Pent-up consumer demand: How to manage discretionary spending

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As COVID-19 restrictions continue to fluctuate, businesses are tentatively opening their doors to consumers.

Restaurants, salons, department stores and more have opened or are in the process of getting back to business. Depending on their location, many were closed for nearly half a year due to COVID-19 mandates. During that time, consumers were forced to do without. Today, with some relaxing restrictions, most people can take advantage of what is for purchase once again.

Pent-up demand for consumer items and services, however, can easily turn into unwanted credit card debt. Here’s how to manage discretionary spending so you can enjoy a financially healthy new normal.

Post-pandemic spending and charging projections

While brick-and-motor retailers were shuttered, revolving debt tumbled. In August, a Federal Reserve report found that credit card balances declined in the second quarter of 2020 by an astonishing $82 billion.

There are a couple of reasons for the steep drop—the lack of spending opportunities had a major impact. As noted by Experian, credit card debt dropped for the first time in eight years. The pandemic’s lockdowns and business closures stunted spending, allowing consumers to focus on paying down their balances.

Additionally, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that 13 percent of people who received CARES Act stimulus checks used at least a portion of the money to delete their credit card balances.

So, how will people spend in the future? According to a survey conducted by Bankrate sister-site CreditCards.com, many say they will continue to eschew nonessentials. For example, 44 percent of the respondents said they plan to spend less in bars and 38 percent won’t be spending as much dining out.

Lenders have already reacted to current and upcoming changes in consumer behavior. “Card issuers are adapting to the new spending patterns by launching rewards programs and new card products that center on purchases like grocery, pharmacy and takeout dining,” said John Cabell, director of banking and payments intelligence for J.D. Power. “Consumers are looking for their cards to help them with flexible rewards and terms in new and different ways.”

Still, a significant number of people reject austerity plans. Nineteen percent of the CreditCards.com survey respondents said they intend to increase their spending at restaurants, 16 percent said they’ll spend more at bars and 14 percent plan to up their spending on sports, concerts and theater performances. In aggregate, millions of U.S. consumers are raring to take their debit and credit cards out for a spin.

See related: How the COVID pandemic has changed credit cards

What people are excited to spend on again

Individual desires and past habits dictate where and how shopping like the old days will take place. For example, Steffa Mantilla, founder of the personal finance education website Money Tamer, says she’s most eager to hit home-decorating stores like HomeGoods.

“They don’t offer an online retail experience and most of their deals are store-dependent,” Mantilla said. “What they are shipped and have in stock changes almost daily.”

“As things are opening up, I’m most excited about getting back to the gym,” said James Major, owner and founder of the insurance comparison site Insurance Panda. “I haven’t stepped foot inside a gym since March, so I’m anxious to see if my home workouts have been effective at maintaining my strength.”

Todd Ramlin, manager of Cable Compare, a website that reviews television and internet plans, is eager to partake in regular haircuts. “Probably the one thing I’m looking forward to the most is going back to the local barbershop,” Ramlin said. “When all this COVID stuff came up, I ordered some clippers off the internet and watched a few how-to videos. I got the job done but I think some things are best left to the professionals.”

Many people are certainly looking forward to shelling out on items and experiences they haven’t had for almost a year. But how consumers at large will open their wallets remains to be seen.

“Changes in credit card spending patterns, both amount spent and type of purchase, will certainly morph over time to reflect local economies and associated health restrictions,” Cabell said. “Consumers report maintaining levels of stress about their finances and may not yet be launching a shopping spree. It is likely that home-centric purchases will continue to abound for now but slowly give way to more restaurant dining, travel and discretionary retail as conditions improve.”

Lessons learned from forced austerity

So, what did people learn about their personal finances as they sheltered in place? A common theme is how much nonessentials had been costing them—and the amount of money they saved by doing without.

“One positive change I noticed during COVID was how much less we were spending as a family,” Major said. “There were no more trips to bars, restaurants, movie theaters and clothing stores. Instead, we really only bought things from the grocery store. It gave us perspective as to what purchases we truly needed to make, and which were wasteful.”

