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Pandemic savings burning a hole in your pocket? Maybe it’s time for a little ‘YOLO spending’ –

For those fortunate enough to have socked away a little cash because they were no longer commuting to the office, dining in restaurants or shelling out big bucks for kids’ extracurricular activities, there’s pent-up demand to pay for consumer goods and experiences.

covid ont stage one opening 20210611

People shop and wait in long lines to enter stores along Queen Street West in downtown Toronto in June. After savings billions during the pandemic on things like commuting, dining out and travel, Canadians have pent-up demand for consumer goods and experiences. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)


Cost of Living9:22Financial planner says go ahead and spend your pandemic savings — just be smart about it

After 16 months spent mostly hunkered down at home in jogging pants with little more for excitement than snagging a good grocery delivery window, it’s no wonder that many Canadians are ready to let loose a little now that COVID-19 restrictions are lifting.

Millions of Canadians experienced job loss and other economic hardship during the pandemic, during which nearly 1.5 million of us got sick with the highly infectious virus that, as of Friday, had claimed the lives of 26,472 people in Canada. Millions of others suffered emotionally and economically during months-long lockdown periods. Front-line and essential workers didn’t have the luxury of working from home.

But for those fortunate enough to have stayed healthy and socked away a little cash because they were no longer commuting to the office, dining in restaurants or shelling out big bucks for kids’ extracurricular activities, that may mean doing a little “YOLO spending.”

Taking its name from the mantra “You only live once,” the phrase is being used to describe pent-up demand for consumer goods and experiences that we haven’t had access to during the harrowing months of the pandemic.

There are good reasons we turn to spending to give us a bit of a boost in stressful times, said behavioural economist June Cotte, a professor of marketing at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont.

“One thing it can really do is alleviate negative emotions,” Cotte told The Cost of Living host Paul Haavardsrud. “We joke about retail therapy, but for many people, if they’re sad or if they have anxiety — based on the COVID pandemic or any other reason — they can restore a sense of control by shopping.”

That’s because when we shop, we have a sense of agency that comes from having choice, Cotte said — a pleasing contrast to matters over which we’ve had no choice at all recently, like when kids would return to the classroom or whether a relative shares COVID-19 misinformation on social media.

Plus, when we acquire something new, we get a rush of dopamine — a type of neurotransmitter that plays a role in feelings of pleasure, she said. The effect is magnified when it’s something we’ve been planning and anticipating.

Retail sales in Canada on the rebound

The numbers make it clear that, on average, we do have more money in our pockets than usual. In 2020 alone, Canadians saved more than $212 billion compared with just $18 billion the year before, according to Statistics Canada.

YOLO spending may already be underway. Canadian retail sales are starting to rebound. There are long lineups to get into HomeSense or to snag a coveted table on a restaurant patio. In the U.S., lipstick sales jumped 80 per cent in the spring as people prepared to doff their face masks and head back out in public.

Cotte’s advice for getting the most out of splurges made with money saved over this time? Spend it on experiences.

june cotte

Behavioural economist June Cotte, a professor of marketing at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont., says research shows that spending on experiences rather than consumer goods provides more happiness. (Shawn Simpson, SWS Photography)

“A lot of consumer research and social science in general has shown that we get more happiness from spending on experiences than we get on spending on material goods,” she said. “Because we’ve been deprived from that over the last year and a half, I think that’s going to be even more the case now. But spending on vacations, dining out, movies — it doesn’t have to be very expensive things. But those tend to give you more happiness than buying a physical good of some kind.”

That’s because experiences stay with us longer than the more fleeting high a new purchase brings, in part because of a phenomenon known as “hedonic adaptation,” Cotte said.

“The idea is that you think it’s going to bring you pleasure for a long period of time, but you bring something new home, it’s the new shiny object. And pretty quickly, it becomes just part of your everyday life.”

That’s why Emily Farina of Oakville, Ont., is planning to direct her pandemic savings to travel. “I saved about $4,800 in GO [Transit] commuting and parking costs in one year, money that I redirected to my vacation savings fund,” Farina, who holds an MBA and works in real estate infrastructure, said in a conversation on Twitter.

She said she’s planning trips to her two favourite U.S. destinations, one to Miami’s South Beach and one to New York for the reopening of Broadway in the fall. 

Feathering the nest

But the demand during the pandemic for goods and services that improve the homes and gardens that have been our refuge over the crisis will likely also drive some post-COVID spending, too.

