What can we learn from our spending habits during Covid-19?

Zach Holz discovers that ‘no spend’ days are easy to achieve when stay-at-home measures are in place

Customers carry branded shopping bags from Chanel SA, and LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA stores as they cross Old Bond Street in London, U.K., on Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. U.K. inflation probably accelerated in July as energy costs increased, squeezing Britons who are already facing government spending cuts and slower economic growth. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
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Our lives have been radically changed by Covid-19, and this was especially true when stay-at-home measures were in place in the UAE. For the first time in many people’s lives, we were stuck either working from home or on furlough if our companies were temporarily closed. To the detriment of economies around the world, people had far fewer options to spend money.

I’ve always been a big proponent of tracking my spending every day. I use a free spend tracker app called Spending Tracker and the process takes me only about 30 seconds each day. It gives me access to great information and allows me to know exactly where my money is going.

It's important to only spend money on the things that really give you what you need, not just momentary bursts of pleasure

I started to notice a new phenomenon during the lockdown. I was having “no spend days” – days in which I didn’t spend a single dirham. I was cooking for myself, not using my car and was unable to shop like I used to. I’ve always been naturally inclined towards saving, so as soon as I saw this in my Spending Tracker data, I was excited and tried to have as many “no spend days” as possible.

And it wasn’t just me who wasn’t spending. In my home country, the United States, the normal savings rate is about 4 per cent, which is terrible, but that’s a topic for another article. However during the Covid-induced lockdown, the savings rate in the US shot up to more than 30 per cent, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. I couldn’t find similar data for the UAE, but imagine it was similar, if not more extreme as there are many people here who come from communities where saving is a much more ingrained habit.

With people spending a lot less money, I think there are lessons to be drawn from this that could benefit our financial lives even when Covid-19 is a distant memory.

One key idea of financial independence is that spending more money doesn’t automatically lead to more happiness. It’s important to only spend money on the things that really give you what you need, not just momentary bursts of pleasure during retail therapy sessions that quickly fade and leave you wanting more.

Could the things we didn't spend our money on during the lockdown be things we could continue to NOT buy when our lives returned to "normal"? Could we reform our spending habits and be able to save more money and reach our financial goals? I hope so, but only if we examine what we did not spend money on and think about how that changed us.

A few categories that saw a significant decline in spend were on things like brunches, entertainment outside the home, clothes, travel, beauty treatments and certain services such as non-live-in maids. I’m sure that if you look at your own life, you can find the areas you weren’t spending money on as well. Here are a few key questions to ask yourself to help use that information:

  1. Was I able to get used to not spending money on a favourite experience or item? After a couple of weeks, did I miss it?
  2. Did I learn new skills or reconnect with old skills that allowed me to do something I would usually hire others to do for me?
  3. Was there anything that I stopped doing that made my life better? If you had expensive habits that were harming your body, like a weekly shisha, did you notice that cutting it out because you didn't have access to it actually helped you?

There are many types of spending that don’t make our lives better. Sadly, we are usually so accustomed to those actions that we don’t even think about their effects or if they’re necessary. Covid-19 and the lockdown it triggered could be the opportunity we needed to break out of some of our spending habits, but it takes a bit of self-reflection. Don’t waste a crisis, use it to improve your life.

Dubai schoolteacher Zach Holz (@HappiestTeach) documents his journey towards financial independence on his personal finance blog The Happiest Teacher