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Survey: What Budgets Look Like During a Pandemic

Man and woman sitting together at a table, reading on a tablet about when quarterly taxes are due


Image: Man and woman sitting together at a table, reading on a tablet about when quarterly taxes are due


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What does a budget look like during a pandemic? A new nationally representative survey found many people are having to shift their focus away from wants and savings during the pandemic — and focus more on the essentials.

The traditional 50/30/20 budgeting guideline says that you should put about 50% of your after-tax monthly income toward essentials like food and housing, 30% toward wants, and 20% toward paying down debt or saving.

Though bucketing your spending this way can be helpful to track and manage your monthly spending in “normal” times, things look a bit different right now. Here’s what our survey found.

  • 46% of respondents are spending more than 50% of their monthly income on needs like bills, groceries, childcare and housing.
  • 41% are spending less than 15% of their monthly income on wants like entertainment, hobbies and shopping.
  • 45% are putting less than 15% of their monthly income toward savings.

With so many Americans allocating less than 15% of their monthly income to both the wants and savings categories, budgets might look a little different than the 50/30/20 standard. Out of necessity, you might be budgeting 60% or more of your after-tax pay to necessities, while your wants and savings get less. In extreme cases, your budget might look more like 80/10/10 — where 80% of your monthly income goes toward needs, 10% goes toward wants and 10% goes into your savings.

If this sounds like your situation, we’ve got some tips on how you can work within this new budgeting framework to stay flexible during uncertainty while still leaving some room to save for the future.


Tips to help you budget during the pandemic

  • Track your spending and keep a budget. Another recent survey found that some Americans have developed helpful financial habits during the pandemic that they’d like to keep, including keeping a closer eye on their finances and keeping a monthly budget. Seeing your spending and savings in writing can help you nail down your finances. Start with a budget breakdown that works for you right now, like 80/10/10 (or some version of it), and then categorize your spending and savings into each of these large buckets — or you could break your spending down even further. The most important thing is to begin tracking where your money is going.
  • Make sure to prioritize saving for emergencies. We generally recommend saving up to 20% of your monthly income for the future — though it might be hard to ration out that much to savings right now. It’s still important to plan ahead so that you can help cover emergency expenses with your savings.
  • Find ways to cut your monthly expenses. This could be a good opportunity to reassess your spending. Think about what you’re not really using right now, like a gym membership or satellite radio subscription for your car, and take the steps to pause or cancel these subscriptions. If you’ve already made these cuts, look into negotiating your cellphone contract, adjusting your auto insurance policy or talking to your landlord about lowering your rent, even if just temporarily.
  • Remember you’re not alone — many others are also figuring out how to navigate the current situation. Right now, you may be spending more on bills and saving less than you’d like — and that’s OK. Keep in mind that the current situation is temporary, and financial progress isn’t linear. It may take some time. Right now, prioritize keeping yourself and your family healthy and safe.

Methodology

On behalf of , Qualtrics conducted a nationally representative online survey in June 2020 among 1,043 adults to better understand how their spending habits have changed during the coronavirus pandemic.

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