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With a busy life in Los Angeles, Anna McKitrick has trouble saving. The 25-year-old waitress and aspiring actress estimates she spends $200 a month on coffee, snacks, on-the-go meals, and other purchases she could live without.
Now thanks to the coronavirus, McKitrick is stuck in her childhood home in New Jersey, living rent-free for the foreseeable future — and using the opportunity to permanently kick her impulse spending habit.
Without bills to pay and thanks to a surprisingly large tax refund, she’s already saved several thousand dollars. She says she’s also reevaluated what is actually important to her. “I just realized how much money I was wasting instead of putting it towards my priorities, like building a bigger emergency fund and paying for experiences I want to have,” says McKitrick.
It’s no secret that Americans struggle to save for the future. A study from JPMorgan Chase found that about two-thirds of us do not have the recommended six weeks of take home pay set aside for an emergency. And a recent Money/Synchrony Bank study revealed that 36% of people earning between $75,000 and $100,000 still worry about unexpected expenses. But now the coronavirus is forcing millions of people to cut down on unnecessary spending in a way that they’ve never been able to before.
According to data from Earnest Research, U.S. restaurant spending is down 30%, as millions of locked-down Americans cook at home. Travel is down 80%, as long-awaited vacations get postponed. Spending at movie theaters, sporting events and arts festivals is down almost 100%.
Last quarter Americans deposited more than one trillion dollars in savings accounts, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis — that’s four times as much as they usually do in a three-month period. Now the question for millions of Americans is how to keep saving once the enforced virtue of sheltering in place ends.
“We’re really saving now because we don’t have any choice,” says Diane Swonk, Chief Economist at Grant Thornton. “The economic collapse happened before even one state had closed, so the pullback is more related to fear factor than responsibility.”
What History Says
Before the pandemic, America's personal saving rate — the percentage of after-tax income the average American sets aside for saving and investing — had been fairly consistent since the end of the Great Recession, hovering between 6% and 8%.
The saving rate usually spikes when the economy falters, but then quickly falls back down as soon as growth returns, according to data from the Congressional Research Service. This time, as COVID-19 began to fill headlines across the country, the personal savings rate jumped from 8% in February to more than 30% in April, its highest level since the 1960s. It's unclear what will happen once the disease-related economic upheavals begin to subside, although experts believe history is likely to repeat itself.
“There’s going to be pent up demand when the economy reopens. People have less of a debt overhang right now and the stock market is already rebounding,” says Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “All of that would lead me to believe people will start spending again.”
The Little Things That Add Up
Despite old patterns, plenty of Americans are determined to make their new habits stick. Before the pandemic Lansing, Mich. medical technician Amy Todd says she ordered take out four nights a week or more.
“I’m a single person and I work a lot so coming home to cook dinner was the last thing I wanted to do,” says Todd, age 38. “Now I’m saving a ton of money by learning to love leftovers.”
Todd says she has already slashed her monthly food budget in half, to $200 from $400 by spending it exclusively on groceries. In order to keep herself committed, she is now sending the extra $200 directly to her savings account each payday.
“I was tipping the scale for a number of years, if anything major were to happen I wouldn't have anything to fall back on. I never want to be in that position again,” says Todd.
Dakota Berezin, a 25-year-old mother of two and customer service agent in Canton, Ga., has been trying to build up an emergency fund since last year, but every time she has gotten close, an unexpected expense has popped up, sending the amount back to zero. The COVID crisis has made her more determined.
“This pandemic lit a fire under me,” says Berezin. “I never want to feel that fear of wondering ‘what are we going to do?’ ever again.”
With her children's $1,200-per-month daycare closed until further notice, Berezin is putting that money away — and working to change her habits so the money lasts when things return to “normal.” She says the time at home has helped her realize just how often she was splurging on unnecessary items: make-up, clothes, and toys for her kids that often end up sitting untouched.
“I’ve realized that everything I could ever need is right here and I don’t want to lose that mindset,” says Berezin.
Three Steps to Better Saving
According to experts, here are three simple ways to make sure your newfound savings are a permanent fixture:
Build your rainy day fund
A looming recession and steadily rising unemployment means you need to be ready for anything. It’s tempting to take advantage of mortgage moratoriums and student loan deferments to aggressively pay down debt. But unless you already have a robust emergency fund, the best move you can make is to start building one with the resources available to you, according to experts.
“Let’s say you paid off all your debt today and then tomorrow you get laid off without an emergency fund, what are you going to do?” says Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich.
While most advisors will say you need to cover three to six months’ worth of expenses, Sethi says the uncertainty around when the pandemic will actually end means you should be aiming for a number closer to 12 months, if you can manage it.
Figure Out What You Can Live Without
You might see a bigger number than usual in the bank right now, but that doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how you’re doing it.
“This is a great time for us to change and make an impact on our mindset, so it’s important to track your progress,” says Kumiko Love, founder of the finance blog, The Budget Mom.
Before you even begin to create a budget for yourself, Love recommends studying your bank account for patterns in how your money has been spent in the past and where you’re saving at the moment. You’ve been forced to give up a lot of daily luxuries — some you really miss, and some you’re discovering you can actually live without.
Figure out what will be in your current realm of possibility for saving money once stay-at-home orders are lifted and then make it official by creating a functional budget where every dollar has a predestined role. Most likely you won’t be able to cut back on those big recurring payments, but maximizing what you can put away now and committing to cutting back day-to-day purchases in the future will help you stay on track to have a sizable emergency savings.
Lock In Your Habits
Yes, you may be tired of hearing it, but the easiest way to bolster your savings is by automatically taking the money from your paycheck and putting it in a savings account you can’t easily touch. For some this might mean just adding a second account to route a portion of your paycheck to. If your company doesn’t have that option, you can always set up an automatic deposit through your bank from your checking account to your savings on payday.
“As much as we think our spending is within our control, it’s actually highly influenced by the systems around us,” says Sethi. “To combat it, you have to create your own automated systems.”
It’s also important to note that you don’t need to stop at an emergency savings fund. Most large employers automatically enroll their employees in a 401(k) retirement account, but usually only at a contribution level of 3% of your salary. While it’s not always easy (or downright impossible) to put away a larger amount of money into an account you can’t touch for years to come, at the very least you should be maxing out your employer match if they provide one.
“Take advantage of the benefits offered to you,” says Love. “I see so many people backing away from their retirement funds right now but if your employer is still willing to match your contributions, you should maintain it.”
The best part of automating your savings and retirement account is that once you’ve paid your monthly bills and necessities, you can still sneak in small pleasures like the oat milk latte that gets you through the work week guilt-free.