From small things (utility bills) to big things (banking), Americans will earn and spend differently long after the pandemic ends

4 minute read

During traumatic times in our history, pollsters scramble to ask Americans not only how they feel in the moment, but how the current crisis will affect them later. This pandemic is no different.

For example, the 2020 Healthy Handwashing Survey shows 9 in 10 Americans are washing their hands these days – more than double what the pre-pandemic number.[1] When the danger passes, many say they’ll keep washing their hands.

As a parent, I care about those handwashing numbers (Wouldn’t it be nice to never have to ask your kids again, “Did you wash your hands?”). But as a CPA and financial counselor, I care most about the financial habits that will forever change after the danger passes. Just in August, five polls were released that studied just that.

1. Working at home

While there’s no reliable data on just how many more Americans are working at home during this pandemic, a poll by an organization called The Center for Generational Kinetics asked 1,000 employees about how they feel about working from home.[2] Here’s how the researchers themselves described the top result:

“Most shockingly, a majority (53 percent) of Americans do not want to work remotely even part-time after the pandemic ends.”

 The reason? More than 4 in 10 felt they “do not have the tools they need to successfully work remotely.” If they don’t have those tools six months into the pandemic, they’re unlikely to get them before it ends. Which means predictions of a seismic shift to work-at-home probably isn’t happening.

2. Going to the bank

Unlike what we just discussed, this poll result is anything but shocking: Americans are banking online in record numbers during the pandemic.

What happens after the pandemic? Citizen’s Bank asked more than 1,000 consumers and nearly 250 business leaders what they think will happen to banking post-COVID.[3] The result: “Of these respondents, 66 percent of consumers and 73 percent of businesses feel that these changes will be permanent.”

In other words, bye-bye branch banks.

Yet nearly two-thirds also told pollsters “they prefer human expertise when receiving financial advice.” By almost the same margin, they’ve grown comfortable giving personal information over the phone and online – because, during this pandemic, they simply don’t have a choice. So these consumers are themselves predicting “banks will use AI” (artificial intelligence)  to meld the remote with the personal.

The most successful post-pandemic banks just might be the ones that offer secure Zoom-like services, so their customers get the personal attention of a branch bank without having to drive there.

3. Utility bills

This might seem like the smallest item on the list, but it actually comes with a big lesson.

A smart-tech company called Sense asked more than 1,300 Americans how they’re keeping their utility bills down since they’re spending so much more time at home.[4]

Turns out their methods are decidedly old-school, and this summer “the most popular energy-saving measure will be to use fans as much as possible rather than air conditioning (55 percent), while about a third (35 percent) plan to turn off their AC entirely and open windows to stay cool.”

The pollsters for the smart-tech company sponsoring this poll were a little stunned that Americans aren’t embracing smart tech:

A surprisingly small number of people are turning to smart home technology to reduce their energy costs. Only 24 percent have or plan to install a smart or programmable thermostat for the first time and only 10 percent plan to install a home energy monitor to see what’s using energy in their home.

That doesn’t surprise me at all. These uncertain economic times mean most families rate smart thermometers way down the list of must-have purchases, especially when they can fire up a fan and still save.

However, one big change will outlast the pandemic: Free stuff.

As a financial counselor, I’ve long been frustrated by cash-strapped Americans who don’t take advantage of all the free services that can help them save money. Most utility companies I’ve known offer these services, yet Sense found: 

Nearly half (45 percent) of those surveyed didn’t know if their utility offers rebates or free home assessments for smart thermostats or air conditioning upgrades. In fact, many utilities offer these kinds of incentives to residents.

Now that many Americans are discovering these services, they won’t forget them. So I expect many more people will take advantage of them, even when they’re no longer housebound.

4. Saving for retirement

A new survey about retirement sounds like it’s negative, but I consider it positive: “Anxiety about long-term retirement savings is up.”

Charles Schwab polled 1,000 employees who have 401(k)s and learned the current pandemic has most of them worried about their long-term financial prospects.[5] I like that. Why? Because worrying can be the first step to acting. In fact, that’s happening, according to pollsters:

Two in five participants also say they made a change to their 401(k) account due to COVID-19, citing rebalancing and increasing contribution rates as the most common changes.

I wish it were more, but I’ll take it. Another huge frustration for personal finance experts is that most employees have a “set it and forget it” attitude about their 401(k)s. Instead, you need to look hard at the rate of return and the investment categories – at least annually. After this pandemic, I expect many employees will have realized the value of doing this, and they’ll continue. 

5. Valuing their homes

I’ve never met a homeowner who didn’t know this: It’s the most expensive and important purchase you’ll ever make. The pandemic has moved the discussion from knowing to doing, according to Hippo Insurance Services, which polled 1,000 homeowners.[6]

“Most Americans (58 percent) plan to make long-term investments for their home when the pandemic ends,” the poll revealed.

The reason is simple. Sheltering at home and worrying about their next paycheck has driven home to homeowners “the importance of protecting the financial value of their home is more important today than when they first bought their house.”

Once this pandemic ends – and it will – we’ll still wash our hands more often. Not all of us, but more of us than before the pandemic. I expect the same thing will happen with our money. I sure hope so.

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About the Author

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

I’m a certified public accountant who has authored two books on getting out of debt, Credit Hell and Power Up, and I am one of the personal finance experts for Debt.com. I have focused my professional endeavors in the consumer finance, technology, media and real estate industries creating not only Debt.com, but also Financial Apps and Start Fresh Today, among others. My personal finance advice has been included in countless articles, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and Entrepreneur as well as virtually every national and local newspaper in the country. Everyone should have a reason for living that’s bigger than themselves, and besides my family, mine is this: Teaching Americans how to live happily within their means. To me, money is not the root of all evil. Poor money management is. Money cannot buy happiness, but going into debt always buys misery. That’s why I launched Debt.com. I’m glad you’re here.

Published by Debt.com, LLC