It goes without saying that lockdown has looked different for all of us. But no matter the variation to our respective quarantine experiences, one thing holds true across the board: This year has changed the way we spend — and save — our money. Whether it's unemployment challenges and increased medical costs, or new budgeting habits thanks to stimulus checks and simply staying home more, we’ve all cultivated new relationships with our finances.
That’s why we teamed up with American Express to ask women across the country about their personal financial transformations over the past year-and-change. From nest eggs to new priorities, here’s how they’ve been spending and saving throughout the course of quarantine.
Occupation: Creative director
City: I was in the middle of moving from L.A. to N.Y. when the pandemic hit…so I've spent the last year unintentionally living at my parents' house in the suburbs of New Jersey.
Salary: I work freelance so it varies, but last year I made around $115k. This was surprisingly about a ~50% increase from 2019.
“My spending habits have changed drastically this year with the shift of my living situation. Although living in my childhood bedroom is far from my definition of success, I feel exceptionally grateful to have had that space to come back to — and it also enabled me to save much more in a year than I’d ever been able to before.
I had been planning a cross-country move right before the pandemic hit, so I’d just sold the majority of my possessions and had terminated most of my monthly bills (car lease, car insurance, rent, renter's insurance, utilities, exercise studios, co-working space). At the time, I’d thought I’d be using that money to furnish a new place and fund my plane tickets, but naturally, that never came to fruition — so it all went right to my savings. Plus, without the ability to attend concerts, or even go to dinner, I was truly able to save almost everything I was making. Better yet, I was even able to put my student loan payments on hold.
Pre-pandemic, I constantly felt like I was living a life that I could just barely afford — living in expensive cities and trying to keep up with socializing and networking drained any opportunity for real saving. If I had a coffee meeting, I would try to order a black coffee (the cheapest option) rather than splurge for the latte. I would make sure I ate at home beforehand to save the extra money spent on ordering food. When I went out to dinner, I would rarely if ever order appetizers and a meal. I picked one. And, of course, my savings were just about...nothing.
I can’t underscore enough how extremely fortunate I feel to have been able to save immensely this year, while so many others had the opposite experience. And I wanted to make sure I was being smart about it: In the past eight months, I set up additional retirement funds and maxed out all of them (I now have a Roth IRA, SEP IRA, and HSA). I’ve also begun squirreling away for a ‘house fund.’
Overall, the pandemic reminded me how important it is to have a safety net (I am freelance after all, and my income is not guaranteed). In that sense, money has always been stressful for me. But since living at home, that stress has decreased dramatically — and I can actually focus on saving for big things that matter.
When the world opens back up, my spending habits will definitely increase. Unsurprisingly, I’m eager to socialize, go to events, and travel. I’m sure that once I start paying rent again that twinge of stress will come back, but I hope that my savings period right now will take the edge off in the future. I’m trying to make sure to use this time at home to my advantage so that I can make the post-pandemic boom as stress-free and enjoyable as possible.”
Occupation: Entertainment writer
City: Brooklyn, New York
“Before the pandemic, I’d say 75% of my spending money (after rent and student loans) went to dining and drinking out with friends. The other 25% went to clothes. And when New York went into lockdown, while I was spending a lot less, I started investing more in the things I *was* still buying — most notably, food and wine.
Pre-pandemic, save for special occasions, I was partial to the discount version of most things at the grocery store. When cooking, I'd buy grocery-brand gnocchi and frozen vegetables, rather than their pricier counterparts: fresh pasta and farmer's market greens. I stuck to the under-$15 section at my local wine store religiously. But being stuck inside, facing my existential dread every day, felt like a good enough reason to splurge for a high-quality, triple cream brie or bottle of orange wine every now and again. I'd cut out most other forms of extraneous spending, and it was bringing me substantial joy.
As of late, instead of dinners out, my pod and I have built a new Saturday night tradition: We'll sit on my stoop, then I'll dole out a wine and set out cheese and meat pairings. Sometimes chocolate is involved, sometimes a fig jam. And even though I usually front the cost, we all split the final price evenly among us. For that reason, I've been using this new feature in my American ExpressⓇ app called Send & Split™ that allows me to split the cost of my purchases with friends via PayPal or Venmo. And here's the extra convenient part: When they pay me back, that money goes directly back to my Amex card as a statement credit. Plus, not only can I track who’s paid me back (and who’s lagging), but I also get to keep the rewards... so I’m always more than happy to be the one to foot the bill. Then, having gotten the money logistics out of the way, we sit and enjoy our feast. It's a tradition I hope to maintain even after the pandemic ends. It feels more meaningful than a standard weekend night at a bar — and for a truly lavish experience, it costs less.
