Caroline Chang realized something during the pandemic: Before the spread of COVID-19 changed her lifestyle, she had spent a lot of money paying for ride-hailing services, visiting new bars with friends and buying drinks. But in the past 18 months, Chang, a 29-year-old user experience designer in Los Angeles, discovered she and her friends and her boyfriend didn’t really need to go to a bar or club every weekend to make themselves happy.
“Living in L.A., there’s a bunch of stuff you can go and spend money on that’s all alcohol-related. So I would say spending on drinking and alcohol has like very, very much declined because of the pandemic,” she said.
Chang found her friends had just as much fun hanging out at each other’s houses, cooking, chatting and playing board games. Every day during the height of the pandemic, Chang and her boyfriend, Nick Colt, went on a 30- to 60-minute walk, she said. Even as more venues have reopened and as coronavirus case numbers ebb and flow, they’ve continued their walks.
“For my immediate friend circle, there has been a shift in what we see value in doing and what it means to have a good time,” she said. “It feels like we left behind a lot of the types of things we placed value on before the pandemic.”
Living through a pandemic has made many millennial women like Chang reevaluate the way they spend and save their money. They’re finding that even as they can now access just about everything they could before March 2020, when many stay-at-home orders took effect, they can forgo — and even prefer skipping — things and experiences they once bought.
Financial experts have also noticed a conscious aligning of spending and savings with values during the pandemic.
“Crises reveal, right?” said Sarah Newcomb, a director of behavioral science at Morningstar, a financial services firm. “And during this crisis, because it’s been a collective one, so many of us have had our own priorities revealed to us in stark relief.”
The pandemic has upset habits and routines and people have had to adjust to new routines, Newcomb said — working from home, finding a better career fit, quitting a job to care for children, taking on an additional job, purchasing a single-family home. Others have contended with devastating job losses and evictions, as the pandemic has disproportionately hurt the economic prospects of women of color in particular.
Women were already at financial risk before the pandemic, Newcomb said, because they earn less for every dollar than men do and because they often need to take time to care for children and parents.
“You’ve got an already vulnerable financial situation exacerbated by additional unpaid labor being expected if you have children or anyone that needs care during the day, and we are still not back in the workforce to pre-pandemic levels,” Newcomb said. “And so for women, the little slack that may have existed before the pandemic has shrunk.”
Michelle Smalenberger, the chief executive of Financial Design Studio, a firm specializing in investment management and financial planning, said she has seen a shift toward saving during the pandemic. A report published in August by the U.S. Commerce Department showed that retail spending dropped by 1.1% in July compared with the previous month, an indication that the spread of the delta variant caused people to pull back on their spending (though retail spending still bounced back by 15.8% compared with July 2020, when swaths of businesses were still shut down).
For a millennial mom like Shahnaz Kelleher, the pandemic forced her to cease the flurry of activities for her kids. Before the pandemic, as her husband traveled every week for work, Kelleher, 40, a stay-at-home parent, involved herself and her kids in sports and classes to keep all of them occupied.
“I was spending tons of money on activities for me,” said Kelleher, who lives in Deer Park, Illinois. “It was my tennis, the activities for the kids. We were all just so busy and haphazard, and then everything ground to a halt.”
During the pandemic pause, instead of spending money on loads of takeout food and kids’ activities, Kelleher and her husband built a zip line in their backyard. They cooked. They invested in a home workout space in lieu of spending upward of $1,000 per month on tennis clubs, she said.
“My priorities have all shifted, and it was one of those things right where we looked at everything, and then you had to make a very conscious decision and be like, ‘Is this worth what I want to put into it?'” Kelleher said. “And so as things reopened, not everything really needed to get added back.”
The pandemic revealed who had achieved a level of financial stability and who had not, Newcomb said. For women who experienced a dip in income, the pandemic pushed them back one financial stage: from wealth accumulation to stability or from stability to survival mode or from survival mode to chaos.
The end of additional federal unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, the stoppage of eviction moratoriums and the impending unfreezing of interest on federal student loans also adds enormous financial stress.
“When these programs stop, and suddenly, all of the debt and the interest on these payments are still due, just because the world is in a pandemic doesn’t mean the financial system has stopped,” Newcomb said. “Your debtors still want their money, and your landlord still wants their money, and the utilities still want their money. And so if the money isn’t forthcoming, you’re stuck. This will send many people that were on the brink over the edge.”
Women without adequate income for their needs will need to borrow and go into debt, she said, adding that the next option is to seek assistance from social services and nonprofits.
Once women can bolster themselves into positions to earn enough income and begin paying back debt, the focus should be on tightening budgets so that there’s slack, she added.
The pandemic caused Lynda Naranjo, a single mom of four who lost her job as an accounting manager in spring 2020, to increase the amount she saves.
Naranjo, 40, who takes care of her three children ages 9 to 17 (a 19-year-old daughter lives on her own), said she never again wants to feel the way she did when she took the final $150 out of her savings account last year to pay her electric bill.
“It was terrifying, because I had no idea how I was going to pay the rent the next month,” said Naranjo, who lives in Phoenix. “What’s going to happen to my children if I get kicked out of the place we live? Is someone going to take my children from me? Who knows what’s going to happen? It was depressing. It was overwhelming to the point I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating. I was consumed with finances.”
By December, Naranjo had completely depleted the $5,000 she had in her savings account, and she knew the $240 per week in state unemployment benefits she received would not cover her monthly rent and groceries. But she was able to find temporary work at an accounting firm. And this spring, she found a permanent accounting job at a construction company.
Now, instead of saving 3% of her earnings, she has an app that automatically withdraws 25% of her paycheck and deposits it into savings, she said. Slowly, her savings account is climbing back toward $5,000, but she ultimately wants to triple that amount.
“The only thing that I keep telling myself is, ‘I will never be where I was before,'” she said. “I’ll do whatever I have to do so I’m not back there again.”
The pandemic revealed other values to women as well. Smalenberger noted the pandemic also augmented giving for some, especially when stimulus checks went out.
For Chang, the national reckoning on race caused by the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd during the pandemic prompted her to show support financially. Chang said she didn’t feel comfortable marching at protests because of the coronavirus, but she did begin donating $25 a month to a nonprofit organization focused on ending racism and police violence.
“This is the first time I really felt moved to take action,” she said, adding that “something inside me was just like, ‘Enough is enough. Something needs to change.’ And so the best way I felt like I could show up in that moment was through monthly donations.”
For Chang, the pandemic has not only expanded her giving and social awareness but also allowed for increased introspection.
“I figured out how to not really want for anything past what I had,” she said. “When you take all that stuff away — socializing or work or traveling — you’re just left with yourself. For me, that was one of the biggest benefits of being forced to stay at home and being forced to look at things a little differently.”