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COVID-19

For some, pandemic is a rare chance to save money

Samantha Fields Sep 8, 2020
martin-dm via Getty Images

It feels macabre to say it outloud, but for Laura Temming and her wife, Rachel, the pandemic has been great financially. They’ve both been lucky enough to keep their jobs, so they’re earning the same amount they were before, but they’re spending a lot less. 

“Money that we would have spent traveling — we used to travel a lot — or that we would have spent going out with friends or whatever, that money a lot of it has shifted to putting it into savings,” said Temming, 33, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. 

They paid off a car loan much faster than they expected. They bought paddleboards. And they’ve upped their donations to social justice organizations and political candidates both local and national. But most of it is just going straight into the bank. 

Just over half of Americans have been saving more or paying down debt faster since the pandemic began, or both. That’s true both for those who are still fully employed and for those who have lost at least some of their income during the pandemic, according to a recent AP-NORC survey. A big reason for that? Two thirds say they’re spending less. 

Robert Masaya, 40, and his wife are spending a lot less eating out at restaurants in Los Angeles, where they live.

“My wife and I, even when we were dating, we’d go out a lot. We would spend not so much on things but on experiences — perhaps a restaurant or some vacation,” he said. “Cooking at home more is giving us the opportunity to save.”

Even though they’re spending more on groceries and utilities now that they’re home all the time with their daughters, and even though his wife is on maternity leave and not making her full salary, their savings account is ticking up. 

“My wife is a big organizer, she does the spreadsheets, and does all the budgets,” Masaya said. “So we were going through maybe last month to see where the money was going, where the expenses were going now that things are different with diapers and formula and everything that needs to be done for my daughter, and she was noticing that we were able to put a little bit of money away.”

They’ve used some of that extra savings to start an IRA for his wife, who’s self-employed. Much of the rest is going toward paying down a credit card they’d used to buy appliances and do some home repairs. 

Forty-five percent of those who have more money to work with now are saving it, while about a quarter are aggressively paying down debt, according to the AP-NORC survey — everything from credit card debt and car loans to medical debt and student loans. 

Rahsaan Taylor, 41, and his wife still have student loans, and in the last six years they’ve also built up a bit of credit card debt, which Taylor never expected to have. 

“It’s kind of amazing how you realize how comfortable you can live in debt in life,” he said. “You don’t want to get too comfortable.”

When everything shut down in March and they were no longer spending money on gas or grabbing lunch out, Taylor estimates their savings went up by $300 to $400 a month. At first, they used that extra money to buy new furniture and do some repairs on their home in Crown Point, Indiana, and lately, he’s also been starting to invest some in the stock market for the first time. But going forward, his main goal is to pay off debt.

“Now’s like the perfect time to really do that, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Taylor said. “This has kind of proved you never know what’s going to happen.”

Annelies Goger never expected she’d be in a position to pay off her student loans or save for a down payment anytime soon, after spending so much of her life in school getting a PhD. 

“It’s been taking me years to just climb out of that hole, and get to a place where I have more financial stability,” she said. But in the last six months, she’s been able to build up an emergency fund for the first time, and she now feels like those other financial goals are within reach, too. 

“As someone who doesn’t have parents that can give me money for a down payment, this is like a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to get ahead,” Goger said. But as someone who studies economic inequality at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., she also feels conflicted. “I feel a tremendous amount of guilt and concern, because I know that a lot more people don’t have a job at all.”

Especially because she knows those who have lost jobs in the pandemic are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, disproportionately women and disproportionately low income.

“If you think about who is able to save and who is not, it’s mostly more educated, older, white Americans, and more so men than women,” Goger said. Which is only going to accelerate economic inequality.

“I’m concerned that it’s going to basically sort of redistribute wealth up,” she said. “What we used to spend that was getting recycled to people that work in service jobs in restaurants and stores down the street from us is now going to Amazon and Walmart and online retailers.”

Marty Walsh, 33, has been thinking a lot about how and where he spends his money these days. He and his wife live in Rochester, Minnesota with their 5-year-old daughter, and they’re both still employed and making their same salaries. Much of what they’ve saved on commuting and daycare has gone into paying off their car loans and a personal loan they took out, building up savings and increasing their retirement contributions. 

But they’ve also started ordering takeout at least once a week, rather than once a month.

“We’ve prioritized local places, maybe bought a little bigger meals than we normally would, and maybe even intentionally get leftovers, and then tried to be pretty good with tipping and things like that,” Walsh said. “We want, when things are back to normal, to go back to our favorite Indian place, to our favorite brewery tours, to our favorite whatever. And we know that that takes work on our part right now.”

Many of those who are doing as well or better than they were before the pandemic began are acutely aware that their own good fortune doesn’t mean a whole lot about the world around them. While more than 60% of Americans describe their own personal financial situation as good, less than 40% say the national economy is good. It’s a strange juxtaposition for people like Marty Walsh and Laura Temming. 

“Just because we’re in the fortunate position to be doing well, I think that luck had as much to do with that as preparation,” Temming said. “And our personal security right now doesn’t certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about — gestures broadly — everything.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What does the unemployment picture look like?

It depends on where you live. The national unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 15% in April down to 8.4% percent last month. That number, however, masks some big differences in how states are recovering from the huge job losses resulting from the pandemic. Nevada, Hawaii, California and New York have unemployment rates ranging from 11% to more than 13%. Unemployment rates in Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont have now fallen below 5%.

Will it work to fine people who refuse to wear a mask?

Travelers in the New York City transit system are subject to $50 fines for not wearing masks. It’s one of many jurisdictions imposing financial penalties: It’s $220 in Singapore, $130 in the United Kingdom and a whopping $400 in Glendale, California. And losses loom larger than gains, behavioral scientists say. So that principle suggests that for policymakers trying to nudge people’s public behavior, it may be better to take away than to give.

How are restaurants recovering?

Nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed either permanently or for the long term — nearly 1 in 6, according to a new survey by the National Restaurant Association. Almost 4.5 million jobs still haven’t come back. Some restaurants have been able to get by on innovation, focusing on delivery, selling meal or cocktail kits, dining outside — though that option that will disappear in northern states as temperatures fall. But however you slice it, one analyst said, the United States will end the year with fewer restaurants than it began with. And it’s the larger chains that are more likely to survive.

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