Friday, August 21, 2020

COVID-19 Spending Changes

Chloe Alphabet Wallet (affiliate link)

This post about COVID-19 lockdown-driven changes to my spending is somewhat inspired by Luxe and Kathy. Over the past five months of staying home and observing fairly strict social distancing, I've continued my longtime practice - six years and counting - of tracking my spending down to the individual transaction - no matter how small - using old YNAB. With all the data I've collected, it's easy to look back and analyze exactly how much my spending has changed due to our new lifestyle under COVID. 

Although New York's already-favorable COVID numbers are continuing to improve, K and I still expect to observe fairly strict social distancing through at least the end of the calendar year. Our friends in the city are still not inclined to socialize in-person. My  mom would also not take lightly the decision to have my sister or I get on a plane to see her - or vice versa - basically until we've all been vaccinated. We are mentally preparing for the possibility that we may not feel comfortable enough with air travel to visit each other during the Christmas holiday period this year.

K and I desperately miss indoor dining at our favorite restaurants, but we would absolutely not feel it was safe - or socially responsible - to sit down inside a typically-cramped NYC restaurant before a vaccine becomes widely distributed. In any case, indoor dining is still banned in NYC, and there's no indication of when our state or local government would consider allowing restaurant dining rooms to reopen. 

In short, I think it's likely most of my spending changes from the past five months of COVID-19 lockdown could persist through the end of the year. I don't see any way K and I will go back to traveling or restaurants before 2021. And unfortunately - because the US national response to COVID has gone so poorly - we might end up needing to stay away for longer than just through the end of the calendar year.

Spending Changes 

Before getting to specifics, some notes about methodology. My goal was to compare my typical monthly spend from before and after the COVID-19 shutdowns began. In order to do this, I took all my YNAB data from 2019 to calculate my "before COVID" average monthly spend, and compared it to my "after COVID" monthly spend from April through July this year, for months spent fully under lockdown and for which I already have the entire month's data. (Our period of strict social distancing officially began March 12, so there was a fair bit of pre-COVID spending that month.)

Because K and I haven't been able to travel, go out to restaurants, or go to concerts or other events, and also taking into account that we haven't been getting restaurant delivery or takeout, my monthly spend during COVID more or less represents my "essentials only" budget, except that it includes my shopping, which you've been able to read about each month. (Somewhat similar to what Luxe observed for her budget in April, except that I've been doing more fashion-related shopping.)

My COVID-time monthly spend is not, however, a perfect representation of what my "emergency fund" spending would actually look like if, say, I lost my job. In that unfortunate event, paying for COBRA to continue my health insurance coverage would cost a lot more each month than I currently spend out-of-pocket on healthcare.

While calculating my COVID-driven spending changes, I also omitted a few categories of expenditures that would throw off the analysis:
  • The amount I paid in taxes has remained somewhat consistent between this year and the last, but because of the timing of when I make that payment, it was easiest to exclude taxes from my calculations. 
  • I also omitted gift-related spending, a category that includes gifts for friends and family, and also includes my share of (1) year-end holiday tips for the staff of the apartment building and (2) year-end cash gifts for the receptionists and assistants at my biglaw-ish office. While my gift spending is likely to stay consistent, the vast majority of that fairly significant annual total is all paid out in December, so it hasn't happened yet for 2020. Thus, including those numbers would throw off my math significantly. 
  • Student loan payments are also excluded from my comparison because they're something I could pull back on significantly, if needed. My minimum payment after refinancing is ~$1,600/month, though I currently pay at least $4,800/month and will continue to do so, as long as I'm employed at my current salary. (If I was only able to make my minimum payments, I'd have a little over three years of repayment left. At the rate I'm currently paying, I still have a little over a year before I'm done.) 
  • Finally, charitable giving is also omitted from this calculation because it's so discretionary. Since March, I've been making charitable contributions of $350/month, primarily to fight hunger and food insecurity locally (by giving to Food Bank for NYC) and globally (by giving to World Central Kitchen). I've also been donating to some smaller, grassroots Black Lives Matter-related causes

With all that factored in, my typical monthly spending has dropped by an average of ~$1,300/month while social distancing. A significant percentage of that, ~$450/month, comes from not being able to travel. K and I were originally going to take an international vacation in April, and had already set aside the funds, only to have it go unspent and stay in our savings accounts. Thus, there's no need now to set aside additional money for future travel - for when things are safe again - because those existing vacation savings aren't going anywhere anytime soon!