Suzanne Boles spent so much time in her London, Ont., home since the pandemic was declared in March 2020 that she started to notice the place was looking a little tired. Luckily, she’s accumulated some cash.

suzanne boles and family in virginia

After accumulating cash while spending so little during the pandemic, Suzanne Boles, second from right, is eager to use some of that to travel again, including to visit her sister in Virginia. She’s pictured on a 2019 trip to Charlottesville, Va., with her sister, Anita Boles, centre, and friends. (Submitted by Suzanne Boles)

“I wasn’t eating out with my friends or even having coffee with them. I wasn’t shopping for clothes or anything for my house,” said Boles, who works from home as a feature writer and writing coach. “I had a trip to Belize booked, and that got cancelled.”

Now that restrictions are lifting and the family is starting to plan things like Thanksgiving at her place, Boles wants to spend some of those extra funds fixing up her home. “Oh, my gosh, I need to paint. My light fixtures are really bad. And so I’ve started planning my next steps to use some of that money to refresh my house a bit.”

suzanne boles with bicycle

Instead of dining out, travelling or shopping for clothes, Boles, of London, Ont., found herself spending lots of time on her bike. Some of her savings will go to home improvements. (Submitted by Suzanne Boles)

She said she also plans to spend part of her savings making a road trip to visit her sister in Virginia — and instead of that Belize trip with a friend, she’ll take a tour of eastern Europe, where she’s wanted to visit most. “After the pandemic, I’m not going to go places I never really wanted to go. Life is short.”

Like Boles, Toronto personal finance writer Renée Sylvestre-Williams, author of a newsletter called The Budgette, is also really keen to fix up her home after being in it so much.

renee sylvestre williams

Personal finance writer Renée Sylvestre-Williams of Toronto says she’s eager to redecorate her home after spending so much time in it over the pandemic, but she’s saving the items on her wish list to a Pinterest board while she sorts out what fits her budget. (Bernie Uhlich)

“I just got this urge to redecorate everything. I want to buy a new sofa. I want to buy a new light. I want to buy new cushions. I’ve decided that I dislike my bedside lamp. And that’s a lot of money,” Sylvestre-Williams told Paul Haavardsrud. Instead of buying it all at once, she’s got her favourite items saved on Pinterest while she takes time to consider which fit her budget — something she advises others to do as well.

If you see something you like, online or in a store, “close the tab, walk away for a day or two and really think about it.” If it fits your budget, go ahead. While it’s less exciting than an impulse purchase, she said, credit card debt is even less fun.

Adeola Omole, a Calgary lawyer-turned-wealth-coach who specializes in helping people get out of debt, recommends making a distinction between mindless spending and the kind that truly brings joy, the way buying a new bike does for her husband, a cycling enthusiast.

Mindless spending may stem from boredom or from being cooped up all these months, Omole told Haavardsrud, and it can lead to a feeling of letdown or regret. “But when you target your spending on things that you absolutely love, there’s an excitement there.”

adeola omole

Lawyer-turned-wealth coach Adeola Omole of Calgary said people who are fortunate enough to have a stash of savings from lower expenses during the pandemic should try to be mindful with their post-lockdown splurges, choosing things that truly bring joy. (Submitted by Adeola Omole)

Conscious consumers

Vicky Sanderson found herself re-examining her relationship with material possessions during the pandemic, in part because the crisis coincided with a planned downsizing from her Toronto house to a townhome. “I just started really thinking to myself, ‘What is it that you want right now, what would make you happy, what would make you feel better in this moment?’ And it just never ever came back to stuff.”

Instead, what the interior design spokesperson found herself yearning for during the lockdown were simple pleasures, such as roaming the stacks at her local library. “This is kind of where it maybe sounds a bit flaky, but I spent so much time outside, so much time by myself, I really started to reconnect with the feelings of being a kid and being outside.”

vicky sanderson

Vicky Sanderson found herself re-examining her relationship with material possessions during the pandemic. The Toronto interior design spokesperson ended up getting rid of many of her things, in part because she was downsizing but also because simpler things were bringing her happiness. (Submitted by Vicky Sanderson)

“And the more and more I had of that, the less and less I looked at stuff and said, ‘I want to keep that.’ And with every box, I felt lighter and happier and more in control.”

As for the money she saved on taxis and restaurant bills and other expenses during the pandemic? “I bought myself a really good pair of hiking sandals — and really good rain boots and a good raincoat and a sun hat.” 

Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Anis Robert Heydari and Paul Haavardsrud.