Pandemic living has probably reshaped your relationship with money.
Maybe you took a hit when you lost your job, or perhaps unemployment paid more than the position you lost. Or you may have continued receiving your usual paycheck, living a more sheltered version of your pre-pandemic life. Or if your situation was dire, you could have been among the people who sold plasma just to get by.
No matter how your financial life has shifted, the pandemic has served as a reminder: So much of your livelihood is delicately hinged on things going well.
With the number of vaccinated people growing every day, there is a sense of hope that our lives will soon return to normal. Many people look forward to the day they can earn and spend just as they did before the pandemic arrived. Others may be more like older generations who smoothed and reused tin foil in the decades after the Great Depression — their habits will be forever altered.
These five households provide a snapshot of just a few of the ways the pandemic has changed budgets across the country, and what will — or won’t — stay the same after the crisis has passed.
Robbie Bourne considers his family fortunate. His job as a digital media manager has continued uninterrupted because he can work from the bungalow they bought in 2018. And while his wife, Kate, had her earnings as a hairstylist completely dry up in March, she received unemployment benefits relatively quickly.
But for a couple who used to spend about $300 per month on discretionary purchases while making payments on a mortgage, student loans and credit card debt, the pandemic has been a reminder of just how easy it can be to lose your financial bearings.
The Bournes, who have a 4-year-old daughter and a baby due in April, are now thinking about money in a way they hadn’t before.
“Every single dollar gets counted,” said Mr. Bourne, 35. “Rather than thinking of month-to-month and how much is left after the bills are done, we are really trying to solidify our one-, three- and five-year plan,” he added. “Not that we haven’t had those things in the past; it feels like there is more rigidity to it.”
Government relief efforts have even offered ways to improve their financial footing. The couple is taking advantage of the federal government’s suspension of student loan payments by making them anyway — even rounding them up by $40 a month. Everything they pay now goes directly toward the roughly $20,000 they owe.
And any additional stimulus payments will be earmarked for their credit cards. By committing $1,200 per month to those debts, the couple expects they’ll be eliminated within three years.
The Bournes have also embraced the side hustle. Mr. Bourne has done marketing work for friends, stashing away those earnings should they need them, or putting them toward an eventual family vacation if they don’t. Ms. Bourne, 35, tried to get her nascent graphic design business off the ground, but that took a back seat to caring for their daughter when her preschool went virtual. Instead of paying $250 a month for online learning, they pulled her out and saved the money instead.
Food costs have stayed roughly the same: They no longer dine out, but their grocery budget has increased. Now they spend roughly $700 to $800 monthly when food shopping, instead of $500 to $600. “What is there to do other than eat decadently?” Mr. Bourne said. “That is how we end up spending a lot of our time.”
Their utility costs have risen slightly as a result of staying home more, but the effect on their discretionary spending has been more pronounced. Despite the occasional minor splurge — a used Nintendo Switch and a new armchair — their retail therapy has been limited to a few items purchased out of boredom, like a new sunlamp and some sweaters. Much of the $300 they usually spent each month has been redirected into refinishing their deck.
Mr. Bourne says he wonders what it will feel like to spend $12 on a cocktail again. “It is not hard to part with the money when you are out living your life and going to fun places,” he said. “But it will also be a shock to the system.”
Lawrence Bentley has spent the entire pandemic hunting for a job.
He was laid off just a few months before the coronavirus reached pandemic status in March. He spent December 2019 training his replacement in Bangalore over the phone — and has since applied to more than 440 jobs, which he keeps track of in a spreadsheet.
The pandemic has made the task of replacing his lucrative job in information technology data management even more challenging. “I went through 13 video interviews for just one position with an organization, which I didn’t get,” said Mr. Bentley, 65.
Because he had lost his job, Mr. Bentley started to curtail his spending even before the pandemic. He cut out some expenses, like the 45-minute drives to Boston for a variety of events, including Harvard basketball games, jazz concerts, art exhibitions or meals at a favorite restaurant. The trips to Manhattan every couple of months for live music performances in Greenwich Village were also out: Amtrak, hotels, a two-drink minimum and meals would cost roughly $500.
“The Strip House would cost an arm and a leg,” he said, referring to a favorite steakhouse.
But those changes pale in comparison to those he’s been forced to make during the pandemic. “I don’t really go anywhere at all,” he said. Searching for jobs, reading, cooking meals and exercising consume most of his day now. Grocery shopping, bike rides and walks on warmer days give him opportunities to leave his home — a two-bedroom loft he owns in a converted textile mill.
