Millennial Money: 3 ways COVID-19 reshuffled our finances

The U.S. economy ground to a halt in March 2020 as state after state issued lockdown orders and shut down businesses to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.

A year later, mask-wearing is commonplace, the phrase “social distancing” is now in the dictionary, elbow bumps have replaced fist bumps and hugs are still on pause.

The tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our financial lives in ways big and small, too. The big: Many businesses are still temporarily closed, while countless others have closed permanently or are on the brink of doing so, and millions of people are still out of work.

Less acute is the way the coronavirus has influenced how we interact with money, both physically and philosophically. People are being more intentional about how they spend their money, learning what they can do without (sometimes the hard way) and forgoing cash in favor of more contactless payments.

Here are three financial trends we can chalk up to the coronavirus pandemic.

1. CASHLESS PAYMENTS

Cash is dirty. Like, covered in bacteria and food and feces dirty. That didn’t bother us much prior to the pandemic. But now, in an effort to minimize contact with germs (namely, the coronavirus) businesses and consumers are ditching cash in favor of credit cards and digital wallets. Payment services quickly pivoted to follow suit. Case in point: Venmo.

Before the pandemic, Venmo was an app you used to split the bill at happy hour or pay your roommate for the electricity bill. Now, you can scan a QR code at CVS to pay for your hand sanitizer using Venmo.

Digital transactions may be more hygienic and convenient, but cashless payment systems typically require a credit card or checking account and, therefore, aren’t easily accessible to the 7.1 million American households who don’t have a bank account.

That’s why major cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco and New York City, along with a handful of states, require retailers to accept cash. And, until the alternative is more accessible, cash will remain king.

2. SHOPPING SMALL, SUPPORTING LOCAL

Don’t let the trail of Amazon delivery trucks fool you. The pandemic also prompted people to shop small. In a May 2020 survey commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted by The Harris Poll, 37% of Americans said they made more of an effort to support local businesses as a result of the pandemic.

Shoppers’ desire to support local businesses outweighed their desire to find the cheapest price. In a November 2020 survey by Union Bank, 72% of Americans said supporting small businesses was more important than getting the best deal and 43% said they were willing to spend $20 more on an item to support a small or local business.

While business owners can seek grants and Paycheck Protection Program loans, they will need continued solidarity from shoppers if they are going to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. SAVING MONEY

Few things amplify the importance of an emergency fund more than an extended, large-scale emergency. The personal savings rate over the past year reflects that trend.

In December 2019, the personal savings rate was 7.2%. In December 2020, it was 13.7%. In the 12 months between, savings rates skyrocketed up to 33.7%, which was an all-time high.

The pandemic didn’t simply illustrate the need to save. By shutting down travel, concerts, restaurants and other fun things we used to spend money on, COVID-19 effectively cut the fun out of budgets.

Almost half (48%) of Americans reported spending less than they did pre-pandemic, according to the May 2020 survey by NerdWallet and The Harris Poll. And 38% said they planned to save more in their emergency fund post-pandemic, too.

But saving money during the pandemic is a luxury mostly afforded to those on solid financial footing before March 2020. Among those with a household income of $100,000 or higher, 47% reported saving more than they did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, compared with 35% of those earning less than $50,000 per year, according to NerdWallet’s May 2020 survey.

The coronavirus has disproportionately impacted low-income communities and people of color, both physically and financially. And many people struggling to stay afloat before the pandemic find themselves in more dire circumstances now.

Resources like 211.org can help those in need find assistance for bills, housing and other necessities. And nonprofits like Feeding America can help you find food banks in your area.

And if you’re among those with more disposable income since the pandemic started, consider donating to community organizations serving those who need help.

This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Kelsey Sheehy is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: ksheehy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @kelseylsheehy.

RELATED LINKS:

Small business grants: Where to find free money http://bit.ly/nerdwallet-free-money

Feeding America https://www.feedingamerica.org/need-help-find-food

211.org http://211.org

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