Rent and groceries. Car repairs and medical bills. Charitable contributions, home office equipment, and takeout meals from struggling restaurants.

As federal stimulus payments began to pour into Washington state last week, residents were already using the money — up to $1,200 per person — in ways that show how deeply the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives — and how difficult it may be to put things back to normal.

For some of the more fortunate recipients, the “economic impact payments,” as they’re officially known, have been an opportunity to splurge, pad a savings account or even pay it forward, according to hundreds of responses to a recent survey by The Seattle Times asking readers how they intended to use their payments.

But for many others, the payments have brought much needed, if all too fleeting, relief from the mounting financial uncertainties that have been unleashed by the pandemic.

“It’s just getting us to the next round of mortgage payment and bills,” said Kristin Ortega, 39, a medical assistant who has been on physician-ordered self-quarantine at her home in Renton, where she lives with her husband and four kids, and, like many jobless workers, has struggled to get all her unemployment benefits from the state’s overwhelmed unemployment insurance system. “We have a little bit of savings, thank God, but what about people who don’t?”

“We honestly don’t know what to do with ours, since every bill is spiraling out of control,” added Nicole Larrett, a 35-year-old Oak Harbor resident who lives on disability assistance.

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The payments, part of last month’s $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus emergency legislation, are meant to ease the pain of an economic shock that has shuttered many businesses and led to tens of millions of layoffs. In Washington state, one in seven workers may be jobless.

The payments amount to $1,200 for individuals who earned $75,000 or less — and heads of households who earned $112,500 or less — in 2018 (or 2019, if you’ve already filed taxes this year), along with $500 for each dependent child under 17. (Progressively smaller payments will go to individuals who earned between $75,000 and $99,000.)

More than 80 million Americans already have received their payments electronically, according to the U.S. Treasury.

But some readers who have filed their taxes electronically said they hadn’t received their payment yet and had trouble accessing the IRS website for answers. Those who haven’t filed taxes electronically will receive a paper check, which may take months to arrive.

In the Seattle area, many residents who hadn’t received their payments said the wait was only compounding their economic anxieties. “These stimulus checks are everything to us right now, and they’re nowhere to be found,” said 44-year-old Windy Jones-Chest, whose Ballard barber shop shut down in March.

You are not alone: Resources for businesses and workers affected by the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state

Few saw the money as anything but a short-term fix.

The payments “went straight into trying to keep our small business alive,” said Josh Harrison, who has seen a near-total loss of income from the Seattle Airbnb rentals he runs with his wife. 

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The payment is “gone already,” Elvia Vargas added. “I am still in debt.” 

“All it does is delay how far we have to dip into our savings due to a decrease in employment for the next few months,” added another Seattle reader who declined to share her name. The $2,400 she and her partner received “is less than a month’s rent here in Seattle for our 1-bedroom apartment.”

Indeed, for many in the Seattle area especially, the payment was quickly swallowed by the region’s high cost of living.

“If I were back at home in Wyoming, where rent was one third of what I pay here, I’d be feeling relieved right now,” said 25-year-old Meteja Klukas, who was finishing a psychology degree at the University of Washington as the pandemic hit. The stimulus payment “is like trying to fix a big rip with a single stitch.”

Economists say the payments aren’t meant to cover all the economic damage from the pandemic. Instead, they’re intended to tide people over until bigger relief measures have kicked in, including expanded unemployment benefits.

“The intent was primarily to help people get through a cash-flow crisis,” said Debra Glassman, a principal lecturer of finance and business economics at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

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Glassman also advised against thinking of the payments as “stimulus” for economic recovery. She notes that similar programs have been slow to stimulate consumer spending in previous recessions. When economic conditions become uncertain, Glassman says, even consumers who don’t need every penny of a stimulus payment for rent or other necessities tend to save rather than splurge.

For many in the Seattle area, that pattern is holding. Although some readers planned to spend their payments on nonnecessities — among them, staying at a fancy hotel, a new shotgun, and “beautiful, high quality sheets and a quilt coverlet” — others were using the money on basic necessities, such as rent or medical bills or car or appliance repairs, or to create a financial cushion.

Alex White, owner of A-Ray’s moving solutions, received a stimulus check. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Alex White, owner of A-Ray’s moving solutions, received a stimulus check. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

“I’m just going to leave it in the bank,” said Alex White, who runs a small moving company in Seattle and says business this spring is down around 50% over the same period last year. “I don’t feel good unless I have enough for six months of expenses in savings.”

“I may still have a job but you never know!” wrote Everett resident Bree Ocampo, who described the payment as a “rainy day fund.”

Readers’ responses also reflected the challenges of targeting federal relief for a crisis that has impacted society so unequally.

While many recipients said their payment wouldn’t come close to covering expenses associated with the pandemic, others acknowledged that they didn’t need the money because they still have jobs or adequate retirement savings.

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Some of those better-off residents said they regarded the payment as an opportunity to help others.

Emily Bell, a 25-year-old Whole Foods employee in Bellingham, plans to spend her payment at local businesses “so they still exist when this ends,” she said. “When this is over, I’m eating out every day that week to help local places.”

Russ White, a Marysville resident and former pub owner, will use his payment to support local pubs. “There will be many ‘buy the house a round, on me’ said when I receive my check,” White wrote.

Others planned to donate some or all of their payment to a food bank or other local charity.

Seattle retiree Everett Reagan is sending his payment to several nonprofits, among them FareStart, Real Change and Seattle Public Library Foundation, whose “ebook collection is keeping me sane,” he said.

Tori, a Tacoma resident who preferred not to use her last name, said she felt privileged to be able to divide her payment among local businesses and two nonprofits: Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network Fund and National Bail Out.

“I’m lucky enough to have a job and savings,” Tori said. “So I really feel it’s a responsibility to share that money.”

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