Mr. Bentley’s 20-year-old son is living with him, which means his grocery bill has increased to roughly $780 monthly, from around $320. His son covers his personal expenses with a part-time job at McDonald’s, and Mr. Bentley helps pay for his community college tuition, though he hopes financial aid will soon reduce the bill to a more manageable amount. And when Mr. Bentley’s mother died in July at age 94, he paid for her funeral.
Unemployment helped cover much of his spending, but Mr. Bentley has tapped investment accounts he had been hoping to leave untouched for several more years. In August, when he will be 66, he plans to begin collecting his full benefit from Social Security. “I worked too hard over 43 years not to get full benefits,” he said.
Mr. Bentley has made a few purchases — a trailer hitch for his bike so he can drive to trails, a new MP3 player and a Lonnie Liston Smith album, “Renaissance,” on vinyl for about $15. (When he originally purchased the record in 1976, it cost him about $4.)
He hopes it won’t be much longer before he finds a new job, and Mr. Bentley has been careful not to put too many indications of his age on his résumé. “Even 50 is too old for I.T.,” he said. Ideally, he would have worked for at least two more years before he retired, but at this rate he’ll lose two years of income that he may not be able to make up.
Until the next job comes along, Mr. Bentley’s spending — and life — won’t change much. After the pandemic, he expects he will return to church each week, but probably not the gym. The trips to see his favorite jazz singers in Manhattan will happen again, but perhaps only once or twice a year. The same with eating at restaurants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Mr. Bentley is still coming to terms with the fact that his original plan has been derailed — he thought he’d be able to decide exactly when he would retire. “Sometimes these things just happen,” he said. “You don’t get to decide. We have the circumstances of globalization, we have the circumstances of ageism and a global pandemic, all rolled into one.”
Pam Smith’s life was immediately upended during the March lockdowns. She wasn’t allowed to visit her husband in his nursing home, and she was no longer able to work.
A 66-year-old yoga instructor, Ms. Smith’s main source of income disappeared when her classes were canceled. A part-time jewelry designer, she also took a hit when flea markets and other outlets were shut down.
But those challenges were all eclipsed by the loss of her husband, Bruce.
Mr. Smith, 67, died of the coronavirus in May. It swept through his nursing home, where he was a long-term resident being treated for diabetes, which had caused him to go blind. He also struggled with neuropathy and other health conditions.
“He was suffering,” she said. “But he wasn’t ready to die.”
Ms. Smith visited him every other day, sometimes bringing steak sandwiches, pizza and other favorite foods. And she often ate dinners and snacks provided by the nursing home — which didn’t cost her anything. She now prepares all her meals at home, spending roughly $60 per week on groceries, including the fish cakes she practically lives on. That’s about twice what she had been spending when she shared meals with Bruce.
She said she didn’t realize how much of her life revolved around those visits and the friends she made inside the nursing home, something she continues to work through with the help of several bereavement groups. “All of a sudden, I didn’t have it,” she said.
During the summer, she kept busy with gardening, growing her own vegetables in raised beds, including peppers, squash, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. That helped improve her bottom line: “I saved so much money on produce,” she said. “I hardly went to the grocery store.”
In a normal year, Ms. Smith would have spent about $2,000 traveling to Denver to attend mineral shows and to buy supplies for her jewelry business, while also taking a few vacation days to unwind. But the pandemic has forced Ms. Smith, who planned to work and save until she was at least 70, into semiretirement.
She stayed afloat for some time on enhanced unemployment benefits, but the extra federal benefit expired in the summer and her state benefits ran out in mid-December. The checks only started arriving again in early February, when the year-end stimulus bill kicked in for her. Ms. Smith began collecting Social Security a few months before she would have had full benefits, which reduced her payments by $16 per month, and started dippinginto her retirement savings.
“This is not what I planned,” she said. “I want to work.”
Ms. Smith’s home is paid off, but her annual property taxes of $5,000 — due in part at the end of May and August — are a looming expense. Her car, an 11-year-old Chevy Aveo, is still going strong, even if she just paid $1,500 to replace the clutch. Frugal by nature, she isn’t a big shopper. But she does get a thrill when she finds nearly-new items — be it a beautiful sweater or unworn leggings — at the flea market. One of the few services she treats herself to is hiring a landscaper to cut her grass in warm weather.
But she yearns for her life as it was. When the pandemic is over, Ms. Smith said, she will return to the dance classes she took at nearby Lehigh University, and she would like to go back to teaching yoga and selling jewelry. She is itching to travel again — like she did before her husband’s health declined — and hopes to visit Alaska.