Financially speaking, I’m terrified that I’ll be laid off daily (media is a fickle industry!), and I don’t make enough to be flippant with money. That said, the lesson I learned — and that I hope I’ll continue to adopt post-quarantine — is the practice of picking your luxuries. It’s not that I can’t spend on pleasure, but rather, that I’ve got to be particular about which pleasures I’m willing to splurge on.”
Occupation: Customer service representative
City: Nashville, TN
“Up until the beginning of 2021, I was making about half of what I make now, working as an hourly employee at a different company — and I’m certainly still adjusting to the new income. But for the most part, my quarantine experience included a salary around $35K.
In all honesty, I’m not sure my spending habits changed too much. I've always been very frugal. As a first-generation child of immigrant parents with just a touch of a competitive personality (you tell me to save 10% of my paycheck? Watch me save 20%), saving has always felt essential, and spending — on anything at all — has felt frivolous.
What 2020 did show me was just how fragile a consistent income stream could be. At the start of quarantine, I stopped almost all spending on material goods, from clothing to makeup (although I did get into porch gardening. I spent a whole $60 on soil, plants, and a hand spade). I found myself willing to spend more at local grocery stores since I spent so much time at home cooking. I got into making cocktails at home. But those were the only real allowances I made. Otherwise, I've always been focused on saving. My 5th grade teacher once told us that the average American didn't have $300 in savings to make car repairs — so at the time, my 10-year old brain went into overdrive. I immediately vowed to be sure I would always have enough to repair my headlights in the future.
Before starting my new job — when I was making less per paycheck — I would normally put about 20-30% in my savings account. Now, I save even more, because I finally have the money to do so — and I don't ever want to have to rely on anyone else to take care of me financially. I wanted to be financially independent from a young age because I saw how painful of a subject money could be for my parents.
I’ve never been open or comfortable talking about money. My parents seemed to feel uncomfortable talking about it too as I was growing up. It took a lot of prodding to get my dad to explain his addiction to stocks — and these days, my mom ridicules me for my stringent spending habits, encouraging me to stop thinking about money so much. But in all honesty, the pandemic has only made me that much more anxious and aware of my spending. And I’m not sure that’s a habit I’m ever going to break.”
Occupation: Freelancer (It’s complicated)
City: Woodstock, New York
“At the moment, my income comes from a hodgepodge of different places. Currently I'm unemployed (pandemic etc.), but I pick up occasional shifts catering events in Brooklyn at an Italian restaurant. I do some work building art installations and dioramas for taxidermists, and I’ve been working with a local illustrator on pages for a forthcoming graphic novel. Pre-pandemic, most of my income came from catering — so my income was anywhere from $25K to $60K a year. Now...your guess is as good as mine.
To be totally frank, I think I’ve been more financially stable this past year than I ever have before. I’m so grateful to be in a position to say that — I know this year hasn’t been easy on a lot of people financially. But the time and space I've had while unemployed (and paying super cheap rent upstate), as well as the stimulus money has helped me invest in my creative pursuits. Plus, I earn extra ‘hazard pay’ for working during a pandemic each time I take a catering shift — which means I've been receiving a wage that actually accommodates my cost of living. This year alone, I’ve been able to grow most of my “side hustles'' to a place where they’re actually profitable. I started renting a room in an art studio space where I have access to woodworking tools and other art supplies. I’ve made enough to purchase the materials I need to make bigger dioramas — and the resources I need to market them online. And it’s paying off — literally. For the first time ever, I’m seeing a profit.
Simply put, all of this has led to a complete overhaul of the way I think about spending. I used to spend exclusively on essentials. Dumping money into my creative projects felt silly and futile — like a notable waste of time and energy. Now I spend money on things that enrich my life creatively and I feel more comfortable investing in things that I feel confident will pay off down the line. I'm by no means rich, I still live dollar to dollar, but I feel like I can breathe a little easier and focus on my actual ambitions instead of just what's gonna make rent on my apartment.”
