Lockdown is coming to an end at last – and the excitement is palpable.
Restrictions are easing – pubs and restaurants are opening their gardens, shops are flinging wide their doors, hairdressers are filling up their appointment books and gyms are already seeing people arrive in their droves. Offices are reopening too and some are even looking forward to commuting again.
If you look at the stats, our excitement is visible in how we’re gearing up to spend.
It’s been a long hard year, but now? We’re feeling good. This is what we’ve been waiting for since the first lockdown in March 2020, after all. Vaccines are rolling out. The world is picking up pace. The new normal has officially given notice of its arrival. And everyone’s mood is up because of it.
At least, for the most part.
More and more people report being nervous about lockdown lifting – including when it comes to managing their money.
“I’m nervous,” says Celina, 31, from Rickmansworth. “I’m so sick of lockdown and zoom quizzes and only being able to see relatively few people over the weekend. But I’m also nervous about socialising again. What if I’ve forgotten what to do? I haven’t met anyone new in over a year.”
Becky, 29, from London, says she and her friends feel the same way. “We can’t wait to see each other all together but there’s a lot of pressure on making plans, especially because of the rule of six,” Becky explains. “You don’t want to miss out and all your friends be together without you, but also you can’t say yes to everything. We’re all a bit stressed about it.”
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Becky and Celina are not anomalies. A quick google will show that there’s a huge number of people who feel anxious about what the new normal has in store – from worries over work/life balance and additional costs around travel, to the fear of missing out and concerns around breaking the budget as life picks up pace.
In fact, in another of my highly (un)scientific social media polls, when I asked my followers ‘are you nervous about overspending as restrictions ease’, over 90% of them replied to say that yes, they are nervous. This includes women and men, mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, from a spread of careers and experiences of lockdown. Regardless of whether people kept their jobs through the last year, were furloughed, took salary cuts, saved money during lockdown or didn’t – almost everyone expressed worry around their finances as restrictions ease.
For many of us, we’re just not used to spending the way we used to. There just haven’t been the usual myriad opportunities to consume. Instead, many have actually built up a savings habit instead, taking the time to build up a nest egg or emergency fund, as well as to reappraise our finances and even start investing.
According to estimates shared in the Financial Times, UK households may have amassed an additional £180bn in cash savings. At the peak of lockdown last year, more than 25% of household income was left unspent – an increase of almost 18% compared with the end of 2019. Even after the peak began to dip, the savings ratio was still 15.6% at the end of 2020, well above the norm of 9%.
But if we’ve been saving instead of spending over the last year, then why are we all so anxious about having the opportunity to splash out a bit?
In part, it’s the same reason that we get anxious about most things: fear of the unknown.
Right now, we’re in a period of change and that brings with it a level of uncertainty. It disrupts our routines and pushes us out of the comfort zones we’ve built over the last year.
“You get into a bit of a habit,” says Alice, 31, from London. “I’ve felt very in control of my finances and saving more money during lockdown. It’s a bit addictive, putting money away. Going back, I keep thinking about all those smaller costs that keep adding up – like not taking the tube, not taking public transport, not getting a coffee. I’m worried about that not being the case as restrictions ease.”
Then there’s also the fact that for many new savers, the last few months have not necessarily seen new habits form out of choice. A large majority of that £180bn will be forced savings. They won’t have been specifically put aside in order to achieve a certain goal – like buying a new car or a new home or going on holiday or school fees. In usual circumstances, your propensity to save what you’ve put aside is quite low because you know what the money is ultimately going to be spent on. In today’s case, if you don’t know what the money is for, it can be tempting to just… hold on to it. To feel worried about losing money you’ve put aside. It’s similar to why people who are more saver personalities may find it harder to spend.
And, of course, a proportion of us will simply have had a harder time over the last few months than others. Job insecurity and salary cuts have had an impact. This may have affected us or our friends, meaning not everyone has the same spending power that perhaps they did a year ago. Others may simply have shifted their spending priorities in the last year because of the stress of the pandemic, leaving them on a different footing to you.
“I used to live beyond my means – lots of eating out, lots of after work drinks, you know, regular holidays abroad,” says James, 30, from Surrey. “All my friends were like that but now some have settled down more and the rest are kind of the same. I feel somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to spend all my money all the time because that was stressful even before. I want to go out, have a good time, have a great summer. I just don’t want to have no money at the end of it.”
Here are six ways to feel in control of your money as lockdown eases
Set your budget and goals
We love a budget – having one is a small but powerful act of self-care for many us, because it’s not just about deciding what you’re not going to spend, it’s about actively choosing what you will spend. A budget is there to help guide you so that you’re making financial decisions that are right for you and your lifestyle – it encourages you to reflect on what you really have to spend (what you’ve got coming in and what you have in savings) as well as what you want in the short and long term.
