How the pandemic has changed Americans’ spending and saving habits
For millions of Americans, the economic effects of the pandemic have been devastating, resulting in job loss, food insecurity or threat of eviction.
But for many of those who are still employed — or who have a spouse who still is — it has changed how they use their money. Some have cut expenses and increased savings, paid off debt, or donated more to help those in need. Others have spent more on impulse purchases, made big life moves or postponed them.
We asked readers how the pandemic has changed their spending and saving habits. Here’s what some of them had to say.
Out of work, using up savings
Paul Grim described himself and his wife, Michelle, as “more savers than spenders” before the pandemic struck.
Then Grim was laid off from his IT job. His wife, who is still working, has reduced her 401(k) contributions to free up some cash.
“We have been dipping into our emergency savings to cover our bills where unemployment falls short,” he said.
The couple, who live in upstate New York with their dog, Barley, are eating at home, minimizing impulse purchases and postponing pricey things like dental work.
“Once I am working again we intend to increase the amount of our emergency fund to ensure we are even more well-prepared for any potential future financial emergency, no matter how severe,” Grim said.
Jim Stearns of Alaska runs big events for nonprofits, including the state’s annual music festival Salmonfest. But his business dried up once large gatherings were canceled.
When he started collecting unemployment he was getting $800 a week, but that has since fallen to $200 a week, after the temporary $600 weekly federal supplement expired. Now he is tapping his savings to support himself and his teenage daughter.
“I’m spending very little as my savings slowly but surely diminishes by the day,” he said.
Stearns is less worried about himself than the hundreds of vendors and musicians he normally books for events. “I can limp along and survive. But the tragedy of this is this incredible trickle-down effect.”
Slashing expenses, saving more
Sarah Way reworked her family budget when her part-time job in California was cut back to one day a week and her husband’s employer temporarily cut his pay in half. Travel, dinners out and commuting expenses were eliminated by default because of the pandemic. But she went even deeper.
“We parked a car and took it off insurance. We cut cable TV. We slashed the grocery bill. After four months, my hubby’s salary went back to normal, but we didn’t adjust our budget back up,” Way said.
Instead, she noted, “We have increased our retirement savings and built a six-month cash reserve. We did complete a few house projects that had gone unfinished, but for the most part we are in better shape now than we were before Covid.”
Natalie Sawyer, a school administrator in Texas whose husband is a retired military officer and now a teacher, also took the pandemic as an opportunity to power-drive household savings.
“Before Covid, I spent money without even thinking about it. We ate out a lot and I shopped for things that I didn’t necessarily need. It was a kind of free-for-all with my money. Once Covid hit and [we] were forced to stay in, we started cooking all of [our] meals,” Sawyer said.
“With that in mind, starting in March I decided to put $500 a month in an interest-bearing online savings account just to see if I could make it work.”
Sawyer has saved an extra $4,200 so far. Even though she has resumed some shopping, she said, “I find myself not spending nearly as much as I used to and we’re still cooking a lot more at home. … Covid helped us realize that we don’t need most of the stuff that we were spending on.”
Karen Jones works in the cloud software industry in Oregon. Her husband, Kim, whose work is tied to outdoor concerts and fairs, was laid off early on in the pandemic, then brought back in June. But he was laid off again in mid-August.
Jones initially halted contributions to her 401(k) and put the money into their savings account. “I wanted cash that I could get to right away if needed and I didn’t have faith that the market wouldn’t slide further and negate any contributions that I made during that time,” she said.
The couple canceled vacation plans and paid off their credit cards. The extra money her husband got as a result of the temporary $600 a week federal unemployment subsidy went toward savings. Jones is also saving money on gas and lunches out because she has been working from home.
“We still eat out or [do] takeout once a week to support local businesses, but are not looking for any other big ticket activities such as vacations through the summer of next year,” Jones said.
Putting life on hold
Michelle Williams graduated from college during the Great Recession in 2008. And it was only recently that she and her husband, Sheldon, had felt financially and professionally secure enough to consider trading up to a better house from their starter home in Missouri. They also were going to start a family.
Now they’re holding off.
Williams, who works for her county’s public library, didn’t lose her job. But her husband was laid off in March. He has since found new work, but their household income is a little less than before. Still, Williams said, “We are very, very lucky.”
Normally she’d put any extra money they made toward their mortgage or student loan debt. And she had planned to start saving for retirement before Covid hit, but now all spare cash is used to create a six-month financial cushion should they lose their jobs in the next year or have a big medical expense. “I don’t know what might be coming in the near future,” Williams said.
Paying off debts
Kalikoweo Keolanui-Daniele and her husband, Louis Daniele, both work for a coffee producer in Hawaii and live in a remote area, where their home — now paid off — runs on solar power and rainwater. They also grow their own vegetables.
Neither has been laid off, but Keolanui said the pandemic has made a huge impact on their money habits.
She used their stimulus check to pay down credit card debt and put more money toward her auto loan so she can pay it off faster. Plus, she added, “I put at least half [my paycheck] toward savings and plan to continue to do this to build up an emergency nest egg.”
They’ve eliminated all non-essential spending — from recreational shopping to haircuts and beauty treatments. Keolanui did, however, invest in a good pair of hair scissors.
“I feel more and more comfortable the bigger that nest egg gets,” she said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s so much uncertainty.”
Looking to buy a home
Gillian Needham, a mental health practitioner, and her partner, Mike Ryerse, were not savers before the pandemic. They used to spend most of their disposable income traveling from their home in Minnesota to see their favorite bands.
But the pandemic has provided them an opportunity to squirrel away money.
“Since Covid began, we have dropped event and bar attendance to zero and have been able to save nearly $10,000 in the last seven months,” Needham said. That money is now earmarked to help them buy their first house.
Looking ahead, Needham expects they’ll continue to save and not only because there’s not much they do during the cold winters. “[The longer] I do something the more it sticks,” she said.
Anna Harrington, a college professor in Tennessee, has never been much of a shopper. She used to spend money on plants, concerts and theater. But since the pandemic, she’s become a kind of impulse shopper.
“I’m ‘comfort shopping’ the way that others ‘comfort eat,'” Harrington said. “I’m saving and spending the same amounts as before — I’m lucky that my job is secure. But this past summer, I bought the oddest things I never would have normally bought — a sunrise alarm clock, pink fuzzy bunny slippers, the entire Buffy the Vampire CD collection, and vintage furniture from the 1970s,” Harrington said.
“When the bunny slippers arrived, I thought, ‘What am I doing?'”
Donating more than ever
Harrington also said that she’s making more charitable contributions than ever, including donating her entire stimulus check.
So is Kristina Laursen-Carr, a substitute teacher in upstate New York with four children. She feels lucky that her family’s finances have remained stable. Her husband, Joseph, a helicopter pilot who is retired from the military, is the main breadwinner and works for an air ambulance company.
When the pandemic hit, Laursen-Carr no longer traveled to pick up their two daughters and bring them home from college every weekend. And the family didn’t take vacation this summer. So she used the money they saved to bolster their retirement savings and help others.
“The best thing we started to do was buy food [and other] items for our local food bank on a weekly basis. We donate between $20 to $30 each week,” Laursen-Carr said.
Doyle Tarver, a retiree now living in Mexico, said his income — from Social Security and savings — has remained steady. But Tarver said he has been spending more in recent months than before the pandemic to support local businesses, even if it means sometimes buying things he doesn’t need. And he’s been tipping wait staff in restaurants up to 50%.
“I feel fortunate to be in the financial situation I am in and think everyone in a position to help should do so,” Tarver said. “There are many out there who have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced and need our help.”