ABLE Accounts, Changes and COVID-19 – One Size Does Not Fit All!

While each individual and family situation is different, we all share a common concern around our financial future during the COVID-19 crisis. This situation affects everyone’s lives at all levels and will continue to impact household finances for a lengthy period of time. Depending on your own specific and unique circumstances, your need to respond will vary. In this blog, the ABLE National Resource Center will share actions for you to consider, resources, stories and strategies from ABLE account owners as you develop your individualized response.

Returning to Basics

Strategies that we can use to better handle the financial challenges we are all facing include:

  • Have a plan for maintaining safety. This could include modifying your current plan or creating one for the first time.
  • Save regularly if you are able to do so, and consider other sources of monetary or service support contributions.
  • Prioritize your spending by evaluating needs and using income and savings carefully.

Taking these three steps while considering the changes you are experiencing or anticipate with regard to the impact of COVID-19 will be key to supporting your financial stability. This is true during the pandemic and will be true through any other period of financial uncertainty, whether it be global in nature, limited to your personal circumstances or a combination of both.

Experience of ABLE account owners and their family members

Recognizing that a lot of savers, us included, are anxious about what the future will hold, we decided to reach out to our nine ABLE Ambassadors and 18 Ambassador Alumni; all of whom were early adopters of ABLE. All have either opened an ABLE account for themselves or their family member(s) with a disability. We wanted to find out how they felt and what actions they are taking with their ABLE accounts during COVID-19.

While some have decreased or discontinued contributions into their ABLE account, others have maintained or increased their ABLE contributions thus exhibiting cautious optimism. Miles Lessen (2019 ABLE Ambassador – ABLE New Mexico), a parent of an ABLE account owner, recommended “not pulling out money during this crisis” because he believes the stock market will rebound over time. Miles’ son is very young and this approach works for their family considering their stage of life and ABLE goals.

After using his ABLE funds to put a down payment on a home in May 2019 following a decades long battle with homelessness, Hector Ramirez (2019 ABLE Ambassador – CalABLE), was saving for a hearing aid. As a result of COVID-19, and abrupt changes in his employment and wages, Hector had to use the ABLE savings instead as an emergency fund to meet his needs for increased costs for food, medical care and transportation. Although he depleted his funds, the account remains open for 90 days and can be reinstated after that time. As someone living with mental illness, Hector feels it’s important for people to know that they are not alone and need to “lean in and support each other.” He reminds everyone that having family, friends and others in your circle of support donate to an ABLE account is a concrete way to help one another, especially right now. For example, Hector is supporting senior neighbors by helping them to find food and other items they need to survive.

While some of our Ambassadors and Alumni are not working, others are now working from home or living temporarily with family members. Some have a steady stream of income with enough to meet their needs while others do not. COVID-19 has presented a challenge and adjustment for everyone.

How ABLE can help

One thing our ABLE Ambassadors and Alumni share is their encouragement to others to open an ABLE account if they are in the position to do so, to plan for the future as much as possible and to save for future emergencies in order to maintain and improve their quality of life.

If you or your family member have an ABLE account open, ABLE account savings may make it possible to continue to afford to live independently in the community, pay for additional support services, grocery delivery charges, personal protective equipment and extra expenses during this pandemic or when other emergencies arise in the future. If you don’t have an ABLE account, now may be the time to begin thinking about opening one and planning for your future with the increased financial stability and flexibility an ABLE account can offer.

At a minimum, ABLE account owners should set some guidelines on what constitutes an emergency or unplanned expense and identify whether funds other than ABLE account disbursements can cover the expense. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t thought about this or don’t have all your plans nailed down – it is never too early to start. Work on building and maintaining a cash cushion in your ABLE account. While many of us have seen purchases of items in bulk, consider the wisdom of limiting your purchases to items you need now, to tide you over, until the next time you shop.

When looking at your monthly expenses, it is important to look at whether you have a steady stream of income for your current needs. Many people are receiving economic impact payments (EIP) and those who have lost their jobs may be receiving unemployment and Pandemic Unemployment Payments. If not needed immediately, this money may be saved in your ABLE account. Edward Mitchell (2018 Ambassador – ABLE Tennessee), who was laid off from his minor league sports job, provided this advice: “Do not deplete your funds, use them wisely.” He recommended depositing the economic impact payment into the ABLE account to allow it to grow for future needs.

In thinking through your plan, evaluate your ABLE account investment strategy and take into consideration how long it may be before you will need to use the savings. If you need to use the funds within this next year, you may want to save all or part with an FDIC insured account option, a less risky choice, if your ABLE program offers that option. The interest rate may be low, but the risk is low, too, because you will not lose the money you deposited. If you are at or nearing retirement age, or have a specific large goal, you may want to consider dialing back your risk.

