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How Our Non-Essential Expenses Skyrocketed During COVID-19

By Dana George - Dec 11, 2020 at 7:00AM

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Alone, none of the expenses seemed like a big deal. Together, they were game-changers.

Woman on floor with bills spread out around her.

Image source: Getty Images.

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I am, and have always been, a serious budgeter. For as long as I can remember, my husband and I have used a monthly budget to remind us of our financial goals and keep our spending on track. That's why our current spending came as such a shock.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, we began to take on new bills -- small monthly obligations that are no big deal on their own. Every time we added a new subscription or service, I dropped a note in a file I keep on my desktop. It wasn't until November I realized I'd deliberately ignored that file for months. Other than jotting down new expenses, I'd avoided it like an old boyfriend at a class reunion. 

The chickens come home to roost

I'm not sure what inspired me to open the folder last month, other than morbid curiosity. I didn't want to know how many new expenses were on the list, and I sure didn't want to know how much more we were spending.

As I said, nothing on the list was blow-your-hair back shocking. There were television subscriptions like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, Acorn, and Britbox. We'd added a new Babbel subscription in hopes of honing our Spanish skills, subscribed to The Washington Post to sharpen our minds, and for some odd reason, taken on a subscription for car washes. Since March, we've also hired a masked-up dog walker and a crew who comes to deep clean and disinfect the house every couple of months. I barely recall it, but we also signed up for an all-natural pest control service. The good news is, we have not seen a single bug inside the house in months. The bad news is, we signed a two-year agreement. 

That list included three beauty and grooming boxes -- two for me and one for my husband. My mind immediately ran through the questions we journalists are taught to ask: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Seriously. Why did we decide we needed new grooming products in the middle of a pandemic?

An embarrassing total

How much did it cost us to live fabulous during COVID-19? Over $500 a month. I could not stop thinking about that $500 or feeling ridiculous for spending money like it was magic beans. That $500 a month could retire our car payment in half the time. We could have put it in a savings account to pay for a decent vacation. If we invested $500 a month at 7%, it would be worth nearly $83,000 in 10 years. 

Emotional spending

2020 has been an emotional year. Even though our household has not fallen ill with the virus, I still suspect we became emotional spenders. Buying something new kept the bleakness at bay, if only for a short while.

In addition to the coronavirus, we were concerned about the election and deeply saddened by how our neighbors and friends have turned on each other. We lost a loved one and realized how isolated we are from our people. It felt as though our world was getting smaller and scarier, all at once. 

We fitted into what researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and Pittsburgh universities call the "misery is not miserly" phenomenon. These researchers teamed up to learn what happens to spending habits when people are unhappy. They found that sadness leads us to spend more, probably to feel better about our lives.

Getting back on track

The last two weeks have been dedicated to cutting the fat. All but the necessary items in our budget have been axed -- or will be shortly. It's not because we can't afford them. It's because we're not willing to trade the things we could do with that money for a bunch of impulse buys. I would much rather wake up in 10 years remembering a meaningful trip or knowing we have an extra $83,000 tucked away than wonder how we allowed so much money to slip through our fingers.

If you find yourself wondering where all your money has gone, create a budget. It won't necessarily force you to stay on track, but it will remind you where the track is. Examine why you spend and how it makes you feel. And if you need help, seek financial counseling. Some great non-profit counseling agencies are experts at helping you see the big picture and can come up with strategies to meet your financial goals.

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