COVID-19 has changed how we think about our healthcare and our social lives. Will it change how we think about our finances?
Long after the vaccines are injected and the pandemic has passed, COVID-19’s aftermath might linger for years. Perhaps none will be more profound than how Americans think about their money.
A new poll from HerMoney.com and Debt.com asked more than 1,000 working Americans about their financial habits as the pandemic dragged into (and now past) December. More than two-thirds of respondents say they’re spending much less than during normal times – which includes those who haven’t suffered any income loss.
While that’s not really a surprise, this was: HerMoney and Debt.com asked, “Has the pandemic changed how you think about money?” For those who lost money in 2020 – from a quarter of their income to all of it – over 70 percent said the pandemic had changed their thinking in “profound ways.” But here’s the kicker: Among those who lost no income, those whose thinking changed in profound ways was still 50 percent.
Why would the pandemic change so many minds even among those who have lost nothing, compared to those who have lost something or even everything? That doesn’t seem to make sense, but financial expert Jean Chatzky, CEO of HerMoney.com and best-selling author, thinks she knows why.
“Sometimes the fear of losing something is more overwhelming than the actual loss when it happens,” Chatzky says. “So those who are worried they might be next are the ones who are preparing now for the worst.”
Debt.com chairman and CPA Howard Dvorkin agrees. In his three decades as a financial counselor, and in the course of writing two personal finance books, he’s seen the desire for change arise most often from fear.
“During trying times, most of us promise ourselves, ‘I’m gonna change if I can just get through this.’ Sadly, we don’t feel that urgency to improve when times are good,” Dvorkin says. “This pandemic has been awful, and I don’t want to sound cavalier by saying it has a silver lining – too many people have suffered and died. But these results show that these terrible times might have a silver lining – real, long-lasting drops in the huge debts Americans have run up this millennium.”
Chatzky and Dvorkin’s analysis seems borne out by other survey results …
One question was particularly revealing. It was about budgeting, which is something Americans have historically resisted but have lately started doing more often.
Respondents were asked if they agree with this statement: “I never made a household budget before, and now I have.” Among those who have lost income, over 16 percent did. Even among those who lost no income, 8 percent agreed.
The numbers jumped even higher with this statement: “While I made a budget in the past, I never stuck with it. Now I am.” Whether respondents lost no income or some, more than a quarter agreed with sticking with a budget this time around (38 percent of those who lost income and 25 percent of those who have.
Of particular interest to Dvorkin were the responses to this statement: “I’m paying more attention to the interest rates on my credit cards.” For those who lost income, it was 37 percent. But even for those who hadn’t it was 30 percent.
Dvorkin has spent his career – and as the author of a couple of books – trying to convince Americans to slash their credit card debt.
“There are few interest rates higher than those on credit cards,” Dvorkin says. “Yet this country is drowning in $1 trillion in balances. While credit card rates fluctuate all the time, they’re hovering around 20 percent. That means for every $5 you spend, the credit card companies are plucking $1 from your pocket.”
If the pandemic is focusing Americans on these steep balances, that could represent the biggest savings of them all.
One of the least-surprising results was the fact more than 8 in 10 of respondents who lost income agreed with this: “I now realize how important it is to save money for emergencies.” A pandemic will do that.
For Dvorkin, this is one of the most compelling results.
“We can’t control when the next pandemic – or any catastrophe – will hit, but we can prepare for it,” Dvorkin says. “Here’s an interesting thought experiment. We already know that most Americans have no emergency fund. But what if they did? What if this pandemic began with most of us having six months of living expenses saved up? How would that affect the shutdowns and the stimulus legislation? Current events would have gone very differently.”
Finally, nearly 15 percent of the overall population surveyed said the pandemic has caused them to focus on retirement. More than a quarter of those who lost – and those who didn’t – agreed.
Again, Chatzky has a theory. “Many people have cut back their spending to the bare bones during this pandemic, and I think they’ve realized they don’t want their retirement to look like that. It’s been a wake-up call,” she says.
The best news yet
For Dvorkin, one result really stuck out to him – and gave him hope for the future. It was the response to a seemingly minor statement: “I’m more willing to buy used cars and other pre-owned big-ticket items.”
Dvorkin was impressed that 37 percent of those with income loss and 33 percent of those without agreed with this statement. Why?
“Because it means this pandemic might have changed the most important psychological barrier to getting out of debt,” he says. “Look at any car ad. It’s not just selling transportation. It’s selling an image, and many commercials aren’t shy about saying, ‘This vehicle will show everyone you’re successful and make your friends jealous.’ That attitude has resulted in more personal debt than anything else in our nation’s history.”
If the pandemic has convinced us that what’s really important is substance and not image, then Dvorkin and Chatzky both say the same thing: When these awful times end, we might be stronger for them.
Published by Debt.com, LLC