Mantilla was surprised to discover the extent of her former food bill. “When I was sheltering at home, I realized my budget had close to $500 unspent every month,” she said. “It put into perspective how I often chose convenience over what is money-wise. I’m now making a point of meal planning and ordering groceries for those meals every week. I’m taking advantage of grocery curbside pickup where I put my order in online. It drastically cuts down on impulse grocery store spending.”

One positive change I noticed … was how much less we were spending as a family … it gave us perspective as to what purchases we truly needed to make, and which were wasteful.

— James MajorOwner and founder, Insurance Panda

“The COVID pandemic forced us to prioritize and opt for quality over quantity,” said Sara Routhier, managing editor for the volunteer organization Outreach 360. “We had been overspending on ‘luxury’ items, such as books, movies, cable, entertainment, restaurants, and should have been overpaying on our bills.”

And while the pandemic proved that it’s impossible to prepare for every upcoming event, building a solid foundation and managing credit cards positively is increasingly attractive.

Vipin Chahal, founder of the consumer assistance website Return Policy Guide, is now committed to building an emergency fund that he can tap into, if and when the need arises. He still worries about overspending and getting into debt, though, because of uncertainties in the market.

“This is the best reason why I had been using my credit cards very carefully during the lockdown process,” said Chahal, who is more committed than ever to make all payments on time.

How to keep financial intentions

Even the best resolutions can quickly dissolve. “After going through the pandemic and dealing with all the initial struggles, people do want to avoid overspending,” said money-saving expert Andrea Woroch.

“But when they say they’re going to pull back and not charge as they did before, it’s easy to let that go when they’re finally having a good time. All those great budgeting plans can go to the wayside, and suddenly debt is creeping back up.”

To stay the course, Woroch recommended:

  • Creating a post-pandemic budget. Based on what you learned is important to you, list all your necessary expenses and your most desired indulgences. Make sure your outflow is well within your income. Refer to the budget often and modify as needed.
  • Automating financial plans. If you’re holding credit card debt, determine how much you can afford to pay monthly and have that figure automatically sent to your creditors. Do the same with savings to effortlessly create a nest egg.
  • Using credit cards advantageously. Get a rewards-rich credit card and use it only when you can—and will—repay the balance in full. The simplest method is to pay off each charge immediately after making the transaction. You’ll never rack up expensive debt and you’ll come out ahead with the accumulated points, miles or cash.

How to reduce costs while still spending

There are plenty of ways to spend on what is now available without overpaying, Woroch said. For example:

  • Slash food waste. Plan your meals for the week, looking for recipes that have overlapping ingredients to ensure you use all the food you buy. If you used to toss rotten produce because you couldn’t eat it all before it went bad, go for frozen instead.
  • Double up on rewards. Use credit cards that reward you for spending, but consider also using free apps like Fetch Rewards that allow you to rack up even more points. You can redeem them for free gift cards to stores like Walmart, Amazon or Target.
  • Be clothes conscious. If you have growing children, check out sites like Swoondle Society. You send kids’ outgrown clothes to the company and you get an account credit to trade up for larger sizes. “It’s a no-brainer way to save and be environmentally friendly, too,” Woroch said.
  • Make beautiful spending decisions. Always check a salon’s website (or sign up for its email newsletter) for specials. Sites such as Groupon also offer savings on neighborhood retailers, including daily deals for further discounted prices.
  • Dine on a dime. You can support your local restaurant and keep spending in check with careful ordering. “Split an appetizer and entree,” Woroch said. “Oftentimes, restaurant meals are big portions so you can likely get away with sharing and still have room to add that glass of wine to really relax!”
  • Be entertained for less. Turn to your local library to borrow books, movies and video games for free. You may even be able to check out toys for the kids. Some branches even offer passes to museums, zoos and other places that have admission fees.

As the wide variety of retailers continue to open their doors to the public, consumers have an unprecedented opportunity: to make better spending and charging choices.

“Unfortunately, it took something as drastic as a pandemic to give us a reality check,”  Routhier said. In fact, more conscious financial decisions may be the silver lining to the most tragic and trying time in recent history.