It has been a very strange year—but you don’t need me to tell you that. We were going about our normal lives—our familiar, well-worn routines, when BAM KABLAM SHAZAM, everything changed.
And while 2020 was a big, hard, scary year for many, there was a hidden gift from the pandemic if we took a moment between the Netflix episodes to soak it in.
Some of us may have found ourselves with a bigger pile of cash and a laser beam of clarity like we’ve never had before. So how do we make sure this moment doesn’t pass us by?
Where We Were
Pre-pandemic, I was right there in my deeply-grooved routine, just like you. The weekly rituals, the dinners out with friends, the holiday traditions. Just going about the predictable rhythm of life.
Then all of a sudden—cancelled. The standing Wednesday night dinner with friends? Cancelled. The Sunday church hustle I’d been running since I was a kid? For the first time in my life, cancelled until further notice.
I remember feeling unmoored. Unsure of my footings. I remember baking a lot of cinnamon rolls as some sort of soft, squishy coping mechanism. It worked ok. And I added sprinkles.
When the schedules were wiped clean—the social calendars erased—it was as if daily life was a computer and we’d just pushed reset. It felt like I had lost some of the metaphorical tabs that were open—the articles I’d been reading, projects I was working on, messages I had to respond to. But in the restart, I’d also cleared away outstanding tasks that I couldn’t quite remember why they were there in the first place. It was a fresh start.
And as I looked at my new blank screen, it was a rare chance to ask myself, “what do I want to be doing with my time?” What is actually most important?”
All of a sudden, I was scrutinizing my whole life under an intense magnifying glass. Why didn’t I make my bed every day? (That’s for responsible, organized people. I’m not part of that camp. But maybe I want to be?) Should I really keep pressing snooze? (No. But yes. But no.) Is this friendship valuable enough to me that we’ll stand around when it’s 15 degrees outside? (Nothing like a Michigan cold snap to separate the wheat from the chaff in relationships.)
For you, your super magnifying glass might’ve queued up your job, your career, the place you call home, your decision to have children who are now in first grade and trying to do art class on Zoom, or a host of other baggage you didn’t know existed.
We were scrutinizing every corner of our lives with the kind of detail you see on cereal boxes, where they say it’s enlarged to show texture. We were finally seeing all that texture, and some of it wasn’t so good.
And while we got that eye-opening clarity, we also didn’t have to do much about it. After all, our schedules remained wiped clean. We just sat there smugly in our newly clarified priorities, holding them gleefully like fragile soap bubbles.
But now the days and weeks of “life on hold” are waning. I didn’t have to wear a mask in the grocery store for the first time in a year. Donuts were sold individually instead of in a plastic box (Yes. Wow. I hear myself).
And as the world is opening back up, if we’re being really honest with ourselves, there are also a few things we are not looking forward to, things we wish we could leave behind.
Here’s looking at you, handshake time in church. Here’s looking at you, oh-so-packed schedule.
Where We Are Now
We’re staring at a fork in the road. On the one hand, it’s a full-tilt sprint to return to our pre-pandemic life exactly as it was before: the buzzy coffee shops, the daily out-and-about routines, the hugs with our friends and family that’ll be extra squeezy for a little while.
On the other hand, we’re ready to re-embrace the good but we also badly want to dash away from the things that weren’t so good—the relationships that had soured, the soul-sucking job—the daily grind that had left us complacent.
And alongside those shifts in your relational health, many of us might be contemplating a shift in our financial health as well. Maybe there were parts of our pre-pandemic life that had gotten away from us financially—debt balances that kept running up, paychecks that kept running out, or fluffy spending that seemed to drain our bank account and put our big goals on hold indefinitely.
Where We’re Going
If you’ve felt disrupted, this is your moment. This is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start fresh.
There’s so much shiny new hope right now—the parts that brought out the best in us during the pandemic can stay with us and this time is a caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. A glow-up, as the kids say.
The bad parts? Let them slough away. Like a baby feet foot peel. Which I also tried while holed up inside and dreaming of summer, to varying levels of success.
Here’s to changing for the better, not the worse. If you’re itching for a financial transformation, here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Acknowledge That Revenge Spending is Real
The world has been closed up, our lives have been building up pressure. Now that it feels like the cap’s come off, it’s no surprise that you’ll naturally want to have a summer of revenge spending. Take a trip, spend a little more on who knows what, because your bank account is flush!
Embrace that this will probably happen. The more you fight against it, the more you might want to spend, the more this newfound motivation might flicker out and die.
Start a budget. Budget a robust and healthy amount for clothes, for vacation, for dining out. Tightening the belt can come later. But now? Acknowledge the feel is real.
Tell yourself you’ll get back on track financially after this trip, after you get that bonus. If you want to change, why not start right now?
Here’s how this played out in my budget: I’ve been a budgeter for years and have fairly predictable spending, drilled down by each category. But last month, my heart just took a crazy pill and I spent more than TRIPLE what I usually spend on clothes, I got my hair done, and we went out to eat every chance we could get! I’m here to say, revenge spending is real.
2. Don’t Rush It
Many of us feel like we had a bit of our life stolen this past year. There’s a temptation to make up for lost time and party like there’s no tomorrow. But, take a step back. Pause. Pause. Hold. Hold. Remember those clarities that became so clear? How do those fit in your setup?
