A Frightening Number of Americans Can't Afford to Stock Up for the COVID-19 Crisis

by Maurie Backman | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on April 2, 2020

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A woman shopping for canned goods at a grocery store.

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At a time when people are being told to hunker down, a large number lack the funds to do so.

At a time when people are being told to hunker down, a large number lack the funds to do so.

With COVID-19 cases continuing to climb, health officials are strongly urging Americans to stay home to the greatest extent possible, and to stock up on supplies to avoid numerous trips to the supermarket or prepare for an extended quarantine. These supplies include:

  • Non-perishable foods
  • Bottled water, if the water you have access to isn't suitable for drinking
  • Medications
  • Pet food and medications
  • Toiletries like soap and shampoo
  • Cleaning supplies like disinfecting wipes and spray

In a recent survey by The Ascent on the novel coronavirus and money, 52% of Americans said they'd purchased emergency supplies. On average they spent $213.53 preparing for the possibility of having to hunker down at home for weeks. But buying those supplies strained the budgets of 61% of those who did so. 

Meanwhile, 48% of Americans did not stock up for the COVID-19 crisis. Of those, 53.5% felt it wasn't necessary, while 33.3% said they couldn't stock up because the items they needed were nowhere to be found. But 26.2% said they couldn't load up on supplies due to a lack of funds, which underscores the importance of having emergency savings.

Your emergency fund could be a lifeline

We're told to sock away three to six months of essential living expenses in the bank to cover unplanned bills or periods of unemployment. And while there were warning signs that COVID-19 could spread in the U.S., it's safe to say that the current crisis caught many people off guard. As such, supplies like the ones mentioned above most certainly count as an unanticipated expense, because while they may be things you buy regularly, you probably don't spend $213.53 every time you go to the store. 

The fact that a large chunk of Americans are missing the supplies they need due to a lack of money should serve as a wakeup call that you must have money in your savings account at all times.

Of course, if you're out of work because of COVID-19, now's clearly not the time to work on building savings. But once life gets back to normal, you should make every effort to amass some level of cash reserves, with the goal of eventually saving enough to pay for at least three months of bills. 

Getting the supplies you need

If you're missing the supplies you need to ride out the next few weeks safely due to a lack of funds, you have a few options. If your credit is strong, you can apply for a small personal loan and use the proceeds from it to load up on essentials. You'll need to pay that loan back, but you may get some leeway with your initial payments. 

You can also charge your expenses on a credit card and pay that balance off over time. Under normal circumstances, this isn't something you'd want to do. But if you're really in a pinch, charging somewhere in the ballpark of $213 shouldn't hurt you too badly provided you pay back that debt quickly as soon as the crisis passes. An even better bet is to find a credit card with a 0% introductory APR. That way, if your income situation improves sooner than anticipated, you might avoid interest on that debt completely. 

If you are facing difficult financial decisions because of the novel coronavirus, you could also try asking family or friends for a loan, or selling items like old electronics to drum up some cash. But the latter could take a while, and if you're missing the supplies you need, you probably can't afford to wait. Finally, you can consult this list of resources if you're truly cash-strapped and need immediate financial help.

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