research," she says. Her aim: reevaluate her risk tolerance and adjust her portfolio to help her be less nervous during market ups and downs.

In particular, she looked into ETFs and index funds, which are widely recommended because they're less risky than individual stock picking, Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar, recently told Grow. Because index funds aim to replicate the performance of market indexes such as the S&P 500, they also tend to be less volatile.

"A better way to get started in investing is actually really boring," Benz says. "Buy a plain vanilla index fund or maybe a target date mutual fund. It's not a sexy message, but it's one that's been incredibly effective for a lot of investors for many years."

This personal finance coach stopped investing in 2020: Here's how she got back on track
Personal finance coach stopped investing in 2020: How she got back on track

Video by Courtney Stith

'Slow and steady' contribution increases

When she was ready to resume investment contributions, Jean-Baptiste's plan was "slow and steady." She put in only what she was "willing to lose" in a given month because of the market's fluctuations at the time. This is generally the attitude experts recommend you take towards riskier investments like buying crypto rather than long-term investments, since in the long run the market has always recovered from stumbles and kept climbing.

At first, the amount she was willing to invest was $200 a month. The following month, she bumped the amount up to $350. By October, she had opened a Roth IRA and was contributing a minimum $500 a month. 

That kind of scaling up can be smart, experts say. Starting to invest as early as you can is important, even if you can't afford much to start out with. Small increases over time can have a powerful impact. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," Evelyn Zohlen, a CFP at Inspired Financial, recently told Grow. "How do you get to the point where you're saving 15% of your income annually? One percent at a time."

Have a plan, but stay flexible

Ivory Johnson, a certified financial planner and founder of Delancey Wealth Management, says it's crucial to stay level-headed during challenging times. "I tell my clients, 'We already have a plan. Let's stick to that plan and try to take the emotion out of it,'" he said on a Facebook Live with CNBC last year.

The pandemic has taught Jean-Baptiste a lot about herself and her finances — and now she feels better prepared for future turbulence.

"Before chaos ensues, you have this plan," she says. "You think, 'These are the steps I need to take. This is my fun money, this is my grocery money.' And then a pandemic hit. [People think,] 'I have to survive, right?' And so your desire to survive and your need to survive, obviously, is going to shift the way you look at money and how you use money."

Though she's still on alert in case "the world decides to go crazy again," her current goal is to invest $10,000 into a brokerage by the end of the year.

The article "How a Personal Finance Coach Who Stopped Investing in 2020 Started Again" originally published on Grow+Acorns.

Why boring investments are actually better
Why boring investments are actually better