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5 Ways Social Distancing Affects Your Budget

By Catherine Brock - Apr 8, 2020 at 6:45AM

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You could have the opportunity to pad your emergency fund right now. Here's how to quantify it.

Feeling trapped lately? You're not the only one. One internet spoof captures the sentiment perfectly by changing the lyrics of an Adele song to, "Hello from the inside." We're all adjusting to the socially distant lifestyle as well as the effects it has on everything from our psyche to our finances.

Financially speaking, social distancing has its pros and cons. The overriding element might be the looming worry of recession and income loss. But with stores, restaurants, and services shut down, it's also vastly easier to control your discretionary spending. Those factors combined mean it's critical to rework your budget and determine how much, exactly, you can save during this difficult time. Start by getting dialed in on how these five regular household expenditures have changed in recent weeks.

An unhappy-looking man watching TV at home

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Gas spend

You should be spending far less on gas thanks to an empty social calendar and the transition to working from home. On top of that, the national average cost of gas has dropped about $0.40 per gallon in the last month.

Quantify the difference in your gas spend between January and the last four weeks. In my household, for example, we spent $207 on gas in the first month of the year. But in the four weeks since my husband started working remotely, that gas spend dropped to $55. That's at least $152 monthly available to stash in my emergency fund.

2. Discretionary spending

If the bulk of your entertainment budget goes toward subscriptions -- gym membership, Netflix, Pandora, and Kindle Unlimited -- your discretionary spend may be fairly stable. You might need those streaming subscriptions now more than ever, after all. And you might choose to keep your gym membership as a show of support to local business.

But then, the savings from forgone happy hours, salon visits, weekend trips, and social activities could be substantial. As with the gas spend, compare your transactions from earlier in the year to the last four weeks to calculate the net change. Personally, I'm seeing the biggest savings in skipped visits to the hair salon, which adds up to more than I'd like to admit.

3. Food

For me, the change in food spending has been complicated to unpack. We're actually spending more on food, which is counterintuitive. You'd think that eating out less would have the opposite effect, since it's generally cheaper to cook at home. But not in my case. I'm absorbing higher grocery bills because my shopping habits have changed.

Gone are the days of comparison shopping, or even buying in bulk. In my area, grocery pick-up times from Sam's Club and Walmart (WMT 0.86%) are nearly impossible to get. My only option is to have groceries delivered from the local market via Instacart -- which is, on the whole, more expensive. And since we didn't eat out that much anyway, the net result is a higher food bill overall.

Your experience may be quite different. Again, look to your actual banking transactions to tell the story. If you realize you're spending more, like I did, sort out why and see if you can take any steps to be more efficient. My takeaway is to do a better job building my grocery list around what's already on sale at the market.

4. Delivery fees

In this stay-at-home environment, you're likely to spend more on shipping and delivery fees. Get a handle on how much these are costing you. Try to consolidate your deliveries by keeping a running list of things you need, and then placing orders no more than once weekly. Lean on free shipping through your Amazon Prime membership if you have one.

I'm restricting my online purchases to Amazon (AMZN 3.15%). And I've upgraded to Instacart Express after determining that the $9.99 monthly charge is less than what I'd pay in fees without the membership.

5. Utilities

The change in your utility bills may still be an unknown, but they're likely to go up. Being home 24/7 and cooking every day consumes more water and more power. As those utility bills start coming in, quantify those increases.

Netting out the changes

When I add up these changes, my overall spending is down. If yours is, too, the lower spending justifies an increase to your emergency fund deposits -- at least temporarily, until social distancing protocols are lifted or your income outlook is more secure.

If you're spending more, crunch the numbers to find out why. Boredom-driven online shopping could be a culprit, for example. Or perhaps you're buying more supplies than you need because you're worried about the ongoing availability of groceries and toilet paper. Whatever the underlying behavior is, evaluate it in terms of necessity. You might need to stockpile a few extra rolls of toilet paper, but you don't need to stockpile clothes.

Eliminate the spending that's unnecessary, and direct the savings into your emergency fund. If your income changes for the worse in the coming weeks, you'll be one step ahead in weathering that crisis. 

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