Drawing Down Savings, Relying on Food Banks: Americans Take Emergency Actions Amid the Pandemic, CNBC + Acorns Survey Finds

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Jessica Cruz and her family were in a bind.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last March, Cruz, a 39-year-old care coordinator in New York, and her two children, ages 10 and 14, were all sent home to work and attend school remotely.

That put tension on the family budget, as Cruz's children used to get a free breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack through school. While they qualified for the Pandemic EBT program, the card didn't come in the mail until last week, Cruz said – more than 10 months after the kids were first sent home.

Further pressing Cruz's income was that, in April, she was finally approved for a two-bedroom apartment in the New York City Housing Authority King Towers building in Manhattan, something she waited nine years to secure.

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To handle everything at once, Cruz needed help. She was able to borrow money from an aunt to move, she said, and luckily got the first of two stimulus checks in the same week, which helped with costs.

But food was still an issue, so the family utilized a Food Bank for New York City pantry for the first time when school started, according to Cruz.

"It just made my paycheck stretch a little more," said Cruz. Before the pandemic, she'd never gone to a food pantry for help. (Food Bank for New York City saw a 91% increase in first time visitors in the earliest months of the pandemic, the organization said.)

Covid led many to take emergency financial actions

Cruz is not alone – as many as 40% of Americans have taken emergency financial measures amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent CNBC + Acorns Invest in You survey.

The survey was conducted by SurveyMonkey between Feb. 1-8 among a national sample of 6,182 adults.

For many, emergency financial actions meant either drawing down savings or asking for help. Thirteen percent tapped a savings account, 12% borrowed money from a family member or a friend and 11% used a food bank.

The survey found that, for all emergency actions taken, women of color had higher rates than white men, mirroring existing inequalities in the U.S. that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Nearly one-quarter of Black women and 17% of Latinas borrowed money from family or a friend, compared to 9% of white men.

"It really points to how dire this situation is for many people," said Leigh Phillips, CEO of SaverLife, a nonprofit focused on financial security.

The report also highlights the importance of having emergency savings and other lifelines when an unforeseen event like the pandemic hits.

"It hurts the pride a little bit to have to take some of these steps, which is totally understandable," said Stephen Fletcher, a certified financial planner and senior wealth advisor at BlueSky Wealth Advisors in New Bern, North Carolina. "But it's not something to feel guilty about."

Having some savings to tap into, or being able to get help from family, friends or other programs such as a food bank, can help people stay afloat without going into debt, Phillips said.

"That's what we're trying to avoid," said Phillips, adding that this has been extra important as many people have experienced long gaps between government aid during the pandemic, such as unemployment insurance or stimulus checks.

How to rebuild savings after an emergency

There are a few things that experts recommend for those looking to rebuild savings and reset their personal finances after an experience like the pandemic.

For those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic, Phillips said that a lot of the standard saving advice can be daunting. She recommends that people save as much as they can as often as they can, even if that means small amounts. Studies have shown that even having $100 saved can keep families from adverse events such as having utilities shut off or having to move.

"If it's $5 a week, that's great," she said.

Another tip that can help lower-income folks boost savings is to plan for any larger chunks of money that come in, such as another stimulus check or a tax refund.

"That's a really great time for people to buildup emergency savings," Phillips said.

Just a few months of help can make all the difference, especially for those depending on government aid.

Cruz is now doing better — the second stimulus check she received was a huge help, and she finally got p-EBT benefits for her children. In addition, she also recently got a raise at work and her tax refund, she said, further helping her family's financial standing.

"We're OK now," she said.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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