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Investing and saving during coronavirus: Here's what to prioritize

Acorns CEO Noah Kerner discusses the importance of investing, even during an economic crisis.

Abrar Al-Heeti Video producer / CNET
Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
Expertise Abrar has spent her career at CNET breaking down the latest trends on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, while also reporting on diversity and inclusion initiatives in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Credentials
  • Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Abrar Al-Heeti
5 min read

Acorns is an app that helps users invest extra money by rounding up purchases to the nearest dollar and then automatically investing that spare change.


Investing money is far from people's top concern right now, as the coronavirus outbreak continues and as millions in the US have filed for unemployment benefits

But the pandemic will end someday, and that means people will need to plan financially for that future. For people who can afford to do even a little bit, investing and saving should still be top of mind, says Noah Kerner, CEO of Acorns. His company's micro-investing app -- which costs $1, $2 or $3 per month, depending on your financial goals -- helps users invest extra money in exchange-traded funds by rounding up purchases to the nearest dollar and then automatically investing that spare change. It's available on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

"Invest regularly," Kerner says. "No matter what, even if it's a very small amount, try to keep going. That's why we focus on spare change. Just try to do a little bit so that you can keep the momentum going and you can keep benefiting from compounding."

Even if you're not investing, online management tools like Acorns can help you sort through and prioritize expenses. Other apps that can help you manage, save and invest your money include Mint, Toshl Finance and You Need a Budget. These tools can be especially helpful in a time when millions of people face financial insecurity -- and may even be without a paycheck. For others, they're an important way to start saving for the future.

Kerner says Acorns has seen an increase in users since the market plummeted. He suspects that in a time of crisis, people realize they haven't saved and invested enough. Events like this can serve as a wakeup call to change those habits. 

To mitigate the economic damage of the coronavirus , the US government passed a $2 trillion economic stimulus package that includes payments of up to $1,200 to taxpayers, but that still might not be enough to help those who lost their jobs.

Kerner shared steps that people should take at a time like this. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.  

Q:  What should people be prioritizing right now when it comes to spending and saving?
Kerner: Focus on essentials. Focus on saving and investing as much as you can. Take advantage of opportunities to earn some extra money when you spend through different rewards programs.

If someone didn't have an emergency fund before all of this, what can they do now?
Take advantage of all the government stimulus programs that are coming out and follow them closely. There's a break on taxes so that you can file and pay your taxes later

We have 350 brand partners that invest in your Acorns account when you shop with them. So every time you get your tank filled up at Chevron, Chevron invests into your Acorns account as a reward for shopping. If you get your groceries delivered, our partners will invest in your Acorns account as a reward for shopping. So find all those ways to maximize expenses and save as much as possible while you spend.

What are the most important money saving practices or tips people should keep in mind?
If you need cash, you should try to dip into your checking account or savings account first before you touch your investment account or your retirement account. If you absolutely need the cash and you don't have a choice, then you have to do what you have to do. But I would say, given that we know approximately every eight years there's a recession, this is why saving and investing small amounts of money regularly is so important. You have to be prepared for those times so that you don't have to touch your investment money, so that money can keep growing.

Don't give into panic, and remember that this too will pass. It's so important to stay as calm as you can.


Acorns CEO Noah Kerner says it's important to keep money invested and stay focused on the long term.


Why is it important to invest, especially now?
You should start investing as early as possible in your life, because the earlier you start, the more you can benefit from compounding. Warren Buffett calls it "the eighth wonder of the world." It's this mechanism whereby your money grows on top of itself because of compound returns. The way to think about it is if you started investing $5 a day at 18 years old, by 65, that could be $1.5 million, because of compounding. Now, the actual amount that you would have invested would be an order of magnitude less than that.

Every downturn in history has ended in an upturn. For me, that's the most important message during this time to remember. The reason the economy has dropped so sharply is because we have a global pandemic happening. But that doesn't change the fact that the fundamentals of our economy are good and strong. Going all the way back to the beginning of the market, even though there have been periods where the market's dropped 50% or 60%, every downturn in history has ended in an upturn. You have to stay focused on the long term. You have to stay patient.


What would you say to younger people who might brush aside the importance of saving and investing?
Take in what's happening right now, and don't forget it. When the dot-com bubble happened ... and when the Great Recession happened in 2008, everybody felt it. And everybody said the same things: "This is unprecedented. I'm never going to forget this moment." And then time passes and people forget.

When there's a sale in fashion, people go and buy things. When the market is on sale for 30% to 35%, that's when you get in.

What are some of the major mistakes people make about saving during a crisis?
They pull their money out while the market's going down or after the market's gone down. They lock in losses.

Let's imagine you have $100 in the market, and the market goes down 30%. You have $70. You didn't lose that money. You only lose that money if you pull it out, and then you've lost $30. If you keep it in, and use history as a barometer, that $70 dollars will go back up over $100 and then way past that.

I always hear, "I lost so much money." No, you didn't. You only lose the money if you pull it out.

Now, sometimes people are in really tough circumstances and they have to pull it out. But if you prepare for these times, if you save and invest small amounts of money regularly, then there's a potential that you won't be in that position.

How has budgeting changed in recent years? Has there been a sizable shift in priorities or new obstacles?
Budgeting has long been a laborious task. A lot of our products are trying to help automate that process as much as possible. The movement is to eliminate the need to think about budgeting because it's incredibly laborious and difficult.

We're about to roll out a feature as part of our product called Smart Deposit. If you use our debit card checking account products and you move your direct deposit paycheck over to Acorns, we will automatically allocate a percentage of that into retirement, investment and savings accounts for you.

What other lessons can new investors learn from this crisis? 
Don't watch the market obsessively. Try to shut it off and just repeat those words to yourself: Every downturn in history has ended in an upturn. If you have the extra cash to invest, keep it invested and stay focused on the long term.

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