Occupation: Family and Marriage Counselor
City: Westport, Connecticut
“I was lucky enough for my pay to remain consistent throughout the pandemic — Zoom therapy came about quickly, and if anything, I even drew in new clients. Not surprisingly, folks had a lot to discuss.
That said, even though I’m still making the same amount of money I’ve always made, I certainly changed my approach to my own finances this year. I’ve always been reluctant to spend on material goods. Instead, for the most part, my husband and I have done all of our biggest spending on travel — both with our kids, as a family, or just the two of us. For whatever reason, I’ve always been able to justify major expenditures in service of travel, but I’ve always felt guilty spending on things like new clothes, or home decor, or going out to eat (a version of frugality I fear I’ve passed onto my daughters).
Obviously this particular moment in time made it all but impossible to travel — but more so, it’s helped me re-conceptualize my unwillingness to invest in my day-to-day. As lovely as it is to fantasize about an upcoming trip, that doesn’t mean you should treat the time in between vacations as filler time. It made me realize how much I’ve neglected putting the necessary time into updating my own home, and making essential repairs or changes to make the place more comfortable. It made me realize that I hadn’t purchased a new pair of running shoes in nearly four years. And it made me realize that, in my insistence on looking towards some grand adventure, I’d missed out on so many versions of local tourism. My husband and I started making lists of local restaurants we wanted to visit — even spots a few towns over. We visited places with outdoor seating and drove to new venues for takeout. We started visiting more museums in the area — most of which we hadn’t been to in years. And we spent a little more on sprucing up the house, making it feel like a place we really wanted to spend time.
I’ve always been a “saver” by nature — I’m always saving up for some big, grand thing. And while I am aware how much of a privilege it is to have been financially stable during this time, it taught me an important lesson in spending: sometimes, your day to day experiences are worth investing in. You don’t always have to wait for some dream vacation. A sunny Tuesday in March can be a perfectly good excuse to enjoy dinner somewhere new and exciting.”
City: Chinatown, NYC
Occupation: Teaching Fellow at Girls Health Ed, NYU Student, Intern at journalism start-up
“At the onset of the pandemic, I found myself spending a lot more on services that allowed me to minimize human interaction: grocery delivery, ride-sharing, online shopping — all things that were difficult to shell money out on since I wasn’t used to those sorts of expenses.
Since getting vaccinated I've been way more comfortable taking public transport, so I use apps like Lyft way less, and that’s been helpful. But needing to pay for those things certainly made me less likely to spend on the fun stuff (like clothes or local travel). Before the pandemic, a lot of my bigger expenses were clothes and experiences, which could be classified as luxury expenses — and it’s hard to imagine whether or not I’ll feel comfortable spending freely on those kinds of things down the line.
On the plus side, though, I started saving a lot during the pandemic — certainly more than I ever have before (I’m notoriously a terrible saver). While I definitely rely on my parents’ support as a student, I know they’re unable to support me once I no longer live in student housing, or attend school full time. And a lot of my friends who graduated in the pandemic still haven't found jobs almost nine months later — so I’m fairly aware that I’ll have to move home immediately upon graduating if I don’t have any savings to my name. I think that concern has forced me to be a lot more anxious regarding the way I spend and save money. These days, I Venmo my sister a portion of my paycheck every time I get paid, and she sets it aside for me (I don’t trust myself). I don't have any big goals other than, well, not being forced out of the city.
The desire to save at all has certainly altered my approach to money at large, though. Before the pandemic, I just checked my bank account to see what I could and couldn't afford. Now, I keep a rough estimate of my weekly expenses broken down on an Excel sheet, and I make an effort to minimize those expenses whenever possible. I’ve taught myself a lot when it comes to making food and drinks at home — which makes it hard to ever justify the price of eating out in NYC — and I've grown a lot less attached to clothes that don't have much utility. And while I am certainly excited to get back to living a real life, I do worry that my newfound money anxieties will be hard to shake. I’ve gotten so used to penny pinching — and I don’t want to give that up, but I also don’t want to be so financially anxious that I can no longer enjoy things like work out classes or dinners out with friends.”