Coronavirus will change the way I spend money forever

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Like many people all over the world, my income has been significantly impacted by coronavirus’s chokehold on the economy. I lost a job teaching yoga to folks in residential treatment for addiction that was really important to me. It was a financially and emotionally difficult loss, one I continue to grapple with. But having less money coming in has forced me to confront how the way I spend money lines up with my values. Of course I hope that the economy and my income will perk up soon, but regardless, I can say with confidence that coronavirus will ultimately change how I spend money forever.

I never thought that I would spend hours researching the ethical practices of my bank or ask every business owner I hand five bucks to how they treat their employees, but now I am, and I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned. These lessons, though, are the just the beginning and inevitable transformation of my values.

“How we use money makes our priorities crystal clear,” says Hadassah Damien, a financial advisor in Brooklyn who teaches folks how to align their values with their spending habits. “We generally have more choices about how we spend money than about how we get it. Recognizing where you do have power to change where your money is going is super empowering in the face of feeling stuck or out of control around money.”

Even though I didn’t have any say in the income that I lost, I still have choices about how to spend the income that I have, and that gives me a sense of agency that feels crucial in this uncertain and precarious moment.

I never thought that I would spend hours researching the ethical practices of my bank or ask every business owner I hand five bucks to how they treat their employees.

Because my basic needs are thankfully being met, having a more limited income has become an opportunity for growth. “When our spending is restricted due to a life-changing event, we have to make decisions on what we can spend on and what we can't,” says Lisa Orbé-Austin, a New York-based psychologist and career coach who works with people’s emotional money issues. “As we look at those choices, it may be useful to reflect on the values and priorities that they indicate and make sure that they are aligned with what we consider important to us.”

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Money, in this way, can help us discover, and enact, dormant but powerful values. For example, I used to spend a lot of money on Amazon. I never bought high-ticket items, but my house is full of weird impulse purchases — I’m looking at you, 10,000 pack of holographic Lisa Frank stickers. But because I’m not sure how much I want to support the questionable ethics of Amazon right now, I’m only Prime-ing once a month and giving the majority of my expendable income to small local businesses. It feels good to choose buying handmade hand sanitizer from my favorite coffee shop/mutual aid network than hoarding vats of it from a soulless corporate behemoth.

Money, in this way, can help us discover and enact, dormant but powerful values.

The choices we make about spending, then, are often indicators of our feelings. We want to think that money is just a math problem and that we always make rational financial choices, but that’s not really how it works, Damien tells me. “We make two kinds of decisions about money: situational and emotional,” he says. Situational decisions are the choices we make based on the combination of what we need and what’s available to us, and emotional decisions are the ones we make based on what we care about or how we want those choices to make us feel, she explains. Once we’ve made the necessary situational choices, the rest are pretty emotional.

In this moment of crisis, we all have an opportunity to look at our spending habits, not just as evidence of our values, but also as diagnostics of our emotional state. “I have seen people spending a lot of money on decadent food and drink in ways that seem like soothing and numbing behaviors,” says Orbé-Austin. “It's important to recognize those types of behaviors and not dismiss them just because it may seem socially appropriate at this time.

There are healthier ways to cope that will have a better long-term impact.” So, while it seems really easy for me to justify the hundred bucks I dropped at the local wine shop as community boosting philanthropy, it also shows me that I have some escapist tendencies that I should probably be keeping tabs on.

And of course, there are quirky, personal things we buy to provide comfort. If you’ve been hoarding Harry Potter DVDs or impulse purchasing turmeric face masks, now is not the time to judge yourself, says Damien, but it is a good time to take stock. “There is nothing wrong with making a decision that allows you to take care of yourself in the current present reality,” she says, but explains that, even if your income is impacted, you can still use the money you spend as a way to express your values and you can still set goals.

“There's wisdom in self-preservation,” Damien says, quoting poet Audre Lorde. “Think long-term for yourself as a member of communities that deserve to thrive.”

Look, no one is asking me or you to be some kind of righteous financial hero right now. But the awareness that I do want to glean from this intense moment of economic insecurity is the simple fact that I am interconnected to others. And the way that I use resources (a.k.a. money and the stuff it buys) impacts those around me. Because the world seems a little smaller right now, it’s easier to see the direct impact of my own spending on the community I live in, and it is a vision I won’t forget. I am grateful that the role I play in supporting the communities I want to thrive has been laid bare. So far, the coffee shop is still open, and I want to keep it that way.