Spending out of control post-COVID lockdown? Here are five tips from a money expert


(NEW YORK) — For people who were fortunate enough to be employed during the coronavirus pandemic, the past 18 months of lockdown have provided one silver lining, a boon to their wallets.

With dining out and happy hours cut to a minimum and commutes gone for people who could work remotely, the pandemic inadvertently became a money saver for people lucky enough to do so.

As restaurants, stores and beauty salons reopen and with some returning to the office, the urge to spend is back.

With the economy on the rebound, Americans are now spending an average $765 more a month than they did this same time last year, according to the MassMutual Consumer Spending & Saving Index.

Millennials and Gen Z are spending even more, dishing out an average of $1,016 more per month compared to last summer, with the majority of the money going toward travel and dining out, according to the index.

“Now, with the ability to travel and go out more freely, [people are] making big plans and possibly spending more than they normally would to ‘make up for lost time,’ as they see it,” Farnoosh Torabi, editor-at-large of CNET Personal Finance and host of the “So Money” podcast. “There may be a tendency to go overboard.”

On the flip side, people who struggled financially during the pandemic — a large percentage of the U.S. population — may have a harder time keeping up with increased expenses, according to Torabi.

Just over 50% of U.S. households have any type of savings account, according to an analysis released this month by Consumer Federation of America, an association of non-profit consumer organizations.

“People who suffered financial losses in the pandemic are likely having a hard time budgeting, especially in the face of inflation and rising costs,” she said. “Prices on everything from coffee to cars have gone up in recent months. There’s definitely some sticker shock going on.”

Here are five tips from Torabi to help find your footing financially in this next stage of the pandemic.

1. Keep your emotions separate from spending.

“It’s important to be mindful of your emotions related to spending and saving right now,” said Torabi. “The pandemic was traumatic and coming out of this experience, many of our emotions will linger.”

“Making financial decisions in a highly emotional state is never wise. So take time to reflect and reevaluate your goals and values, which may have changed dramatically over the course of the pandemic,” she said. “Get clear on any lifestyle changes you may want to make, the relationship or career shifts you may newly desire, and from here, start to design a new financial roadmap for yourself that’s aligned with all of that.”

“There’s no sense in rushing to make financial choices that don’t match your goals,” added Torabi.

2. Prioritize building your savings.

Torabi advises saving money as a top priority, even over paying debt.

“The pandemic woke many of us up to the fact that life is fragile and it can take very unexpected turns, and along with that, it reminded us of the importance of having a healthy savings cushion that can help us ride out several months of unemployment or financial loss,” she said. “That’s first and foremost.”

When it comes to prioritizing savings over debt, Torabi explained, “That may sound controversial to some, but if you are starting at $0 in savings, it’s important to dedicate as much of your paycheck as possible — and quickly — towards having a minimum 6 months of your bare-bones living expenses reserved in a savings account.”

“Pay the minimums on your debts every month, of course. But contribute any extra income towards your emergency savings first before any other financial goal,” she said. “Start small if you have to, but just start.”

Torabi also recommends making your savings payments automatic, like having it taken out automatically from your paycheck.

“When you earn a lump sum of cash for a holiday, birthday or tax refund, funnel it towards savings first, all until you save a minimum six months worth of your necessary monthly living expenses,” she said, also suggesting the app Digit, which helps users save small amounts of money, like $5 here and there.

3. Spend money on needs, not wants.

“Prior to the pandemic, we may have been spending money on items that didn’t really fulfill us or create meaningful value, things like subscription services or fancy clothes,” she said. “But we learned again what matters most like our affording health care, investing in a support system in your life and investing in experiences that create memories, as opposed to shiny objects that lose their luster after a while.”

4. Don’t spend to ‘catch up’ with people on social media.

“Pace yourself and be true to your financial reality, not your friends’ or what you see on social media that’s pressuring you to spend,” recommends Torabi. “Honestly, social media can be a costly influence, so if you find yourself triggered to spend because of ads or friends’ experiences on Instagram, step away from the app for a while. And take time to get clear on your personal goals.”

“From there, take it month by month,” she said.

5. Reverse-engineer your money goals.

“Think of creating a ‘new normal’ way of life for yourself that takes into account all the lessons and learnings of the last 18 months,” said Torabi. “If there’s an experience you really want to afford, then create a plan and start saving now. Reverse-engineer it. If you start saving a little today, you have a far better chance of achieving your goal in good time.”

Torabi said a similar approach can be taken when it comes to budgeting for eating out.

“If it helps, create financial ‘rules’ for yourself related to eating out like, ‘I will pack lunch three out of five days and leave two days of the week for eating out,'” she said. “Or reserve a budget ahead of time for lunches and coffee so that you can better plan for these expenses and not feel guilty.”

“I’d never say to someone, ‘Don’t have the latte,'” she added. “Instead, figure out what plans or trade-offs you can arrange to afford that more comfortably.”

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