Given the significant economic upheaval caused by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, there's a lot of interest in the "stimulus checks" that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (also known as the CARES Act) authorized. (Note that their proper name is Economic Impact Payments.)

Millions of Americans -- but not everyone -- will be receiving payments of $1,200, which will be very welcome, as many people were living paycheck-to-paycheck even before the pandemic hit, and nearly one in five people earning more than $100,000 are, as well. Unfortunately, that $1,200 isn't going to go very far for the average American.

A young man wearing a mask is shrugging, with empty pockets.

Image source: Getty Images.

What basics cost

A one-time payment of $1,200 is far from nothing, but considering that the economic upheaval has been going on for many weeks now, and is likely to continue for many months, it won't go very far. After all, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the past few weeks, and that number is sure to rise.

Consider the following statistics:

National rents

The national median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was recently $965, and it was $1,197 for a two-bedroom apartment, per the folks at So a $1,200 check would cover 1.24 months of rent for a one-bedroom place, and only one month for a two-bedroom.

Region-specific rents

That's just the national median, meaning that half of rents are higher and half lower, with much variation, depending on where those apartments are. In South Dakota, for example, one- and two-bedroom apartments sport median rates of $568 and $726, respectively, meaning that a $1,200 check has a chance of covering close to two months' worth of housing. But in places such as Alexandria, Virginia, where The Motley Fool is headquartered, rates are much higher -- recently with median rates of $1,643 and $1,898 for one- and two-bedroom apartments.

National utility costs

Then there are utilities, which are also, for the most part, non-negotiable. Here's a breakdown of recent national average monthly costs for various utilities, per

Utility expense

National monthly average



Natural gas




Cable TV









That comes to $400 per month, or about $4,800 per year, and that's just an average. Those who live in very hot or cold regions will likely spend more heating or cooling their homes, and other expenses can vary widely, too.


The median-income American household spends more than $6,000 on food annually, which amounts to more than $500 per month, per the Department of Agriculture's 2018 data. Even the lowest quintile of earners spends more than $4,000, or more than $300 per month.

The big picture

The numbers above paint a frightening picture, if you try to see how far a single $1,200 relief payment will go. Imagine someone in South Dakota with rent of $600, who spends $300 per month on utilities and $300 on food. That alone comes to $1,200, and it's just for a single month -- while excluding other essential spending, such as taxes, insurance, transportation, and so on. Someone in Alexandria might be facing $1,600 in rent, plus $300 for utilities and $400 for food, for a total of $2,300 per month for just that portion of non-negotiable expenses.

A hundred dollar bill, with Ben Franklin wearing a mask.

Image source: Getty Images.

More robust relief

It's not lost on many of our representatives in Washington that millions of Americans need much more than a single $1,200 check. Canada, for example, launched a $2,000-per-month benefit for its people, to be paid each month for up to four months.

If you care about this issue, let your Senators and Representatives know your thoughts.

How to get by

In the meantime, do some research and perhaps some creative thinking to come up with ways to conserve your cash and stretch your dollars.

For one thing, know that unemployment benefits have been expanded to apply to more people, such as self-employed folks and even those who quit their jobs due to COVID-19 concerns. Learn more to see if you may be able to collect benefits.

You should never borrow from retirement accounts if you can help it, but if you see no other better option, you might consider it. If you're still employed and are contributing regularly to a 401(k) account, you might reduce or suspend your contributions for a while -- but be sure to get back on track when the economy and your financial footing start recovering.

If this is a tough time for you, know that you're not alone, and millions of people are in similar boats. The $1,200 economic impact payment you get may not go far, but it can still help -- ideally along with some other strategies you act on.