“It’s All Made Up”: Here’s Everything We Learned About Money In 2020

Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally-charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
Last week, we discussed ways we can feel more empowered and hopeful about our finances in 2021, after the challenging year we’ve had. This week, Refinery29 spoke to readers about the hard-earned revelations they’ve had around money and the economy during the pandemic, and what their hopes are for next year.
Amanda, 26, California
Amanda, like so many others, lost her job in 2020. “The company I worked for announced they'd be reorganizing, and my department was completely eliminated,” she says. “They gave us about a month's notice. I freaked out, of course, because we're in the middle of a pandemic and I know so many people looking for work right now.”
“Being laid off sucks regardless, but it feels worse in this climate. Luckily, I was able to find another job through a connection of mine and I'm so grateful for that, but there was a little bit of time where I didn't know what to do,” Amanda says.
“[I learned] having an emergency fund was an absolute must,” she continues. “I have about $15,000 saved. I do have $8,000 in debt, though (student loans), so that weighs on me when using my emergency cushion. Thankfully, I am very grateful to not have had to dip into it much, but when I was told I was being laid off I was a bit calmer knowing I had a little safety net to carry me if I needed it.”
She also felt that she online shopped too much this year. “I bought stuff I didn't need and probably won't wear for a while because of the pandemic,” she says. 
“Aside from that, I did take a bigger interest in money and my finances, and I've realized I have an unhealthy relationship with money, so I am currently working on correcting that. I actually just came to realize this after reading the book You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero. It's all about limiting beliefs that can hold you back from success in life. I realized I’ve been living paycheck to paycheck, no matter how much money I make. Even with salary increases that feel like a lot at the time — but then a few months in, I've increased my spending habits and created the same problem for myself. I've tried to reframe the 'I need to make more money' mindset I used to have, and replace it with 'I have enough money to live a full and happy life.’ I am actively working on growing my savings and tracking my spending now.”
“I'd say I developed this relationship [with money] from my surroundings — always trying to 'keep up,” says Amanda. “I try and reflect on how I got this way, but I'd rather understand my beliefs and work on them than find something to blame them on, if that makes sense.”
In 2021, her top financial goal is to get out of debt. “I'd also like to save six months' worth of income for a bigger nest egg, in case anything happens to my job again,” she says. “I'd also like to start learning about investing.”
Molly, 28, Ohio
“I had to find a new job during the pandemic due to relocating for my husband’s job,” Molly says. “He finished medical school in the spring and was placed for his residency in a new state. It was extremely tough trying to job search during many HR freezes or complete shut downs.”
“From the middle of March until the beginning of June, I was updating my CV, reaching out to my social career network to try and get any unofficial leads, filling out applications, taking part in both phone and video interviews, meeting with HR personnel, and emailing anyone who never got back to me about my applications,” she says. “It was exhausting and probably took me around a full-time job’s worth of time each week. It was tough to juggle with packing, having our old apartment viewed by prospective residents, looking for a new apartment virtually and just trying to deal with everything else the pandemic threw our way.
“I have learned this year that it’s okay to spend money on material items, when normally I would be putting those funds towards travel or seeing friends or family out of town, socializing in town, etc,” says Molly. “There’s only so much pandemic fatigue each of us can handle, and I have come to accept that buying a few new things for myself here and there will help me get through it.”
“My views on money have changed throughout the year because of the huge life changes I have gone through with my husband. Before he started his residency this summer, I was the sole breadwinner for our household for nearly 4 years,” she says. “Now that he makes positive money — we used to joke that he made negative money during med school with all the loans he was accruing — and I have a new job as well, our household income has more than doubled what it was. It’s a difficult adjustment, but I am extremely thankful and fortunate to navigate this new chapter, especially with a partner who takes care of so many COVID patients.”
Joan, 27, New York
“I was working as an admin for a startup and lost my job in May, along with about 15 percent of my company,” says Joan. “Nothing like this had happened to me before.”
Due to this layoff, her biggest financial concern this year was retirement — specifically what would happen to her 401k while she was unemployed. “I had been contributing to that 401k for about a year, and an older one for almost three years. I never combined these because the process was really complicated,” she explains. “I had $20,000 in savings, plus about $15,000 invested, which provides me a $200 monthly return.”
“Once I was let go, I was notified that my most recent 401k account was going to expire, meaning the money would sit un-invested and they’d eventually start actually charging me monthly. I had about a month to decide what to do, so I asked my parents if I could get some advice from their financial advisor. After speaking with them, we decided to put my 401k into a Roth IRA through the advisor, since time was ticking,” she says. 
And while she’s glad to have figured out how not to lose out on her retirement investments, the biggest lesson she learned this year was the importance of having an immediately accessible savings fund. “I’ve been adding to a savings account since I started working at 15 and have built a pretty hefty amount,” says Joan. “While some of it is invested, the money that wasn't invested saved me when I lost my job due to COVID. I had never really taken a large amount from my savings before, so having that cushion while getting back on my feet made an enormous difference. It gave me the ability to pay for my new marketplace health insurance, plus enroll in an educational program to help my career. Of course the savings won't last forever, but at least I'm not completely panicked while jobless… yet.”
“I hope that my future career, once I'm done with school, will be lucrative enough that I can start rebuilding — but it's stressful knowing that it will most likely take me a very long time to get back to where I was,” says Joan. “I am very lucky that I have a partner with a high income, which has allowed me the freedom to start from scratch rather than reentering the industry or workforce that I was unhappy in. They’ve been extremely supportive and understanding through all of this.”
Clara, 27, Arizona
Both Clara and her husband lost income during the pandemic. “He was furloughed from March to June, and then I was laid off in July right after he returned to work full-time,” she says. “I lost my job during graduate school. I was paying for my program on my own and had to take out a graduate loan (with a 6.8 percent interest rate) to pay off the fall 2020 semester.”
“Also, the job search is really difficult right now and I was very worried about taking a job right out of grad school that was severely underpaid, setting myself and my earning potential back and making the grad degree worthless,” Clara continues. “Thankfully, I received a great offer starting next January. So at least we have hope now.”
“To add insult, both of our cars had problems over the past few months,” she says. “Just found out today that my husband's car is irreparable, so that's just fucking awesome. He's been driving mine into work on the days he's required to go into the office, and since I'm an unemployed and depressed slug, I haven't had to use it. At some point we'll have to buy another car — but that'll be a 2021 problem.”
All the financial stress after financial stress has definitely led to Clara coming to some realizations. “I've become extremely cynical about the stock market and investing compared to previous years,” she says. “It's all made up! Millions are unemployed, being evicted from their homes or living in their cars and homeless, yet the stock market reached extremely high highs. It's all a joke.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
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