Who We’ll Be After This

It Took a Global Pandemic to Change My Spending Habits

Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images

If you wanted to sum up my complicated 37-year relationship with money in just one word, that word would be “triggered.” I’d break out into a peculiar kind of cold sweat whenever I logged into the Wells Fargo app on my phone.

I didn’t grow up with a lot. In my twenties, my bank balances were often negative, so I didn’t even bother checking them. My diet consisted mostly of pasta and frozen peas, and it was a coin flip as to whether or not my lights would turn on. The vast majority of my income went toward drowning my sorrows at downtown Buffalo dives while loading the jukebox with Wu-Tang Clan.

But even later on, as I started earning a solid income as a freelance writer, my financial strategy hadn’t changed. It was always “don’t ask, don’t look.” I told myself that all I needed to do was make so much that I couldn’t possibly spend it all, which I mostly succeeded at. I figured this is just the way I’d live.

Then came Covid-19. With the constant barrage of dystopian news, my mind immediately switched into scarcity-driven panic. I asked myself, “What do I have to do to make sure I can survive on my own for as long as I need to until our country devolves into some combination of Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, and The Walking Dead?”

My list began with the one task I’d been avoiding for years: Take inventory of my bank balances. So I did. I got out my phone, clicked into Wells Fargo app and braced myself. Forced to look at something I didn’t want to — like the news coming out of the White House or your colleagues’ unkempt mugs on yet another Zoom call — I noticed a few things that I needed to mitigate immediately.

1. Wow, do I have a lot of recurring subscriptions

Spotify, Netflix, Roku, The Economist, Quartz, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the ACLU, the Humane Society, WordPress (who even uses that anymore?), GoDaddy, Anytime Fitness, Progressive Insurance, HBO Now, Hulu, Showtime, Squarespace for the website I’ve never built. I took a deep dive into my transaction history to see what subscriptions were worth canceling. It turns out there were a lot.

2. I needed cut back on the delivery apps

Aside from delivery apps bleeding my favorite local restaurants dry at the worst possible time, they’re not exactly a pathway to either physical or financial health. I started cooking again. I know baking is all the rage, but I don’t take direction well, so I’m sticking with variations of the trusty carb plus vegetables formula. (Life hack: A robust spice rack will keep your food interesting and make healthy eating feel like an indulgence.)

3. My discretionary spending was out of control

It’s easy to drop a casual C-note on a night out when you’re not socially distancing. There are dates, ride-shares, meals with friends, new outfits, impulse Amazon purchases after six neat bourbons. In the lockdown era, I could see where I was saving, and it was kind of exciting. I decided to give myself a budget of $20 per day. That money could be used for food, gas, and the ring light I need to livestream myself attempting to prove I have a sense of humor.

As it feels like we’ve collectively been sent to our rooms for who knows how long, I’ve taken some solace in knowing I’ve gotten slightly less awkward about managing my money. At the very least, I no longer feel triggered every time I log into my banking app to see what surprising number is staring back at me. Maybe one day, I’ll even be pleasantly surprised.

This story is part of a Forge series on the effect the quarantine has had on who we are and how we live.

Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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