On April 11, the Internal Revenue Service announced the first stimulus checks have been deposited in recipients' accounts. Over the next week or so, about 60 million American households who included direct deposit with their 2018 or 2019 tax returns will get their checks. A second round of people who earn Social Security income via direct deposit but didn't file a tax return will also see their stimulus checks arrive later this month.
For many of those individuals, the funds they get will immediately go toward making ends meet. Over the past three weeks, almost 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment, and each week has broken the prior record for the most ever new claims.
But for many of you reading this, you may not have an immediate need to put food on the table or pay an already-late utility bill before service gets cut off. Hopefully, you've already taken steps to prepare for a recession, including building up an emergency fund to cover multiple months of expenses, and avoided (or paid off) high-interest debt.
But maybe you haven't done everything perfectly or just aren't sure what your best options are. So let's take a closer look at four different things you may want to do with your stimulus check.
Stick it in savings
Many of this first wave of filers worked in now-shuttered industries like retail, hospitality, and restaurants, but economists expect more people to lose their jobs in the weeks and months ahead. Even white-collar workers, many of whom are now working from home, are at risk. Economists expect the U.S. could lose almost 15 million more jobs and the unemployment rate could hit 13% by early summer.
This is an unprecedented situation, and millions of those jobs that could be lost are normally completely safe in a recession. If you work for a company that's not earning any revenue today or has seen its revenues fall off sharply because its business has been forced to close, it may be worth tucking your stimulus money in the bank, even if you already have an emergency fund.
Also, don't be so quick to use these funds to make your rent or mortgage payment or even certain utilities or services, especially if you've lost your job or your hours have been reduced. If that's your situation, reach out to your creditors: Many are offering temporary bill deferrals, and your home lender or landlord may be offering (or even required to accept) abatements. If you need a little more breathing room, don't hesitate to take advantage of these programs, and stretch your stimulus money a little farther.
Some people may cringe even seeing those words. What are the ethics of using money the federal government is sending out to stimulate the economy to make a profit?
This may seem like a slippery slope, but the bottom line is this: These funds are being sent out with no strings attached. You get to decide what to do with it.
Besides, it's a reasonable and ethical use of stimulus funds to invest. Growing your wealth will mean you're more financially prepared for whatever the future brings.
Saving it for retirement? You'll be less dependent on Social Security. Investing for a child's education? Giving that child a leg up with less college debt or training in a skilled trade will help the economy in the future. If you help that child increase their future earnings, your investments today will even contribute to more income tax in the future.
Sure, it might be good in the short term to use that money for consumption and give the gross domestic product (GDP) a little artificial help, but a better use for the long-term financial health of people, the economy, and the country would be for more people to invest their proceeds, even if it's in a low-cost ETF like the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO 1.71%) or SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY 1.69%).
This should be a consideration for anyone with the means. Historically, now -- in a market crash -- is the best time to buy stocks. The market has recovered some, but stocks are still down about 10% from their high, a worthy discount so long as you plan to invest and hold for five years or longer.
Been putting off a new TV? Tired of paying to have that old washing machine repaired every year? Need new tires? What about finally fixing that old deck?
The point is, a little bit of consumerism isn't necessarily a bad thing. Whether it's a splurge or something you've been putting off, don't feel bad if you decide to spend your stimulus check on something you might not have been planning to buy otherwise. That's particularly true if you have plenty in savings and a reliable source of income.
Help others with it
There's an argument that spending it does help people -- and it's true. Every item you buy keeps people working, from the people who design products to workers in the factories to the truck drivers to warehouse workers to distributors and even to retail outlets. That's not to say buying a new smartphone is heroic work, but it's what drives the economy.
But if you have the means, now may be the best time in your life to support local charities that feed and house those less fortunate. There are millions of seniors and people with limited mobility who live alone, and the charities that deliver food and meals are undermanned and don't have the resources to meet today's need. If you have the means, this may be the best thing you could ever do with some or even all of your federal stimulus dollars.
Use your stimulus how you think is best
If you're able to support those in your community who are struggling, that's wonderful, and if you're also in a position that you can use those funds to splurge a little or spend on a home repair or appliance replacement you've been putting off, that's also fine and reasonable. It's your money, with no strings attached.
At the same time, don't feel any pressure to give it away or spend it. It's just as good a decision to sock it away in the bank or invest it for the future. After all, there's an old saying that rings true: Charity begins at home. It's your responsibility to take steps to protect your family's finances for future crises, too.