Monday, May 4, 2020

Social Distancing Life Lately: Eight Weeks

Another photograph from a very different time.

How are you and your loved ones doing? This marks our household's eighth week of fairly strict social distancing. We, and our families, continue to be in good health. K and I have actually shifted to leaving our apartment building only once every three weeks for a big grocery run, though this is only possible because we supplement with some kind of grocery delivery order towards the end of the second week. That delivery tends to include at least some items we can't get at Trader Joe's, as well as some additional fresh produce. (We tip well whenever we use a delivery service, of course.)

We continue to be extremely fortunate, with the ability to work entirely from home, at least until the New York "On PAUSE" order lifts, and no disruptions to our income as of yet. (I would not bet money on the shutdown order lifting for NYC until May 31 or later.) While things remain stable for me in terms of work and income, I'll continue to make at least $350 in total charitable donations this month, mostly to the Food Bank for New York City and World Central Kitchen

Budgeting Lessons  

As Luxe observed on Instagram, one unintended side effect of the COVID-19 shutdowns is that, with restaurant outings and travel basically completely off the table - among many other discretionary things - one might be in a position to examine what one's bare-bones budget could look like. That's certainly been true for our household. 

Back before all the shutdowns started, K and I basically only ever cooked two to three meals a week at home, everything else was done via takeout, including all our weekday lunches at work (I was an excellent and loyal customer of Sweetgreen, let's just say), or via restaurant delivery whenever we weren't going out to eat. I've long been very sheepish about our dining practices - it was an incredibly expensive lifestyle - but while we were both spending so many hours at the office working our biglaw (and in my case, biglaw-ish) jobs, things simply were not going to change. 

Naturally, our food spending has now dropped precipitously. Going by the past two months, around $580/month in groceries will feed our household of two comfortably while the "On PAUSE" shutdown order remains in effect and we're cooking every meal at home. If our primary neighborhood grocery store wasn't a Trader Joe's - one of the more affordable grocery chains in the city - our monthly food budget would probably be significantly higher.

On this budget, we are definitely not eating frugally: We have one meal containing meat or fish most days; we eat a fair bit of packaged snacks and frozen foods; I like more expensive fruit such as berries; and it also includes indulgences here and there, such as some fancy cheese and charcuterie. Under more ordinary conditions, I could probably also get that number down a bit further by utilizing delivery services less often and having access to Chinese grocery stores that require public transit to get to.

The other major category where our spending's been cut significantly is travel, both for vacations and also for routine use of public transit (a 30-day unlimited-use NYC Metrocard, which covers the subway and public buses, currently costs $127; many workplaces offer a benefit where employees can obtain theirs using pre-tax dollars) and cabs or ride-share services. We were originally planning to go on vacation to Japan and Taiwan in the first half of April, but hadn't yet incurred any of the costs, except for airfare. After getting our full refund from EVA Airways, which was fairly painless, that's an entire set of significant expenses that have now been postponed indefinitely.

As you can probably guess, one category of personal discretionary spending that has definitely not gone down for me is shopping for clothing and accessories. I'm quite sheepish about this. I do, at least, consider any purchase I make in this period to be effectively final sale. I will not be troubling anyone with returns and return shipments during this time. 

Farewell to Elizabeth Suzann 1.0 

I was sad to hear that the founder of Elizabeth Suzann, Liz Pape, has been forced by market changes related to COVID-19 to close down this iteration of her company. The closure will not take place immediately, she's been paying her team of employees their full salary while their home state of Tennessee is under a shutdown order, and it sounds like they'll continue to operate and pay their team through July or so, in order to make and ship out their last sets of orders.

While I'm saddened by this news, I find her approach to closing down extremely admirable: I can only imagine how difficult it is for a small business to commit to continuing to pay their full team of employees in full for several months after a black swan event decimates all their plans and projections going forward. (I know, from my own industry - though large international law firms are not similar to small businesses - that many a biglaw firm out there won't be able to do this.) That this is a priority for her and her company is something I consider laudatory.

I've only been familiar with Elizabeth Suzann ("ES") for a relatively short time, maybe three years, and it was only last year that I became a customer. (I believe my first encounter with the company may have been from reading this 2017 blog post where she broke down the costs associated with making one piece of ES clothing. At the time, I didn't know anything else about the ES brand.) To me, her company has long been one of the ones that best embodied my vision of what the ideals of an ethical clothing company should be.

Racial Inequality and COVID-19 in NYC

It is well-documented that the impact of COVID-19 in NYC has hit black and Hispanic communities hardest. (See, for example, the map linked in this Twitter thread.) I don't have the expertise, knowledge, or ability to be particularly eloquent about this issue, or to do much that's concrete about it, but the pandemic truly drives home how unconscionably extreme the degree of racial and socioeconomic inequality is here in the US. COVID-19 is just another in a long line of things that show how cruel and unjust our economic and social systems are, including in terms of access to healthcare. (Our legal system, too, can be relentlessly cruel and unjust, and that is also seen in this pandemic.)

No matter what small, petty difficulties our household has encountered due to the COVID-19 shutdowns, by and large, it's been relatively easy for us to work from home and stay indoors. But in going about our lives this way, it's also painfully clear how extreme a privilege this is, and how so many people don't have that option. I guess this is a bit of a rant without a purpose, because I don't have any actionable steps to take right now. It just makes me angry and frustrated about how little I am able to do to serve the public.

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