To Spend or Not to Spend? Is that Really the Question?

By now, most of the people who are going to get the $1,200 COVID-19 stimulus check, and who had direct deposit, have received it already. And those waiting on the paper check should get theirs in coming weeks.

So the question I’ve seen from a lot of people on social media is what they should do with their check. It’s been interesting, but not completely surprising to hear how some people are talking about spending their money; from taking a vacation to throwing themselves a huge party, or going out on the town, once the social distancing orders are lifted.

But there are many people where that question never crossed their minds. The thought of using that money for anything other than life’s necessities, isn’t a luxury for them. They are past-due on their rent or mortgage; have a car payment coming up; are dreading their next utility bill, and just trying to keep food on the table for their kids. 

I’m one of the lucky ones because I’m fortunate enough to still have my job, with a monthly paycheck that covers all of my bills. So I put my check into my savings account to continue solidifying my emergency funds.  I realize there are many people who can’t do that. But then there are others who won’t do that. 

I recently read a Facebook post from a woman who asked if she should use the money to pay off one of her credit cards, or if she should save the money. She went on to give additional information including the fact that she did not already have a savings account, her hours at work had recently been cut, and her boss said they would re-evaluate the future in a couple of months. After reading the additional information, I was honestly dumbfounded as to why she even needed to ask the question about whether or not she should save the money. I mean, why on earth would you spend money (even to pay off a credit card) when you’re already working fewer hours, and you’ve been put on notice that things might change again — loss of even more hours or possibly the job itself?

I do understand someone’s desire to pay have debt. But a little common sense should also come in to play. First, she admitted that she had no savings, then so she has nothing to fall back on in case of an emergency. That’s never a good place to be in. It’s actually one of the reasons many people continue to have rotating debt — something minor comes up (say a flat tire) but the person has no emergency funds, so they use a credit card; oftentimes paying hundreds of dollars more than what the item cost by the time they pay it off. If they had put money aside, they could have purchased the tires with cash.

Second, she had already experienced a cut in numbers of hours at work; which means she’s making less money now than she was a few months ago. How can anyone even be contemplating what to do with their money when they see the economic impact of COVID-19 and the Stay at Home orders across the country. And in these uncertain times, pay cuts aren’t just happening to hourly employees. My former workplace (I’ve been gone for over 10 years) had an across the board pay cut to all salaried employees making over a certain amount. Had I still been working there, I would have fallen into that cut off and therefore, have experienced a 5-10% pay cut. Even if the cuts are temporary, they still impact you in the moment, and for however long they last. I’ve often said that it doesn’t matter how much money you make, if you’re living right up to the amount of your paycheck (or over it), then even a small change can quickly turn into something worse .

And third, she’d also already noted that her company had indicated other actions may be taken at a later time. The nature of those actions, I’m sure, might include another pay cut, or layoffs, as we’re seeing around the country. That should have been enough for anyone to heed the yellow flag and proceed with caution. What good is it to pay off a credit card, in lieu of saving money, only to lose your job, and end up having to run your card back up again to pay bills, with no income. Few people realize that even payouts for unemployment benefits are far below what someone’s monthly income would normally have been.

So what’s this all about? 

In the U.S. most stimulus plans are designed to get money into citizens’ hands, so that they can in turn go spend and help jump start the economy. In this case, the economy was doing fine, until the U.S. found itself a little behind in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The US went from barely a dozen cases at the end of February to several hundreds of thousands of cases just four weeks later. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, sporting events stopped, music tours were rescheduled, festivals and business conferences cancelled; students were sent home for online learning, “non-essential” businesses were closed, people stopped flying, and social distancing prevented even small coffee shops, restaurants, and boutique retail from remaining open. As of mid-April, there are almost 750,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and over 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment.

This is not normal. And we may not see normal for many months to come; if ever. So we need to stop treating our finances as if we have any guarantees for what happens next. Not that we ever did.

So, to spend or not to spend?

Given the uncertainty of our future life without a vaccine for this virus happening before 2021 — with or without lifted stay at home orders — it doesn’t seem plausible that the economy and American life, in general, will return to the pre-Coronavirus, pre-March time period. So any level of careless spending, even spending for something that might otherwise seem sensible (i.e. paying off credit card debt) to me seems to be a little risky in this environment.

There are people waiting for their unemployment check today who may have had a very different view of those benefits when they had a job and never thought they would need it. Small business owners may never be able to reopen their businesses. Live events may be sidelined for another year. And some entrepreneurs and contract workers are visiting their local food banks for the first in their lives.

It’s our new normal. Even if it is temporary. And adjusting your life to your new normal will require some work, planning, and discipline. But it can be accomplished.

If you’re one of the fortunate ones who still has a paycheck, then why not try to accomplish both things — continue paying off your credit card, while at the same time, open up a savings account and start putting money away. I would go one step further. Look at your spending habits and see if there are other ways you might be able to save money. Ask yourself, are there things you can give up for a few months — cable television, movie and/or music streaming services, Amazon prime, etc.? Can you put off replacing that sofa, do you really need those new shoes, are you still ordering out more than you’re cooking in? 

And what about your grocery bill? Are you utilizing coupons and reward programs, making a shopping list in advance, and resisting those impulse purchase buys that can raise your grocery bill by 5, 10, 15 or more dollars that you weren’t expecting to spend?

There are lots of ways and places where most of us can save money, if we try. If you haven’t taken this area of your life seriously in the past, now might be a good time to create new habits to get through what might be ahead now, or even what could happen later, regardless of a virus.

 

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