There's no question the pandemic has financially devastated millions of Americans, but — in a twist — it's also helped some bulk up their bank accounts. Forced to stay inside, where they don't have to pay for daily commutes, meals out and impulse shopping trips to Target, people are shoring up their savings.
Data just released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the personal savings rate in March was 27.6%, with saving exceeding $6 trillion. Over 80% of people entered this year with extra funds, according to Money’s own survey results, and many expect to splurge on trips, restaurants and bars in the coming months as society reopens.
Even if you've spent the past 14 months daydreaming about how you're going to blow your savings post-pandemic, you might hesitate when it actually comes time to swipe your card. It's your money, of course, but should you feel anxiety about using the cash you saved?
Here's what experts say about how to navigate a stress-free re-entry into normal spending.
Check your financial plan (and your feelings)
Amy Richardson, a certified financial planner with Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium, says that step No. 1 should be making sure your financial house is in order. She recommends you check on all aspects of your money life — how’s your emergency fund? Are you maxing out your 401(k)? Do you know what your short- and long-term goals are?
The idea is not only to get on top of things but also to put your mind at ease. If you've ticked all the boxes on your list, it may be easier for you to use some of the money you’ve been socking away.
Part of the reason you feel worried may be because you associate savings with security, according to Lauren Anastasio, a CFP with SoFi. As such, she adds, there’s “this fear of reverting back to a place where money is a scarce resource.”
Reflection could help in that sense, too, because it can surface your goals. Anastasio says you should have more than one goal — insurance and your emergency fund can fulfill your goal of feeling safe, for example, whereas concerts can fulfill your goal of enjoying your lifestyle.
You also have the power to change that lifestyle if you want. If there’s some pandemic habit you’ve developed that you really like, there’s no reason you can’t carry it forward.
“A lot of people have this expectation that there’s going to be this magical date when this pandemic is over and we’re going to revert back to life in 2019,” Anastasio says. “That doesn't have to be the case.”
Gradually get ready to spend again
On some level, though, you do need to be mentally prepared for your spending to change once you — gradually — begin leaving the house on the reg again. To get yourself into the right headspace, clinical psychologist and financial coach Patricia Fox recommends you map out the expenses associated with quote-unquote ordinary life.
“Have that as specific as you can make it for that first month,” she says. “The goal is to see it on paper to reduce the shock.”
This will also help bring out some of your post-pandemic priorities. Having a healthy relationship with money is crucial, Richardson says. You should strive to save with intention, and you should give yourself permission to spend with purpose, as well.
“I think about having dinner with family and friends and those fabulous conversations and planning vacations — this is how we fuel our tanks, with the emotional side of the world we haven't had as much,” Richardson says. “You have to find the joy and pleasure in treating yourself to things you haven't done in a while.”
Does that mean you should run out and blow $1,000 on front-row Harry Styles tickets? No. But you don’t need to freak out if you choose to tap into the savings account you’ve shored up for a $100 seat.
Slow and steady wins the race here.
“It’s incrementally stepping back into the new norm and doing things in bite-sized chunks,” Richardson says. “Not only is it OK, it’s healthy, and I would say enjoy it.”
Remember: There's no shame in spending
You don’t need to panic about spending more money when the world opens up again. Rather, use it as an opportunity to check in on the progress you've made toward your financial goals.
Moving forward, you may want to avoid throwing all your savings into one pot and instead spread it across separate accounts. One account can be your designated emergency fund, another your Christmas gifts fund, another your 2022 concert fund, and so on.
Anastasio says this should help maintain that feeling of financial security while avoiding emotional upheaval.
“When we're able to tie our goals with specific balances that we have, it does make it a little bit easier to understand when that transaction happens,” she adds. “The money is fulfilling its destiny — it’s not that you're sacrificing your security, touching something you shouldn't or putting yourself in an uncomfortable position.”