Coronavirus and Your Money

4 Ways to Avoid Post-COVID-19 Spending Guilt

I recently spent money on a Mexican vacation. It’s time to get out again, but returning to a more normal lifestyle doesn’t mean dropping our healthy savings habits.

Now that the pandemic is easing, we are beginning to spend again. After I was vaccinated, my friends and I took a long-awaited “girls’ trip” to Mexico. Prices were still low; each of us paid less than $500 to stay at an all-inclusive resort, and the memories we made are worth every dime. Fortunately, since there was no travel last year, I had accumulated a nice savings cushion and was still able to keep the balance of my savings intact.

Americans went on a savings binge after the pandemic struck in March 2020. Our personal savings reached a rate of 33.7% of income in April 2020 and stayed in double digits all year. But with the economy re-opening, people are going back to restaurants, concerts and ballgames – and tempting us with old habits.

While it’s ideal to continue saving aggressively, it’s likely not attainable as we return to a more normal routine. So, how do we navigate the balance of spending vs. saving? Maybe even more important, at least psychologically, is how do we make the right choices and not feel guilty about spending again?

Instead of feeling anxious about the shift from saving to spending, it makes sense to face this challenge head on. Here are four solutions to ease your financial fears.

Automate Your Expenses and Savings

We all know setting up and following a monthly budget can be time-consuming and exhausting. You try again and again to start that Excel spreadsheet or open your Notes app just to make a list of your monthly expenses. But it usually doesn’t work.

Instead, save time and money by automating your spending and savings. Nearly every monthly bill can be set up for automatic payment – car insurance, utility bills, mobile phone, rent or mortgage.

Tracking these expenses is relatively easy, and paying automatically helps avoid any late charges or fees. And these recurring charges will become routine. Instead of adding a line item on your budget, you can adjust to the typical amount you have left in savings for discretionary spending.

Automating your savings is even more important. The phrase “pay yourself first” is one of my favorites. Set a goal by selecting a percentage from each paycheck to go directly into your retirement account. If possible, I recommend saving as much as 20% if your budget allows it.

Select an amount that fits your budget. For example, if you were to have a salary of $100,000, the recommendation is to max out your retirement plan first. For instance, this could mean putting up to $19,500 in your 401(k) per year — or $26,000 if you are 50 and older. Even if this is not possible, the goal is to practice continual and standard savings.

Investing

While hoarding cash made sense last year, it’s not the best way to generate wealth over time. Savings and checking accounts do not keep up with the rate of inflation. So, while your bank is technically paying you interest, in reality you are the one paying.

The solution is simple: Invest. If you have around three to six months of cash built up in savings for your “emergency fund,” that’s plenty. Instead, shift your extra money over to a taxable or retirement investment account with exposure to the market. The average return for money invested in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index over the long term is about 10%, which beats sticking money in a savings account. According to the FDIC, the national average interest rate on savings accounts is an extremely low 0.04%.

Discipline

While investing and saving are beneficial to your overall financial future, we must be disciplined in our spending ways. Did you spend money from your federal stimulus checks on new power tools you really didn’t need, or did you use it to reduce the financial and emotional burden of a student loan? Are there any debts or liabilities that you could pay off quicker by making one extra payment this year?

In my case, I’ve used much of my $3,000 in stimulus funds to move to a new apartment where I can work from home. In addition to a more spacious, comfortable place to live and work, some of this expense will be recouped since I’ll be commuting less. I’ve also bought new furniture that will last several years.

Weigh the pros and cons of your purchases. Try to think of money as a tool to reach your financial goals quicker. Whether it’s a stimulus check or a bonus, dedicate some or all of it to a pending debt or an investment account.

Accept the Return to Normality

The final and arguably most important solution to offset spending guilt is accepting how our lives will change. Last year, all of us were cooking nearly every meal at home, letting the dirt and grime build on our cars and skipping the latest fashion trends. Who cared about clothes when we didn’t see anyone anyway?

But now times are different. It may be time to refresh that neglected spring and summer wardrobe. Or, your kids may have those summer leagues and camps to attend, which will cost money. The expenses you have now will most certainly not mirror this time last year and the only way to move past this truth is to accept it.

By taking the steps laid out here – automating finances, investing for the future and practicing discipline – you can breathe that sigh of relief knowing your financial affairs are still in order. Any pop-up expenses are inconsequential now that you have single-handedly positioned yourself for success.

Take a moment to recognize the amount change we’ve all endured within the last year. You lived through a huge moment in history, and your life moving forward will be impacted by this pandemic. Use this time to recognize that the shift in your budget means higher expenses, so make good spending choices. But with a solid financial plan in place, there’s no reason to feel guilty for spending wisely.

About the Author

Caroline Whittaker Huggins

Wealth Planner, McGill Advisors

Caroline W. Huggins (“Callie”) is a wealth planner with McGill Advisors, a division of Brightworth.  She is based in Charlotte, N.C. Prior to joining the firm, she received a master’s degree in financial planning in 2020 from the University of Georgia (UGA) and a B.S. in psychology/minor in sports management. Callie works closely with the firm’s partners and wealth advisers to develop financial plans for professionals and corporate executives seeking to grow and maintain their wealth.

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