Personal Finance

More Than 4 in 10 Consumers Spent Less During Pandemic, but Not Everyone Had That Luxury

More than 40% of Americans are spending less during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the second report in a three-part series from personal finance app Stash and LendingTree. However, not everyone has been fortunate enough to be able to afford that. And for some, there have even been increases in spending.

Here’s a breakdown of our findings, including what Americans are spending money on and how things have changed since the onset of the pandemic.

Key findings

  • Just over 4 in 10 Americans cut spending amid the coronavirus pandemic, but not everyone has had the ability to do so, especially low-income individuals and people of color.
  • The top three things that consumers have increased spending on during the pandemic are face masks (76%), groceries and necessities (60%) and digital entertainment subscriptions (40%). The top three things that consumers have decreased spending on are dining out and/or nightlife (67%), travel (58%) and car rentals or purchases (25%).
  • Three-fourths of consumers said they’ll continue to limit their spending in at least one category through the end of the year. The top two things Americans will continue spending less on in 2020 are dining out and/or nightlife (50%) and travel (37%).
  • Almost 4 in 10 (38%) Americans took on debt during the pandemic, and a good amount of that debt comes from credit cards. Going deeper, 45% of Generation Z took on new debt, as did 48% of those who make less than $35,000.
  • Americans earning more than $100,000 annually were 71% more likely to save money during the pandemic than those earning less than $35,000. Across all income groups, 45% of consumers were able to increase their savings.

Spending more — or less — amid coronavirus pandemic

As might be expected, the ability to spend less during the pandemic is largely tied to income, with those earning more being able to do so with greater frequency. The same sentiment applied when it comes to those who have spent more during this time.

For example, nearly half (48%) of those with a household income of $100,000 or more reported reduced spending, while just 36% of consumers with a household income below $35,000 said the same.

Additionally, Black and Latino consumers were less likely to trim their spending than white and Asian consumers. On the other hand, there didn’t appear to be a substantial gap in spending habits from a gender perspective, though women (33%) were slightly more likely to spend more than men (30%).

Where Americans changed their spending habits

The pandemic has changed so much in American life, and that includes the way consumers are spending their money. For example, just over a third of Americans spent money in entirely new categories during the coronavirus crisis. Of those who said this, the top new categories they spent in included:

  • Face masks (64%)
  • Groceries and necessities (44%)
  • Digital entertainment subscriptions (37%)
  • Fitness equipment and/or subscriptions or classes (36%)

Although only about 18% of respondents to the survey said they spent more on telemedicine or online therapy, there were certain segments that did so at greater rates.

For example, 21% of women increased spending on telemedicine or online therapy, versus 15% of men. And 21% of white Americans said they increased their spending in this category during the pandemic.

Younger Americans were more likely to spend on home office furniture and tech support. In fact, 29% of millennials and 26% of Gen Zers increased spending there, versus 21% of Gen Xers and 14% of baby boomers.

Deviations from spending expectations

Although many of the spending patterns made sense given the changes the pandemic has brought, that didn’t always hold true for every category.

For example, although 67% of consumers decreased spending on dining out and/or nightlife, 22% of Gen Zers increased their spending in the category. And the silent generation (25%) was the most likely, by a wide margin, to spend money on travel for the first time during the pandemic.

How spending habits are changing amid reopenings

Overall, almost 40% of Americans are spending less, though their reasons for doing so vary. And almost a quarter of those who earned less than $35,000 a year said they spent less because their employment status changed and required them to spend less.

“With parts of the country — and daily life — still closed down, now may be a good time to focus on building up your emergency fund, especially if you needed to tap it during the peak of the pandemic,” said Jeremy Quittner, resident money expert and editorial director at Stash. “For example, consider saving or investing the money you would regularly be spending on monthly commuter costs, travel or dining out.”

Not everyone changed their spending habits, though it’s worth noting that this may be due to the inability to cut costs, rather than an indication of economic stability.

“People are going to remain cautious for some time,” said Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst. “Once a treatment or vaccine comes, I think the explosion in pent-up demand is going to be absolutely monumental. People want to buy. People want to get on airplanes and stay in hotels. They want to see their favorite band or team in person. That hasn’t changed.”

Credit card balances drop in 90 of 100 largest metros amid pandemic

According to LendingTree data, credit card balances dropped in 90 of the 100 biggest U.S. metros between January and July 2020, while the average balance decline was 7%, or more than $400. Here are some other highlights from the data:

  • Durham, N.C., saw the largest average decline in balances, dropping 20% from $6,900 in January to $5,500 in July.
  • Chicago and Colorado Springs, Colo., followed with drops of 17% ($1,300) and 16% ($1,100), respectively.

“When the pandemic began, I never would’ve expected it to shrink credit card balances, but that’s exactly what happened,” Schulz said.

