By Ashley Shafer | Financial advisor, Morgan Stanley
Recently, I Googled advice on best at-home workouts, cooking in quarantine, and what to watch on Netflix — but what about advice on financial planning during a pandemic?

The last several months have tested us, stressed us and challenged us to find the blessings amid the struggles. As we attempt to adapt to our "new normal," there is opportunity to think about best practices in financial planning of long-term investments.

Evidence suggests women may be hit harder financially during COVID-19. Women are already facing pay gaps compared to male peers, and working in occupations that are more likely to see suspensions, terminations or reduced hours. These fields include social services, education, personal care services, and office and administrative support. Women are also more likely to take time off or quit their jobs to care for children or other family members.

According to a new survey released by the National Endowment for Financial Education, nearly 9 in 10 Americans say the COVID-19 crisis is causing stress on their personal finances. Investors need advice now more than ever.

While all family circumstances and situations are different, here are eight pieces of advice that can help when making financial decisions during this unprecedented time.

For long-term investments:

1. If at all possible, stay the course.

Fear and emotion drive the market. Investors often underperform because they pull out of the market when markets are declining and don’t jump back in until markets have recovered. This causes them to buy back in when the market is at a higher level.

Avoiding the stock market’s worst days most likely means missing the best days. Over the long term, the S&P 500 has grown despite negative events. Don’t let emotion drive you, and consider staying the course!

2. See market declines as a buying opportunity.

Legendary investor John Templeton once said, "To buy when others are despondently selling and to sell when others are avidly buying requires the greatest of fortitude and pays the greatest ultimate rewards."

The lows of March provided an opportunity to buy into the stock market at a lower rate. Given the unprecedented volatility, we may experience future pullbacks the next few months to years, which may also lead to potential buying opportunities.

3. Keep contributing to your retirement account.

Individuals sometimes stop contributing when markets decline, thinking their money isn’t working as hard for them. Actually, it’s the opposite. By contributing regularly, you invest at different prices and different quantities when markets rise and fall. These ups and downs result in the potential to lower your average share cost.

4. Lower taxable income and allow investments to regain momentum.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act waives required minimum distributions for IRAs and defined contribution plans (including 401(k), 403(b) and governmental 457(b) plans) for calendar year 2020, including RMDs for 2019 that must be taken on or before April 1, 2020, by individuals who turned age 70½ in 2019, but only to the extent such RMD had not been distributed before Jan. 1, 2020.

Defer taking the required minimum distribution from IRAs if you are able. If you do not need this money, it may allow your investments time to regain momentum.

For day-to-day decisions:

1. As soon as you can, start saving emergency funds.

More than half (54%) of Americans say among the top five things causing the most financial stress right now is not having enough saved (41% for emergency savings; 23% for retirement), while 48% say they are worried about their ability to pay bills. Once the pandemic passes, consider working with a financial adviser to find ways you can potentially save money to prepare if/when emergency funds are needed again.

2. Determine needs vs. wants.

We may think buying something will make us feel better, and the internet is always at our fingertips. However, possessions typically do not equal long-term satisfaction. Instead, psychologists have determined we’re happier when anticipating experiences, enjoying them in the moment, and reflecting on them later. So get creative! Plan experiences such as picnics outside, hiking with your dog or making art with your kids.

3. Be aware of coronavirus scams.

Hackers and fraudsters are increasingly using coronavirus scams to entice potential victims. Here are some tips to help you protect yourself and your organization.

  • Obtain facts from reputable and official news sources. Significant developments will be reported through reputable outlets first, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Be wary of any request to send funds quickly or scams related to the COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress.
  • Do not click on links embedded in web pages or emails related to the coronavirus. If you believe the message may be legitimate, contact the organization through confirmed channels.
  • Beware of any "investment" opportunities claiming to support companies that have developed a "cure" or "vaccine."
  • If you’re working from home, look out for spoofed emails or calls attempting to compromise remote access and company data.

For more information about social engineering scams and how to spot them, read this article in Morgan Stanley’s Online Security Center.

4. Set aside time for reflection.

Count your blessings, develop more gratitude, savor the small things, spend time with family, and prioritize your values.

In addition, show your generosity vs. accumulation. Keep charity in mind — times are tough for many families and nonprofit organizations. The charitable deduction has increased and limitations on the deduction amount for charitable cash contributions has been suspended for 2020. Another way to give back may be by donating your stimulus check or leaving an extra tip with those funds.

Remember, this situation is temporary. We will get through this together. Continue to stay grounded, stay the course and support those around you.

Ashley Shafer is a financial adviser with the global wealth management division of Morgan Stanley in Des Moines. Shafer has more than a decade of experience in the wealth services industry. She has a special interest in working with nonprofit organizations, women and families. The information contained in this article is not a solicitation to purchase or sell investments. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management or its affiliates.