Opinion

How the pandemic blew my family budget

Brianna Bell: We bought a house, got a dog and are splurging on groceries. In these stressful pandemic times, maybe a little debt isn't so bad.

I recently downloaded a budget tracking app on my phone, but it didn’t take long before I was internally screaming and tossing the phone across the room. My daughter was sitting at the kitchen table digging into a carton of eight dollar strawberries, while my new puppy nibbled on my toes, and my husband worked on yet another DIY project using expensive wood purchased at the nearby hardware store.

I’m a personal finance writer, published by some of the biggest newspapers in the world, but the thought of budgeting in the middle of a pandemic sends me into a dizzying panic. Over the last six months I’ve lost the reins on our budget. First, it was little things, like online clothes shopping when we were in full lockdown, toys and educational items for the kids, and more expensive groceries because all we did was eat. Then my kids started complaining about our lack of a backyard. Late last year we’d purchased our first home, a fixer upper townhouse with a giant condo fee and teeny patio. Once the pandemic hit our kids couldn’t enjoy the surrounding parks or swim in their friends’ pools. We started looking at houses, because what else was there to do?

By July we were purchasing our second home, only nine months after buying the first one. This time our kids would have a spacious yard, my husband would have a woodworking room in the basement, and I’d have the kitchen of my dreams. We bought a puppy only weeks after moving in, a $2,500 8 week old rescue mutt—because even some rescues are cashing in on the pandemic puppy craze.

The pandemic has loosened my expectations around money. I used to dream of being completely debt-free by the time I was 50, but COVID-19 made me less concerned about my bottom line and more invested in my family’s mental and emotional well-being. I’ll never forget the look on my kids’ faces when we pulled into our driveway and brought them into the backyard of their new home. They now have a clubhouse, a ninja obstacle course, and the space to play basketball and soccer. Instead of constantly budgeting for groceries, I’ve thrown in the towel and stopped looking at my grocery bill. If my kids will eat the expensive fruit, I’ll buy it. If I really want the good vanilla for baking, then I’m getting it.

Only a few years ago my husband and I were living in a rented basement apartment, discussing whether we should start going to our local food pantry because our finances were so scarce. I’ve lived in poverty for years, scraping rice and beans together and dividing portions carefully on homemade tortillas. I understand the privilege that comes with choosing to go outside of your budget. Even if we get into a bit of debt, I don’t feel crushed by the thought of getting out of it. Our personal line of credit currently sits at $6,500, and we have no car payments or additional loans, beyond our mortgage. Ideally we wouldn’t have any consumer debt, but nothing about 2020 has been ideal.

I doubt I’m the only person in the world that has been overspending during the pandemic. Being a little rash with finances is a common symptom of chronic stress.

“Spending money provides us pleasure, and we tend to seek out pleasure and distraction when we are stressed,” says Nicole McCance, a clinical psychologist at  the Toronto Neurofeedback and Psychotherapy Centre. “We now live in a world where there is a constant undercurrent of stress, and to cope we are turning to anything that will help us feel better.”

McCance says that letting go of the purse strings is okay, as long as it’s manageable, and not going to contribute to more stress in the future. “Your spending could be a problem if you find that you are impulsively spending, if you are hiding how much you are spending from people, and are in denial about the amount of debt you are in,” she warns.

As a personal finance writer I agree. Even if we feel like our future is hazy we shouldn’t be reckless with our spending, or make decisions that could impact our future without consulting the right professionals. Some would argue that making any big purchases in the middle of a pandemic—like buying a house, or committing emotionally and financially to a dog—is an unwise move.

But I’m also a human, living through a worldwide pandemic that has left me seeking comfort and solace, perhaps even by spending more than I should. For now, I’m soaking up all the puppy cuddles while my kids run freely in our new yard, and I’m not regretting it for a second. At least, not right now.