Our total household food spending each month - for groceries only, as we haven't felt inspired to get delivery or takeout - has proven to be somewhat higher than my original $580/month total (~$290/month for my share) estimate from the start of social distancing. That total represented groceries for cooking every meal and a good amount of snacks, with some fancy cheese or other indulgences. It was also based on the assumption that we'd rely almost entirely on in-person trips to Trader Joe's, our most affordable neighborhood grocery store.

As the months go by, we've started using grocery delivery more often, including Freshdirect - which is fairly expensive all-around - and our monthly orders from Southeast Asia Food Group's ("SAFG") home delivery service. There are many ingredients we like to rely on that SAFG offers and that aren't available in grocery stores within a comfortable walking distance from where we live, so we particularly depend on them. I imagine that the additional logistical challenges of transitioning their business from restaurant delivery-only to doing home deliveries accounts for the moderately expensive $15 SAFG delivery fee, and we tip $7-$8 on top of that.

I'll continue to be coy about how much in total we currently spend on food, as well as about how much I used to spend pre-COVID. (It's too embarrassing to just say it out loud!) But by not going to restaurants or coffee shops or getting takeout lunches every weekday, I'm saving at least ~$450/month on food. One can then infer that the original amount I used to spend was shocking by non-NYC standards... and also by the standards of anyone - including in NYC - who was cooking more than two to three times a week.

As for the rest of the savings - the ~$400/month not yet accounted for - it's a bit more difficult to pinpoint exactly where they come from. My out-of-pocket medical bills have been significantly reduced from last year because I didn't need new glasses or contacts. I also haven't been refilling my absurdly high-copay topical prescriptions for acne. I also happen to be paying significantly less in copays for birth control these days, due to some mysterious policy changes at the insurance company. Medical expense changes bring at least ~$150/month of the total savings. Before, I typically spent ~$40/month on cabs or ride-shares, which I now save. It's likely that I'm saving ~$40/month by foregoing haircuts and dry-cleaning for so long. Movie theatre tickets, concert or show tickets, and similar things account for maybe another ~$50/month (mostly from the Moulin Rouge Broadway tickets last December, when my mom and sister visited).

But I can't quite figure out where the remaining ~$120/month in reduced spending comes from. It's definitely not from fashion-related shopping. Although I've had two no-shopping months in 2020 and also a third very-low-for-me shopping month, I've more than made up for it the rest of the time!

What I Probably Won't Be Shopping For

And while this isn't quite directly related to COVID-driven spending changes - since I'll probably spend the same amount on other categories of items for my closet instead - I also thought it would be interesting to identify what I'm pretty sure I won't be shopping for while I'm still staying home as much as possible, including to work.

In general the things I won't be buying fall into one of two categories: Either they're things I like so much that it'll make me sad I can't wear them while moving about freely in the world (coats and handbags), or they're things I never really liked much in the first place and consider purely utilitarian, so I'm no longer interested in them now that I have no need for more (shoes and workwear). 


I've purchased four coats since I started tracking all my shopping in January 2015, and have acquired an additional unreported one as a birthday gift from my mom. That's one coat a year, and I confess I still think about more, even though all of my current ones are still in excellent shape and perfectly functional. The most likely candidate for the next new coat was maybe going to be another, more polished trench coat or a wool wrap coat like this one from The Curated. Or at least, that's what I was thinking before the shutdowns happened. 