This makes sense, he said, when you consider the fact that people had fewer places to spend money due to the lockdowns, as well as the boost Americans got from the economic impact payments and — for a period — $600-per-week unemployment benefits. This is in line with the rest of the data showing a large swath of Americans decreasing their spending.

“To their credit, many people took that extra money and put it toward knocking down debt,” Schulz said. “Then, once the debt was handled, they saved it. That’s left many Americans in a far stronger position financially today than they were when the pandemic began. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s this: We don’t have any idea when the next rainy day is coming or how hard it’ll hit, but you need to prepare for it while the sun is still shining.”

Saving more — or less — amid coronavirus pandemic

The importance of being able to weather times of financial turmoil has become all the more evident during the pandemic. Just over half of Americans feared for their job during the pandemic, 30% of which said that fear prompted them to save more money.

Millennials were the most likely generation to report saving more money during the pandemic than in the months prior, as 47% said they saved more. On the other hand, Gen Zers (about 37%) were the most likely to report having saved more pre-pandemic.

“While many people are struggling to make ends meet, the other side of the coin are those whose income has not been impacted by the pandemic,” said Sarah Berger, LendingTree’s millennial finance columnist.

She adds that for those who haven’t had a change in income, there’s likely an overall decrease in spending due to lifestyle changes (for example, less travel, dining out and certain entertainment expenses, as well as the ability to save their economic impact checks).

In general, saving money can be more difficult during this time of financial uncertainty, but there are methods consumers should focus on to boost their savings:

  • Reduce fixed expenses: “Now would definitely be a good time to try to negotiate for a better rate on a recurring monthly bill — such as your phone, cable or auto insurance — as companies are working hard to keep their customers happy,” said Berger. “Trimming a monthly, fixed expense will give you a bigger savings boost in the long run.”
  • Nix unused subscriptions: It’s easy to sign up for free trials, only to forget to cancel them before being charged — and it’s even possible that consumers are enrolled in subscriptions they don’t even know about. Combing through statements can illuminate these financial drains and help minimize expenses, thereby saving them money.
  • Adjust your budget: The 50/30/20 budget can help set expectations around needs, wants and saving amounts. It usually allocates 30% to wants and 20% to savings, with the final 50% going to necessities. However, Berger recommends swapping the wants and savings figures during times like these: That would both raise your overall savings and allow you to take advantage of potential savings from lifestyle changes.
  • Aim for an emergency fund you feel comfortable with: The traditional advice is that an emergency fund should be able to cover three to six months of expenses. “During times of heightened economic uncertainty, it’s better to be on the safe side, and save closer to that six-month threshold,” Berger said. “However, it’s ultimately dependent on your personal comfort level. What’s the amount that will allow you to sleep well at night, knowing you have a solid safety net to fall back on? Aim for that.”

Methodology

This survey was conducted online within the U.S. by Stash and LendingTree using SurveyMonkey technology. The survey was conducted in August 2020 and completed by 4,955 people.

Generations are defined as the following as of August 2020:

  • Gen Z: Ages 18 to 24
  • Millennial: Ages 25 to 43
  • Gen X: Ages 44 to 55
  • Baby boomer: Ages 56 to 74
  • Silent generation: Ages 75 and older

Stash is a Paid Partner of LendingTree, LLC NMLS# 1136. LendingTree is a minority Shareholder of Stash.

Of the 4,955 individuals who completed this survey, 51% identified as men, 47% identified as women, 1% identified as nonconforming/nonbinary and 1% didn’t disclose.

Of the respondents, 14% identified as Latino, 62% identified as white, 21% identified as Black, 5% identified as Asian, 3% identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, 1% identified as Middle Eastern or Northern African, 1% identified as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and 5% identified as other. (Respondents were able to select all races that applied.)

Of the respondents, 24% reported earning less than $35,000 in annual household income, 18% reported earning between $35,000 and $49,999, 21% reported earning between $50,000 and $74,999, 15% reported earning between $75,000 and $99,999, and 23% reported earning $100,000 or more. (Totals don’t add up to 100% due to rounding.)

Investment advisory services offered by Stash Investments LLC, an SEC registered investment adviser. This information is for informational and educational purposes only, represents an assessment of the market environment as of the date of publication, is not intended as investment, legal or tax advice and is subject to change without notice. The information should not be relied upon by the reader as research or investment advice regarding any issuer or security in particular. Bank Account Services provided by and Stash Visa Debit Card issued by Green Dot Bank, Member FDIC, pursuant to a license from Visa U.S.A. Inc. Investment products and services provided by Stash Investments LLC, not Green Dot Bank, and are Not FDIC Insured, Not Bank Guaranteed and May Lose Value.