Leave your budgeting woes in pre-pandemic times.

By Lauren Phillips
February 19, 2021
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When life ground to a halt (or close to it) in March 2020, millions of people lost their jobs and an economic crisis became just another consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. Those fortunate enough to have not suffered income loss suddenly had fewer expenses, and began saving money in record numbers. Now, with vaccination efforts gaining speed and a return to normal on the horizon, savings efforts may see a sharp drop-off.

Some families may have saved more money than usual during the pandemic out of concern about what the future would bring. When the future seems uncertain, it's natural to cut back and prepare for the unexpected, and the huge spike in the national personal saving rate recorded by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in April 2020 reflects that fear. Still, many of those savings—or the ease with which many families were able to stockpile cash—may have been more out of lack of opportunity than a sudden need to save.

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"When the pandemic started, several activities had to be put on hold, meaning people were typically spending a lot less money," says Zach Ciampa, a financial planner with John Hancock Advice. "Most individuals decided to keep the extra cash and start building up their savings."

The sudden loss of opportunities to spend money affected both essential and discretionary spending. Childcare centers—a common high expense for families with young children—were closed. Many workers no longer had to go into the office, so commuting expenses (think gas mileage, car repairs, tolls, public transportation, and even dry cleaning) were erased practically overnight. Expensive trips were canceled, grand dinners at high-end restaurants were unavailable, and tickets to live entertainment and movie theaters alike were useless.

Though savings rates have dropped in the months since April, it remains true that many households are spending less money than they did previously, living well below their means without the many discretionary expenses (and some essential ones) that often push spending over budget. Think about it: Even if you get takeout or delivery with the same frequency that you once ate out at restaurants, the costs of your meals are likely still less than what you would have spent at the restaurant table. If you frequently went over budget or spent beyond your means before, you might have found that you were able to abandon those habits over the last months without additional sacrifice (outside the changes you've had to make because of the pandemic, of course).

With something close to normal within sight, though, those easy savings might disappear along with your fear of the virus as you start planning trips, paying for child- or pet-sitting, or going out for events again.

"It takes time for people to adjust to change, so a lot of individuals have probably gotten used to the increase in their disposable income," Ciampa says. "As their spending starts to increase it may be disconcerting to see that gap shrink. It's crucial to have a financial plan and ensure you're still on track to achieve your goals."

In other words, make a plan now to ensure your post-pandemic spending doesn't outpace your pre-pandemic spending—or eat into any savings you've built up over the last year. The urge to spend to make up for lost time or missed opportunities will be there, but you don't want it to take away from your financial future.

The best way to prepare for your post-pandemic routine is to look back at your pre-pandemic spending and use those expenses to guide your future planning.

"It's probably not the most exciting exercise, but it's best to prepare for [your] old normal expenses by creating a budget based on [your] 2019 spending," Ciampa says. "As we all know, 2020 has been quite the outlier, so it's best not to use this year as a measuring stick. Most individual's 2019 expenses will presumably be very similar to their eventual 'return to normal' expenses."

If you've saved buckets of money without really trying this year, you're not the only one—but you should take steps to keep that savings momentum going, particularly if you have experienced some small income loss or a life change (such as a move to a new state, a new baby, or a new pet) that will have a big impact on your spending and saving moving forward. The end of the pandemic may be within sight (distantly, at least), and a return to the budget woes you faced before will come with it, unless you take steps now to prepare.