What COVID-19 Taught Me About My Spending Habits

Our lives are in a spectrum of upheaval right now. And in times of crisis, a lot of our habits come to the surface—some with surprises. I’m learning a few new things about my spending habits and money management as we deal with the COVID-19 crisis.


1. “Essential expenses” is a short list

If you would have asked me in January what my essential expenses were, I would have rattled off a long list. Of course the basics were there. Housing, utilities, and some groceries would have made the cut. But on top of that you would have found a lot of takeout, manicures on a Tuesday, and impulse buys.

There’s nothing like a crisis to break down what real minimalism is. This time has made me recognize not only the obvious splurges that I boldly considered essential, but other small ones. (Vias home from the office when the subway would do, I’m looking at you.) But it also made me realize where I was skimping on essential expenses that would make my life better. These days, I’m spending much more on groceries to whip up easy recipes at home. Now this looks like ingredients that make me excited about cooking, splurging an extra dollar or two for the good olive oil. Those feel like the crisis “essential” spending that actually helps me maintain a more balanced and healthy lifestyle right now.


2. My home investments matter

Relatedly, we’re all getting intimately acquainted with the idea that our homes are our sanctuaries. As an apartment dweller for most of my life, I’m unlikely to dump money into a piece of furniture that could end up on a curb in two years. However, I’m also someone who is starting to get better acquainted with the pitfalls of fast fashion, and I’ve never quite translated that idea to my home spending.

The crisis is changing how I invest in things I’m bringing into my home. Instead of bottles of sparkling water to replace my desk-side fix during the day, I invested in my own little carbonator. Less waste, and a satisfying investment that supports my afternoon sanity and personal sustainability goals. Similarly, a tattered piece of furniture at my front door started to become a pain point the more I was trying to get out for afternoon walks. An hour of researching better consoles to store my keys, walking shoes, and all the dog goodies has turned that daily ritual into a joy instead of a slog.


3. Rainy-day funds are critical

Most of us probably never thought a global pandemic would prompt the use of our rainy-day funds. Mine has come in handy a number of ways. I have a short-term fund that covers unexpected expenses, even if they’re not a true “emergency.” In this case, it was helpful to use to make some donations to causes I wanted to support, stock up on a few medical and household essentials that would have ballooned my grocery budget, and make a few upgrades to my home office that have changed my daily productivity while we’re working from home.

No, these aren’t true emergencies. But having a short-term stash that’s set aside for a particular purpose gave me some financial flexibility during this strange time. And, saving for different time horizons and various goals with the right types of accounts can be an important part of our financial strategy in any circumstance.


4. Automating my finances brought peace of mind

The past few months have been a whirlwind of information overload, crisis management on every front—work, home, and financially. With this level of life chaos, I found that my efforts to automate my finances has paid me back many times over. The ability to just jump into my budgeting app and understand how my inflows and outflows would be changing was a lifesaver. I could quickly spot bills that would be flexing up and down based on some lifestyle changes, and know exactly how our household spending would be affected.

Having all of this in place before a crazy time struck made a huge difference in my financial wellness. It also reaffirmed the value of having some of these “financial adjacent” things in place, like having named beneficiaries on our household accounts, wills in place, and other life admin. These things feel like a heavy lift in the best of times. In the worst, you’ll be glad you thought ahead.


5. Sometimes spending is a replacement for connection

We may have all made peace with our daily latte habit, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take lessons from our micro-spending habits. I recognized that mid-afternoon during a work day, I was really ready for my normal coffee break. Somehow, a home brewed cup didn’t really hold the same appeal. Likewise, on my usual group workout days I found myself scrolling through my shopping apps, adding new workout wear to a growing shopping cart.

After a few of these instances, I recognized that what I really missed was the human connection and communal moments that came with these expenses. While I was saving money from not having a weekly workout class or dropping into drinks with colleagues, I was at risk of spending in other areas to make up for that activity. Swapping spending for togetherness just took a little planning. I commit to a live stream workout class with a friend once a week, and check in with my colleagues for impromptu virtual coffee dates to still create some of that closeness without the cost.


How has your spending changed during the crisis?