The worst of the lockdowns and business closures are probably over — but you may want to think twice before you go on that post-Covid shopping spree.
The Delta variant has proven that the pandemic is still raging, bringing a new wave of financial uncertainty along with it. Many people have spent the pandemic paying down debt — recent Federal Reserve data shows that Americans shed an estimated $123 billion in revolving debt last year — which means at least a few lucky folks have some extra money on hand. And after a year and a half of battening down the hatches, the temptation to impulse spend is strong.
For Joe Duran, Goldman Sachs' head of personal finance management, that's the crucial question for every American right now, regardless of wealth or status: If you have excess cash, should you start spending now or wait a little longer?
Duran has worked as a wealth manager for the past 28 years, and now oversees $25 billion in assets at Goldman. Since March 2020, he says, the priorities of his clients have noticeably changed.
For example, the traditional advice to have a three- to six-months emergency fund may no longer be enough: Duran says his clients are now stretching their emergency nets to cover as much as 14 months of expenses. "No matter where you were on the wealth spectrum, we all should never forget what it felt like 14 months ago when the pandemic hit and nobody knew what was going to happen," Duran says.
The next step is to determine whether you have enough saved up to survive the newest pandemic wave. Here's how.
When you should spend — and when you should save
The answer to Duran's question isn't as simple as "keep saving."
For most people, the answer is entirely situational. The way Americans think about financial stability has radically shifted over the past year and a half, Duran says — even calling it "The Great Reset" in a recent InvestmentNews op-ed. Retail spending saw an explosion in the Spring, but those sales dipped again as recently as last month. Meanwhile, consumer sentiment saw a dramatic downturn, hitting its lowest levels since 2011.
If your savings are drained because you paid off debt during the pandemic — or spent your cash reserves to survive — you should probably focus on rebuilding your emergency net and avoiding impulse spending. Hitting that six-months-of-savings benchmark is a great start, but Duran recommends getting to a full year's worth of savings before beginning to relax.
"It's not necessarily a good idea to just spend everything as if there's going to be more cash coming tomorrow," he says.
Once you have a year's worth of emergency funds, check back in with your long-term priorities — like buying a car, purchasing a home or saving for retirement — before shifting to any other types of spending. Duran advises asking questions like:
- How much do I need to retire comfortably?
- Am I dipping into my down payment for the home or car I want?
- Can I be unemployed for a year and cover my basic living expenses?
If you're one of the lucky few who's comfortable with your current savings, Duran says, there's nothing wrong with some leisurely spending for your personal happiness, as long as you set parameters. Be clear with yourself on how much you're able to spend and how often you should be spending it, to avoid building a long-term habit around impulse buying.
"There will always be a new crisis," says Duran. "We need to understand how each one might affect our behavior going forward, so we can adapt to a new world."
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