Some ABLE account owners decide to diversify and invest the remaining funds within one or more investment options offered within their ABLE plan. Young ABLE account owners may choose to be more aggressive with their allocations because they have more time to recoup any losses. Other account owners may have a higher risk tolerance or other factors unique to their situation and may choose this option, too.

Actions and Advice from ABLE NRC Ambassadors and Ambassador Alumni

Andrew Komarow (2020 Ambassador – Massachusetts Attainable Savings Plan), a financial planner, says that, “Now is a great time to review and update your ABLE allocations. However, it is not the best time to move out of the market.” He recommended considering contributing even more during this time. Michael Zybura (2020 Ambassador – Michigan ABLE), a parent of an ABLE account owner, agrees and recommends increasing contributions while stock prices are low. He, too, believes the market will recover.

Jessica Sahlman (2020 Ambassador – Pennsylvania ABLE), is in her twenties and has a similar take. “I am leaving my investments in my ABLE account in an aggressive investment option for when the market gets strong again,” she shared. Jessica, along with her family, looked back through history and saw that similar financial instability has happened in the past and the market has always recovered. She understands investing is a long-term process and not about short-term wins and losses. It is not about timing the market; it is about time in the market. Teresa Price (2020 ABLE Ambassador – ABLE Tennessee), a parent of an ABLE account owner, has this advice. “Don’t worry if your account balance has decreased a lot. The market will bounce back and so will your ABLE account.”

Shane Wegner (2019 Ambassador – ABLE Tennessee) says he is “trying to hold the course with the market volatility.” Cheryl Walfall-Flagg (2018 Ambassador – North Carolina ABLE), a parent of an ABLE account owner, shares the fear that many have of losing money. But when she recalled the housing crisis from a few years back, she compared it to her 401k and remembered that she did not lose as much as friends, due to her allocations and tenacity in sticking with her investment strategy which, in that instance, allowed her funds to continue to grow over time. In fact, as a result of her resolve to stay in the market and grow funds for a down payment, she qualified for a loan to purchase her home! Shane Wegner (2019 Ambassador – ABLE Tennessee) used his ABLE account to demonstrate his ability to save regularly, which enhanced his ability to secure a loan to purchase his home.

Flexibility is key during this crisis and Taylor Carty (2019 Ambassador – Pennsylvania ABLE), is confident that her ABLE funds, earmarked for her college tuition, are there as her safety net, if needed, during this pandemic. Timothy Elliott (2020 Ambassador – New York ABLE) agrees with Taylor – although he is not currently using ABLE funds, he is confident that ABLE will serve as an emergency backup if he needs it. And, as an added cushion, similar to Andrew Komarow, he recommends adding 10 percent more to contributions if you can afford it to purchase a little “peace of mind.”

Like some of us, travel plans were in Pshon Barrett’s (2020 Ambassador – Mississippi ABLE) future. While disappointed to be missing out on those adventures, she now plans to deposit funds for those cancelled trips into her ABLE account. She added that she hopes that ABLE account owners are aware of the broad categories of living expenses that count as “qualified disability expenses.” This includes the clarifications SSA has made this year that the broad category of “food” is now considered a QDE, a clarification that is timely and helpful for ABLE account owners who may need to draw upon funds for such items. Lauren Hughes (2018 Ambassador – Oregon ABLE for All) continues to use ABLE to make van payments for the family’s new accessible van so that other funds can be used for her family’s household expenses. And finally, Amy Tessler (2019 Ambassador – Ohio STABLE) who works for a Special Needs Trust (SNT) attorney, and has opened both an SNT and an ABLE account, told us that if “I had not set one (an ABLE account) up already for my son, I would certainly do so now since the future is even more uncertain.”

Final Word

Prepare, plan and carefully weigh the financial decisions you are making right now. If you don’t have an ABLE account, now may be the right time to open one. If you already have an ABLE account, review your ABLE account allocations and, if possible, remain consistent with ABLE saving while building your funds which could serve as an emergency fund now or in the future. Keep in mind that planning is usually not a “once and done” process; it is something that requires review and updates on a regular basis.

Each individual and family situation differs and the reason for opening an ABLE account and using the account differs, too. Read our Ambassador stories and learn about the transformative benefits of being an ABLE account owner now in this time of crisis and into the future. One size does not fit all!

Resources

The ABLE National Resource Center has compiled the document, ABLE Accounts: Opportunity to Build Financial Resilience, in an effort to provide information relevant to ABLE account owners as they take steps to maintain financial wellness and resiliency during the pandemic. This document contains a variety of resources and practical steps you can take to plan ahead in an effort to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on your finances. Begin now by slowly building momentum toward achieving financial resilience.

Explore NDI’s Financial Resilience Center to find answers to questions about COVID-19 and how to deal with the current pandemic financially.

Visit the Financial Resilience Center

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