When I asked people online whether they had or were planning to create a budget for the next few months, the response was about fifty/fifty, with just over half saying that they were creating a post-lockdown budget.
The idea here is that it can help you decide how much of your savings you’re comfortable spending and how much you want to keep back towards your long-term goals. After all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with one of your ambitions being to have an absolutely epic summer. But you may choose to put aside that extra spending money now, creating a celebratory spending pot for yourself, so that you can really enjoy yourself instead of feeling anxious about dipping into savings or overdoing things.
Draw up your boundaries
In all kinds of self-care – from the personal to the financial – setting boundaries is a key thing for all of us to learn. And like having a budget, they put us in a strong position to say no to the things that aren’t serving us, and instead focus – guilt-free – on the things that do. For example, if you’ve found that you’ve developed new financial habits that make you feel more in control during lockdown, it’s important that you feel empowered to keep that up – even if that might mean saying no to things you may previously have jumped to do. This could be anything, from that cheeky extra drink after work, eating out several times a week, or even a fitness membership in the City that you haven’t missed. There’s also nothing wrong with negotiating and looking at money saving alternatives that you enjoyed over the last year – whether that’s walking more, picnics in the park, or taking your own coffee in a thermos to work.
Take note of what spending you truly appreciate
Similar to budgeting and boundaries, we often talk about spending, saving and investing in line with your values. It’s important to be able to focus on what’s really important to you and put your money into those things. What we’ve missed most in the pandemic is often the simpler things – being able to hang out with our friends in easy ways, seeing our family, people watching without worrying about the ‘rona.
When you’re spending, therefore, why not pay attention to the things you buy that truly make you happy. For me that meant going to the local pub with two of my closest friends for a glass of rosé. For my sister, that meant buying a beautiful new dress to see her through the summer (and organising some garden BBQs).
And remember, not everything you appreciate needs to be expensive. As Vic, a developer in London, explains, “Last summer when things eased, my friends and I didn’t really go wild and go out to bars. We had a lot of garden parties and barbeques, park hangs. Even a magnum from Majestic is usually better value between friends. I expect we’ll do the same again this time round. I just need to remember to set limits on how many days in a row, ease back into it all.”
Practice those mindful money techniques
I think all of us have, at one time or another, stared at our bank accounts and gone ‘should I spend this’? Your mouse has hovered over the “Pay Now” button and your gut has squeezed tight, and you’ve been unable to make the decision. For me, this actually happened very recently where I had to decide between maxing out my 2020/21 ISA or ensuring I kept my emergency fund intact. The problem in some of these cases is that we’re putting our money into purchases or products that we didn’t intend them to go into. We’d set an intention (this is for x) and so moving it to y doesn’t feel right. It’s money that could – or mentally we might think, should – go to something else.
To avoid that guilt, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on your spending and saving – what we enjoy, what we value, what goals we’re working towards, what commitments we have and want to keep. We can keep spending consciously and mindfully even as restrictions ease. Take the time to split your money into pots for different kinds of spending. Keep your ‘pause before purchase’ habit in place. Review your outgoings regularly and take the time to refine your decisions so that it best works for you. Think about how much you have saved during lockdown and decide what to spend with intention.
Work on building a new routine that works for you and your money
We might joke about soft launching back into our friendship circles or needing to slowly remember how to be sociable again, but seriously, don’t throw yourself into socialising and spending if it’s stressing you out. You don’t have to do it all at once. You can work up to the level that feels right for you.
Go at your own pace. Build your routine to work for you and your money.
Talk about money and be compassionate with yourself
Say it louder for the people in the back – it’s important to talk about money. In my polls, just one in five people said they’d spoken to friends or family about their money anxieties around lockdown easing. But talking about it reminds us of the fact that none of us are alone in this.
We’re all a little worried about the future, all a little nervous about what comes next. Leaving lockdown sometimes feels too good to be true and other times like the most terrifying change possible. When it comes to our money, it’s easy to wrap our anxieties together and blame them on what we’re saving or not saving, spending or not spending. So find a couple of people that you feel comfortable with and let them know how you’re feeling. There’s absolutely no judgement in needing to take things more slowly than others, nor in speeding ahead.
Or as Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari, psychologist, author and therapist, neatly summarised in Glamour:
“It’s a transitional time and it’s natural to feel anxious, so accept how you feel with compassion. Be honest with your friends and talk about your concerns. Start reintegrating back into your social life with small, manageable steps and see how you feel – with each step your confidence will grow.”
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