The New York Times recently ran a series of charts designed to sum up 2020 economically. They showed how the pandemic has impacted employment, wages, home prices, and more.
But one of the most striking charts about what happened in 2020 was missing from the NYT’s collection. It was the Federal Reserve’s tracking of the personal savings rate.
After plodding along within a relatively tight range for decades, suddenly the savings rate rocketed to nearly 34% in April 2020. As we all grappled with the early days of the pandemic, our spending on restaurant meals, movies in theaters, gasoline to get to the office, and so much more hit the brakes hard.
That dramatic increase raises some questions and points to some opportunities.
What is savings? In a funny Saturday Night Live skit from 2006, a husband and wife, played by Steve Martin and Amy Poehler, sit in their kitchen fretting over their bills. Suddenly, an infomercial announcer appears, promoting a one-page book called “Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford.” The idea, he explained, was to only buy things with money that had been saved. Looking perplexed, Martin’s character asks, “And where would you get this saved money?”
In similar fashion, we might look at the Federal Reserve chart and ask, “And what exactly is savings?” The Fed defines it as “personal income less personal outlays.” That doesn’t necessarily mean people are putting the money into a savings or investment account, only that they aren’t spending it — yet.
Generalities mask realities. Of course, the savings rate is an average. That means some households are saving (or not spending) much more than they were before the pandemic whereas some are saving much less. The dividing line generally runs between those who have kept their jobs and those who haven’t.
Will it last? As the recession of 2008 dragged on, frugality came into vogue, and many commentators believed a new and lasting way of life had begun. The savings rate went up, people held onto their cars longer, and second-hand stores became all the rage.
In 2010, 63% of people said the recession had “forever changed” the way they spend and save, according to a Citigroup survey. One year later, Citigroup re-ran its survey. This time, the percentage of people who said the recession had “forever changed” the way they spend and save fell to just 52%. Apparently “forever” doesn’t last as long as it used to last.
This sort of thing happens a lot. Economic times get tough and people tighten the belt. Things get better and they spend more. When gas prices are low, SUVs fly off car dealer lots. When the price goes up, small cars gain popularity. I call it binge/purge money management. As you can see in the graphic, after the April spike, the savings rate quickly fell back, although not all the way back to where it had been.
When the worst of the pandemic is over, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the savings rate among those whose finances have grown stronger will go all the way back to its earlier level. My sense is that there’s tremendous pent-up desire to get back to traveling, enjoying restaurant meals, seeing movies in theaters, and generally getting back to our former way of life.
However, within these forced changes there are some short- and long-term opportunities.
In the short-term, those of us who are in an especially strong financial position because of less spending have the opportunity to make use of a wonderfully phrased idea contained in the equally wonderful book, Practicing the King’s Economy: “bending our economic lives” toward those in need.
One small way my family did this last year was by becoming customers of a home-based business run by a woman whose husband lost his job for several months. We certainly didn’t single-handedly provide for that family’s needs, but hopefully, we helped by bending our economic lives a little bit in their direction.
I know other families have bought take-out food more than they might have as they bent some of their underutilized entertainment budget toward struggling local restaurants. Others bought food for depleted food pantries, bought meals for front-line workers, or helped those who’ve been hurting in countless other ways.
Longer-term, my hope is that some aspects of our money management truly will be forever changed by the pandemic, perhaps taking the amounts that we give, save, or invest up a notch, and keeping those changes in place even after life returns to some semblance of normalcy.
I remember interviewing someone who went on a year-long spending fast, buying only what was truly necessary. She wanted to see how much more she could give. When the fast was over, she went back to spending on things she had done without for the past year, but not to the same degree. There was something about the fast that permanently reset how much she spends.
I had allowed my sense of normal to be shaped by the behaviors of people around me. People think they don’t have any margin, but it’s because their ‘normal’ is so out of whack. From the food we consume, to the clothes we wear, to our choices of entertainment, to the frequency with which we buy shoes or pillows or winter coats. Who said that we need new stuff every year?
How have your financial habits and practices changed during the pandemic? In what ways can you envision the pandemic forever changing how you manage money?