3 Lessons the Toilet Paper Famine Taught Us About Finance

by Brittney Myers | Published on July 24, 2021

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A shopper wearing a mask puts many packages of toilet paper into their grocery cart.

Image source: Getty Images

You can find finance anywhere -- even in the bathroom.

If you've ever been in a city facing a natural disaster, you've probably experienced a bit of panic buying as water bottles and batteries start to disappear. But with the coronavirus pandemic came especially extreme panic buying.

Not only did bottled water and canned soup seem to run off the shelves, but you couldn't find a can of disinfectant spray for love nor money. Yet, of all the things that seemed to vanish in the middle of 2020, few caused such widespread dismay as toilet paper.

Yes, the Great Toilet Paper Famine of 2020 will no doubt live on as a tale of woe told for generations. Rather than lament, however, let's reflect on the lessons learned. In particular, there were three important economic and personal finance lessons we can take away from the experience.

1. Low supply + high demand = opportunity?

As lockdowns rolled out and millions of people learned they'd be home for the near future, the panic buying began. And the longer lockdowns went on, the more scarcity we experienced -- and not just in stores.

You see, in the Before Times, the majority of us spent at least half the day at work, in stores, and in restaurants. This meant we were, ahem, using toilet paper at these places instead of at home. So, the toilet paper industry was balanced between commercial supply and residential supply.

Then lockdowns came. We went home. And factories full of commercial toilet paper gathered dust -- while stores and home bathrooms ran out of domestic supplies. A few alarming social media posts later, and we were playing toilet paper catch-up for months.

But, the idea of scarcity isn't the only supply and demand lesson to be learned. Consider the way that many businesses turned that scarcity into opportunity (and not just the vulturous scalpers).

Yes, I'm talking about the restaurants and businesses that, in a stroke of absolute marketing genius, offered toilet paper incentives to prop up flagging sales. Instead of garlic rolls, pizzas came with toilet paper rolls. And you could get your BLT with a side of TP.

In a time when restaurants were relegated to pickup and delivery, a little extra enticement to put down the yeast and pick up the phone was well thought out. And while we don't have any hard numbers of how much adding TP to the menu boosted their bottom lines, even a few extra sales likely made a difference to many struggling businesses.

2. Emergency savings are important

There are two types of people in the world: those who buy more toilet paper when they open their last pack -- and those who wait until they hit the cardboard on their last roll. After 2020, I bet the world has a lot more of the former.

If you were one of the folks who liked to have a stash of paper goods on hand at all times, you probably weathered the drought better than those caught paperless. Similarly, if you have a healthy emergency fund on hand, you can better withstand any unexpected expenses that come your way.

How much money you need to set aside for a rainy day depends on a few factors, including your typical expenses. (After all, if you're single, you likely don't need nearly as much toilet paper each week as, say, a family of four.)

In general, a good rule of thumb is to have three to six months' wages in your savings account to cover emergencies. (Oh, and the average person goes through four to eight rolls of toilet paper a month, so plan your TP emergency fund accordingly.)

3. Ingenuity can save the day

Necessity is the mother of invention, and scarcity is the parent of exploration. We saw a whole lot of both while folks searched for ways to take care of their business ends without the proper paperwork.

For whatever reason, the concept of the bidet never really took off in the U.S. -- that is, not until 2020. Many people who would have once looked askance at the bathroom addition suddenly bought out every bidet they could find online.

And that's when people got clever. We saw everything from retrofitted dish sprayers to repurposed lawn hoses as folks used what they had in whole new ways.

Your finances can benefit from a bit of ingenuity from time to time, as well -- especially when you're experiencing a bit of scarcity of the monetary kind. Few folks can make a dollar stretch quite like those who have to make that dollar stretch.

But you don't need to wait until times are tight to look for clever ways to make use of your money. When you sit down to budget, take a look at your expenses and think of fresh ways you can make your budget work better.

Maybe that's something simple, like using credit card rewards to pay for your vacation instead of dipping into your savings. Or maybe it's something more involved, like turning your weird talent for falling asleep anywhere into a lucrative mattress testing side hustle. Let your creative juices flow.

Find the lesson in every experience

For every good, bad, and downright odd thing we experienced in 2020, there's a lesson to be learned -- even if that lesson is just: "Don't take toilet paper for granted." As you regale the generations to come with how you survived the toilet paper famine, reflect also on the many lessons to be learned and how, hopefully, your finances can be better for them.

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