Since I can't enjoy my coats much when I rarely leave the apartment building, I think I can be counted on to stay away from actually buying any more this year. Also, I'm trying very hard to avoid doing unnecessary returns and causing extra work for anyone while the COVID situation in the US is still quite serious, and with coats it's especially difficult to predict whether one will work for me reasonably well off the rack.

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I've purchased eight handbags since I started tracking all my shopping, and have received others as gifts, including from K, making for a formidable total number of new-to-me handbags over the last five years. I generally like handbags a lot. Some of you might recall that - right before the COVID-19 shutdowns started - I was even sort-of-seriously considering buying a Celine Seau Sangle during a hectic business trip in Paris after an extraordinarily busy period at work, even though it'd be significantly more expensive than any other single item I'd ever bought for my wardrobe. (I'd also been admiring the newly-released Cuyana Oversized Hobo, even though I thought it ultimately looked too oversized and unstructured to look good on my fairly short frame.) 

But now that we're mostly staying home and we try to keep our "outside items" separate and quarantined from everything else inside the apartment as a - possibly not especially scientifically-supported - precaution, there's not much joy associated with the idea of switching up the handbags I bring on my rare trips outside the home. For all these months, I've just stuck with my black Longchamp Le Pliage "Neo" tote: It's very lightweight, it carries a lot, it more or less matches any outfit, and it's also mostly plastic, so it's easy to wipe down and sanitize if I feel the need. I'm not feeling any interest in switching to my other handbags, and I'm also not feeling any real interest in looking at new handbag designs. 

As for the Celine Sangle I thought I was ready to buy? At this rate, chances are we'll probably never take that business trip to Paris. Everything we were going to work on abroad will be done remotely -  by video -  if it's to be done at all. I was only ready to possibly buy that bag because of a "perfect storm" of factors: The intense hours I'd been working for nearly six months straight; the back to back international business trips; and the fact that my work travels were taking me to Paris for several days, making it possible for me to find time to sneak away for a quick shopping errand. By now, it's clear that this "perfect storm" for making that somewhat impulsive shopping decision won't recur. 

Plus, I'm still expecting the other shoe to drop when it comes to COVID-19's long-term economic consequences for the segment of the legal industry I work in. Accordingly, I'm now a believer in an emergency fund consisting of a year's worth of living expenses, rather than six-months' worth. So I don't think I'm open to such a large handbag purchase anymore, not while I'm also still working my way through those student loans. 


I'm really not a "shoe person." I rarely find any shoe design that beautiful or interesting, and I also prioritize comfort and utility above almost everything else when it comes to selecting new-to-me shoes to buy. So it's no surprise that when I only leave the apartment building approximately once every three weeks, I'm not thinking about shoes much at all! 

Before the COVID-19 shutdowns started, I did have a vague interest in a pair of ankle boots with slightly edgy details like studs or decorative buckles. Essentially, I was sort of inspired by the look of the Chloe Susanna Boots, though I preferred something with more subtle details. Maybe something like the Office of Angela Scott Mr. Dean boots? But now that we're likely to be staying home for most of the fall and winter, I don't have any real interest in looking for new boots anymore. 


It's definitely not a surprise that I have no desire for any new-to-me business formal or even business casual workwear, now that it's going to be a long time before I'm fully back in the office. I have not been shy about expressing how much I don't particularly enjoy wearing the somewhat more formal-ish - compared to other industries - business casual workwear I need, as an attorney practicing in NYC in a biglaw-ish office. 

Anyway, my "things I probably won't be shopping for" list is definitely not that impressive, since I totally don't need to be shopping for much of anything else either, now that I'm staying home all the time!

How has your typical monthly spending been affected by COVID-19? Have your feelings changed about the appropriate size of an emergency fund, or about any other personal finance management questions? Are there any categories of items for your wardrobe that you probably won't be buying in the near future? 

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