Is It Safe to Spend Money Right Now? Experts Weigh In
Now that the hoarding phase of stocking up on toilet paper is over, and the realities of physical and social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic are really setting in, you might be wondering whether it’s still safe to buy those new shoes you wanted. Or maybe you’ve been contemplating an even bigger purchase: say, a new car, or even a new home. Taking the plunge on a major purchase as the pandemic unfolds is still uncharted waters, even for many finance experts. But their advice for families looking to spend money holds true regardless of any major public health crisis: It depends on your situation.
Evaluate the impact
Have you lost your job? Been furloughed? Had your pay cut? If so, now is not the time to be worrying about purchases of any kind, other than the necessities: housing, utilities, and food. If you’re struggling to keep your head above water with those three categories, a new robot vacuum is out of the question.
“Already, about 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits over the past two weeks,” says Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com. “And even before this pandemic, most people were dealing with credit card debt and limited savings.”
But if you’re among the lucky group of individuals who adjusted to remote work or have been able to maintain employment as essential workers, your income might be largely intact. Even so, when the economy falters, the ripples can be delayed and widespread. For that reason, experts say it’s best to proceed with caution, even with some coronavirus relief in the form of the CARES Act on the way.
“Right now, everyone is indirectly feeling the impacts, but some families are directly impacted, so we’re really encouraging members to take a step back and reevaluate,” says Brian Walsh, a certified financial planner with SoFi. “Ask yourself two questions. One, was I in a good place before this happened? Two, has my cash flow been directly impacted?”
If you’re in a bad place financially, regardless of whether the pandemic is to blame, purchasing big ticket items such as a new car or a trip abroad is not a great move at the moment. But if you’re someone who was contemplating a new vehicle right as the pandemic struck, and you still have a cash down payment on hand, this could be the perfect time to pull the trigger.
“Interest rates are such that this could be a good opportunity to save some money,” Walsh says.
Additionally, if you were looking to fly in the coming months, you might be able to take a chance and book a flight at a steep discount. Walsh says the good news is that many airlines will honor some very liberal cancellation and rescheduling policies in light of the pandemic.
And even if you’re confident you can still afford your new home, or the party you had planned for your daughter’s high school graduation, personal finance expert Kimberly Palmer of NerdWallet suggests considering how it will feel to spend unnecessarily right now.
“If you have sufficient savings and are confident you can afford it, then there’s nothing wrong with moving forward,” she says. “But adding to your expenses can create more financial stress when there is already so much of it.”
Revisit your goals
Before the pandemic, you might have been crushing your credit card debt, sticking to a strict budget, and reaching your savings goals. Now, though, it’s time to reevaluate.
“Contrary to my normal advice, I wouldn’t be in a rush to pay off credit card debt, especially if you have minimal savings and/or an unstable work situation,” Rossman says. “The same goes for making big purchases.”
Rossman says the main objective for families during this time is to preserve cash flow flexibility, regardless of whether your finances have been directly impacted. That means having money on hand should things suddenly go south for you. It might also mean delaying a major purchase, watching your discretionary spending, and coming up with a pandemic budget for food and other essentials in the short term.
Still, like all financial advice, your personal circumstances are unique to you. If you have plenty of cash flow and you’ve set aside an emergency fund before COVID-19, it could be perfectly safe to buy that new laptop or mattress, especially if those are the things you need to invest in to get through this quarantine.
“If you are in a better position with savings, or if you have a more secure job, then it’s more realistic to pay off debt and justify big purchases,” Rossman says.
Even if you’re in a good position financially, it’s still prudent to spend conservatively as the pandemic unfolds.
“This goes beyond just where your income has been impacted,” Walsh says. “No one knows how long this will go on and what the impacts will be.”
In the short term, Walsh suggests watching your discretionary spending. That might mean skipping dessert during your bimonthly grocery run or canceling those streaming services you haven’t used. Maybe it means setting aside the money you would have spent on gas or date nights, so you have it on hand should you need extra cash.
If you’re planning to move forward with some of those major purchases, for example a vacation, Kumiko Love, Owner and Creator of The Budget Mom, says to tread lightly.
“Make sure you set yourself to prepare for last-minute changes or cancellations. Book using your miles to make cancellations easier, make sure to research trip insurance, and book flexible flights,” Love says. “Planning your future vacation and researching the costs today is fine, it doesn’t mean you have to make the reservation today.”
Love also suggests that newly engaged couples consider putting their wedding planning on hold in favor of covering necessities in the short term.
“Going into debt or jeopardizing financial security in the future is not how you want to start your life together,” Love says.