“I would go back to my pre-pandemic life in a heartbeat,” she said.
Karan Kaushik remembers the moment he saw a chart illustrating how many people had lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic.
“It kind of shook me,” he said.
Mr. Kaushik, who works in corporate finance for a telecom company, has always been thrifty, but the chart suddenly made him aware of how quickly things could change.
“The pandemic has made me austere,” said Mr. Kaushik, whose wife has been living in Delhi, India, for more than two years to care for her parents. He can cover all of his monthly expenses using roughly half of his paycheck, and he saves the rest. Every expense, he said, goes through a mental filter: Is it essential? “This was not the case pre-pandemic,” he added.
Over the past year, Mr. Kaushik, 43, has squirreled away an emergency fund that could cover a year’s worth of expenses. At least some of that saving can be ascribed to lost spending opportunities: Breakfast sandwiches picked up at the office cafeteria are a thing of the past, and $10 lunches and $5 snacks are long gone. In all, that saves him about $500 a month. And he no longer spends roughly $150 per month on public transportation, which included a monthly bus pass and occasional train tickets into Manhattan.
The pandemic also affected his ability to travel in ways that were more dear to him: Visits to his family in India, and his wife’s trips back to the U.S. to see him. They had been apart for more than a year before she was able to return for a visit in late February.
“I missed her terribly,” he said, “but I wanted her to be safe.”
For all his frugality, Mr. Kaushik hasn’t committed to a life of complete asceticism. His $1,500-a-month apartment was rather bare-bones before the pandemic, so he spent a little money — on a bar stool, on a nice lamp to warm up the atmosphere — to make himself more comfortable. His grocery expenditures have also increased — now $370 a month versus about $215 before — but he no longer dines out, which saves him about $100 a month.
Mr. Kaushik spends a little more freely on one of his habits: ordering meals through a weekly delivery service modeled on the metal boxed lunches that many workers in India rely on, known as tiffin. But he has moved on from a larger, chain-like business he once used.
“I am more mindful about small business, independent businesses,” he said. “And I am more mindful of being more generous to the delivery guys. I owe it to them.”
The $300 that Justine Gonzalez spent every month on a co-working space doesn’t make sense anymore. So on many days, she is elbow-to-elbow with her 7-year-old daughter, Cece, at a desk in their living room.
But a strict dedication to improving her financial health has helped give them a little more elbow room, even after the pandemic threatened her livelihood.
“Before the pandemic hit, it was like, 2020 is my year to make my Excel sheet for income and expenses,” said Ms. Gonzalez, 31.
A year ago, Ms. Gonzalez was working as a self-employed consultant providing governments and nonprofits with diversity and inclusion training. She had a consistent stream of clients and had even hoped to start her own nonprofit focused on supporting schools that serve L.G.B.T.Q. families. But her contract work slowed as businesses locked down and starting a new venture felt too risky.
A loan from the Paycheck Protection Program helped carry her through the summer, and just as those funds were running low, she found a new job: director of local advocacy for a charter school nonprofit.
“There was so much uncertainty,” Ms. Gonzalez said, that she welcomed “joining a team where I have direct deposit again.”
Ms. Gonzalez grew up in a family where debt cast a constant shadow — she learned what a loan shark was at an early age — and she had a rough patch in her early 20s that left her with credit card bills that she’s still paying off.
A regular paycheck from the new job made it easier to stay on top of tracking her spending, and allowed her to set some larger financial goals, such as starting an emergency fund and setting up a 529 college savings account for Cece.
With the new job and a solid spending plan, Ms. Gonzalez recently upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment — which costs $1,950 per month, $650 more than her old place — after searching on and off for more than a year.
“I got more serious once I had my budget together,” Ms. Gonzalez said.
The bigger apartment means more space to work beside Cece, who is in the first grade. Ms. Gonzalez considered putting her in a remote-learning pod, but it would have cost $1,000 a month, and would have provided only 10 hours of supervision a week. “That is out of my reach,” she said.
Fortunately, Ms. Gonzalez’s mother lives nearby, which helps with child care. Ms. Gonzalez and her co-parent haven’t had to use any outside babysitters.
For now, Ms. Gonzalez is focused on paying down the last of her credit card debt — she’s almost there — and has enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan for a student loan she took out when she was working toward a bachelor’s degree in political science. She would like to get that diploma, but doing so would require incurring more debt and so she has put it off for the moment.
“I am blessed to be in a better, more mindful position,” she said. “I don’t have six months of liquidity, but I am making the money I need to start building that emergency stash and my 401(k) and saving for my daughter’s college.”
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