Write down a list of what you want. I’m talking about things like new art to hang on your walls, plants for your balcony, a bike, a tent for camping, a new set of knives, a whole new wardrobe. Write it down. Give it a price tag. Start setting aside money for these things in a way that doesn’t detract from your big goals.
Don’t revenge spend and then dive right back into your normal routine. You can still get the things that you want, but not at the expense of the big things that you really want. Remember that budget? You can still get those things, but in a manner that feels paced, healthy, and not restrictive. When you can see the list clearly and know you’ll get that stuff someday, it helps curtail the maximum damage that could be inflicted by a binge spend.
Here’s what this looks like in my budget:
When I have leftover money (after I’ve set money aside for bills and expenses), I’ll fund these categories and then buy them guilt free!
Learn more about how to set up a wish farm in your budget:
3. Call Out the Things You Didn’t Miss
Yup, you know the ones. Maybe the frequent eating out wasn’t as important as you thought. The trips that dealt an injuring blow to your bank account while being surprisingly light on the memories. The standing friendships that didn’t quite hold water like you thought they would.
Hold yourself accountable. You know what they say: your money represents the things that matter, so defund the things that don’t. Maybe this looks like reducing the amount of money you spend on eating out, or on drinks, or happy hours with coworkers you only kind of like (coworkers—this is an imaginary scenario. I love you all). Whatever thing you don’t miss, defund it.
If you’re thinking, well gee, sure that’d be nice in theory but in practice it’s impossible. Ah, sounds like you don’t have a zero-based budget. I’m telling you—it crystallizes your financial priorities in a way you never would’ve thought possible. It’s straight-up magic.
In my budget, I don’t really value eating out. After I got out my wiggles last month, I’m back to keeping it at its properly prioritized amount (for me). I know exactly where I stand at any point thanks to my budget.
As I spend money, I’ll know my category balance at a moment’s notice to determine whether I’ll swing by to pick up a chicken sandwich, or when to opt to scrounge for leftovers at home.
4. Reassess What Matters
Ah yes, that wonderful blast of clarity for the big stuff. You know the refreshing power of it by now. That was the gift of 2020. Maybe you want a house with a big backyard or a front porch (yes, the theme of 2020 seemed to be changing houses. I can’t help the trends. They are real. Ask the millennials). Maybe it’s some more space, or a car that can fit the whole family. Maybe it’s to go back to school to start on a different career track, retire early, maybe it’s to finally start investing in your future.
Turn your ambiguous dreams into firmer reality. You know where I’m going with this by now. Put your money where your mouth is! Or, I guess where your heart is in this case. In your zero-based budget (because I shall harp on this until I fall over), make sure there’s a line item that captures this goal. And then let that category start building up money.
“Oh, we really want a house…oh, wow houses are really expensive right now. I’ll just keep staring at Zillow and refreshing until the prices go down.”
Meanwhile, your savings account stays forever young, no change, no wrinkles. Forever young in the worst way.
In my zero-based budget in YNAB, each of my bigger goals has a category line and I funnel money to these categories monthly, so I’m always making progress.
My husband and I doubled down on our dream house goals and we’ve been budgeting a chunk of money every month to reflect this goal. It’s going to take years and years for some of these, but it feels really good to know with certainty that we’re getting closer to our goals.
5. Take Immunity Boosters for Your Financial Health
There are some recurring themes in the personal finance community of tried-and-true, rarely disputed steps to take to improve your financial health. These golden standards rang even truer in the midst of pandemic uncertainty.
If you’re someone who might’ve been in a self-proclaimed financial cluster in pre-pandemic times, consider these steps like a shot of wheatgrass with probiotic for the gut flora of your bank account:
- Build your emergency fund.
- Build your emergency fund bigger.
- Reduce high-interest debt.
- Save for the future.
Set actionable, time-based goals around these steps.
This might look like “Pay off my Target credit card by December of 2021” or “Increase my retirement contribution at work by 1% every time I get a raise or bonus until it hits 15%.”
Don’t leave those financial boosters in loosey-goosey shapes and sizes. And don’t let them just nest in your brain as a “nice to do” someday. Start making them happen!
Here’s what this looks like in a YNAB budget:
You can set specific date-based goals to build up an emergency fund too, or pay off any other debt faster. Whatever boost, security blanket, cushion, or paid-off debt balance you seek, you can start taking steps to get there.
This pandemic will be a slowly fading bruise within our psyches. It has been hard. It has been eye-opening. It has been wildly frustrating. It has been a lot of things.
But at the end of this, what do you hope to do differently? Who do you hope to be? While we can’t change others, and while we often can’t change some things about our circumstances, there are sure a lot of things that can stay firmly within our control.
And how you handle the money you have right now? That’s firmly in your hands.
I hope you become who you always wanted to be. I hope you get the things you want out of life—the house, the car, the career, the peace, the calmer money discussions with your partner, the security, the contentment. And maybe, just maybe, this once-in-a-lifetime chance to start over will be the moment it all changed for the better.
Ready to gain total control of your finances? Create a budget in YNAB today to start building wealth. And just like dating during the pandemic, you won’t even have to awkwardly finagle who’s footing the dinner bill, this one’s on us! Try it free for 34 days, and we won’t even ask for your credit card.