During the pandemic, Alzbeta, a 26-year-old from the Czech Republic, realised that spending money had become a key coping mechanism for her anxiety. "Spending money allowed me to get excited about my incoming deliveries, which was the only thing I could get excited about in these uncertain times," she tells R29. "But unfortunately, after spending money I'll inevitably start feeling anxious again."
Spending money has been a plaster over the pandemic anxiety but she worries about what she will miss out on as the world opens up again. "Since travelling was out of the question for the last year and a half, I was trying to make myself happy with spending money on clothes, vitamins, CBD oils, you name it." This means that Alzbeta has not had the opportunity to save. "And now I'm afraid that when we come out of the lockdown, I will be seeing posts on social media from vacations that I cannot afford because of my own mistakes."
In the year since the pandemic was identified and lockdown properly began, there has been a marked effect on our personal relationship to money. The economic climate has deteriorated in many ways but our individual experiences with spending or saving are hugely varied. For some, sources of income or stability have been disrupted or cut off entirely. For most, opportunities to spend in person and socialise have been hampered and while some have plugged that gap with online spending, others have used it as an opportunity to save or reconsider where their money goes.
This has all had a huge impact on our mental health. Laura Peters, head of advice and information services at Mental Health UK (which runs Mental Health and Money Advice), tells R29: "The relationship between our mental health and our money is more complicated than how much is coming into our bank account each month." For example, online shopping can alleviate the monotony and anxiety of living through lockdown. Equally, if you’re spending more than you can afford, it can produce more anxiety down the line. Then there’s the fact that we are creatures prone to comparison. "It can be tempting to compare yourself to others with money," Laura adds. "This might prove particularly demoralising if you’re not earning at the moment but feel anxious about keeping up with your friends."
While some people have used spending to cope in the last year, others have treated the pandemic as a chance to reframe how they see their finances. After stepping off the treadmill of socialising in London, Nina, 31, tells R29 that "without outgoings like regular pub and restaurant visits, I had an opportunity to save a bit more money. While I've been lucky enough to work all through the pandemic with a good sense of job security, I appreciate that it's wise to have a nest egg to fall back on at all times." She's not only been able to save more money but has also taken the opportunity to pay off some debt and create a plan for longer term saving goals.
Others have not been so lucky with their sources of income, making their relationship with money even more fraught. Rosalie, 32, stopped working in September 2019 to have brain surgery and spent all of 2020 recovering. "I was already stressed about money because I was freelance and didn’t have sick pay to rely on," she tells R29. "The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) grants have been really helpful but the fact that I had already used all my savings for recovery was very stressful." Although she's been doing some work for her mum, she hasn't been able to find other work, despite consistently applying for jobs and projects since September. "I’m currently in my overdraft and I am looking forward to the fourth SEISS grant but also stressed as I don’t know if I’m still eligible."
The disruption and uncertainty we've faced in the past year was difficult to adjust to but has become our new normal (albeit a strange one). Now, that new normal is being undone too, as we slowly and carefully emerge from lockdown into a different world. These changes won’t alleviate the uncertainty about money coming in but they will bring many new opportunities and challenges for the money going out. And with that comes a world of new anxieties.
For Nina, her excitement about being reunited with loved ones (and beloved local restaurants) is tempered by her worry that she’ll miss her saving goals before she’s even started.
"Meal bookings, holidays and weddings are already coming in thick and fast," she says, "and while I wouldn't swap the happiness these events will inevitably bring, I don't want to beat myself up about spending money again after a year of enjoying the frugality that came with a simpler life." As a reformed overspender, she says her fear is that she’ll fall back into bad habits. "The notion of spiralling costs taps into a fear of losing control and slipping back into a negative headspace over finances."
Rosalie's worries are more centred on access and a fear of being left behind. "Being able to travel in London stresses me out as I’m worried about public transport. I would like the option of getting Ubers but they are expensive. I also have a bike to help with this but now I have to pay for the bike... And I’m worried about missing out on fun things because I don’t have enough money, especially if people end up going on holiday. I don’t want to be left behind!"
The pandemic brought out many individual anxieties but it did hit pause on the tensions that can emerge between friends and loved ones who earn or spend differently but expect each other to spend in the same way. The lifting of lockdown is bringing that tension front and centre again, with the added pressure of making up for lost time with your post-pandemic 2021 fun. Put simply, everyone wants to have a great summer but not everyone can afford it.
So how best to alleviate these new anxieties about money?
If you’re excited and nervous about your future spending, that’s hardly surprising. The need to celebrate is real and wanting to embrace that joy by getting rounds in, splurging on a new outfit or booking a long dreamed of holiday is a natural and deserved impulse.
What’s important is to pace yourself and make sure that your money is going on things you want it to, says Laura. "There’s potentially a tension between wanting to support businesses that have reopened (for example) and making sure you’re not spending on anything you don’t need to. This means being really clear that you’ve got the essentials covered (rent, utility bills, council tax) and what is most important to you in terms of additional spending. It might take a bit of time to adjust back into 'normal' spending habits or to figure out what normal looks like now, so it makes sense to try to keep a regular check on your spending."
If possible, it might also help to rework a budget which factors in unexpected spending that might come up in the next few months. Nina recently started a 'fun fund' which she can dip into as and when. "I've decided that it's a completely guilt-free zone and it can be spent on whatever I want. It already means that my day-to-day budgeting isn't impacted by unexpected events so I'm more likely to stay on track and not beat myself up for overspending while still feeling the inevitable buzz of summer events."
As for setting boundaries with other people around spending, finding ways to be open about your approach to money is key. Everyone’s finances, spending habits and attitude to money is unique to them, so there is no catch-all solution. Finding ways to be sensitive to others’ situations and be open about your own will save a lot of confusion, frustration and even debt down the line.
"We all have such varied spending habits and attitudes to money that knowing your own budget is really important," says Laura. "We’re generally not good at talking about money and it’s a sensitive topic so even if you’re in a good place with your finances, it’s key to be considerate of the fact that some people might not be spending and making plans in the same way they did before the pandemic hit."
If your finances have been impacted, try to acknowledge this early in the conversation when you’re making plans. Denying or avoiding the problem is ultimately unhelpful for your mental health and you won’t enjoy the meet-up you’ve been looking forward to if you know you’re spending more than you can afford. If you find speaking about money difficult, Laura points out that you don’t need to share everything about your financial situation. "A gentle reminder that you’re job-hunting or watching your spending can be enough to signal that a change of plans makes sense."
Ultimately, what we are celebrating in a post-lockdown world is not spending money in and of itself but the ability to spend time and explore the things we love with the people we love. Managing that may require some quick saving ahead of time or some slightly awkward conversations, but how much money you can spend is not the most important part.
"It sounds cheesy," says Laura, "but given we’ve not been able to see our loved ones for so long, quality time is one of the most valuable things we can give someone we care about. It doesn’t have to cost the earth."
If you are struggling with your mental health and money there are lots of resources on the Mental Health & Money Advice website and plenty of organisations that can provide free debt advice if you need it. If you are finding it hard to manage, it’s best to seek support as soon as possible to prevent your mental and financial wellbeing from deteriorating.