Consumers should spend their direct cash payment portion of the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package passed by the Senate on basic essentials — or put the funds in an emergency savings account, personal finance and economic experts say.
The government aid provides up to $1,200 per person up to certain income thresholds, with an extra $500 per child. The IRS will determine eligibility based on the individual’s 2018 or 2019 tax return. If a taxpayer hasn’t filed those yet, they will need to do so, in order to receive their payment.
“Before this is over, millions of people will lose their jobs,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on issues affecting low and middle income workers. “This will help cover some of those gaps.”
For consumers who have already lost significant income or fear a layoff is imminent, the money should be spent on basics such as rent, groceries, prescriptions, gas, and utilities, Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, said.
Consumers looking to ease their household budget pressure should also contact the lender for their mortgage or car loan to request a temporary hold on their monthly payments, and talk to creditors to discuss other repayment options, he said.
If consumers are still working and their needs are met, they should put this money in their emergency savings account. If they don’t have one, now is a good time to open one.
The savings should be in an easily accessible, safe, liquid place — not a mattress or a shoe box that could be burglarized. Instead, look into a money market fund or high-yield savings account, Nilay Gandhi, senior financial advisor with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services.
How the payments will be used will be up to each individual, said Gandhi. If their family has a household budget, the funds should be considered within the budget. If the family doesn’t have a budget, now is a good time to draft one.
Households who are financially secure and already have their basics and savings cushion covered may be in a position to use the funds to add to their savings for their child’s education, or retirement.
Households that are well positioned financially to weather the outbreak and want to help those in more need can donate their refund to a charity, a local food bank, or a group fighting the disease, such as the CDC Foundation.
While some have referred to the aid package as “stimulus” for the economy, others say it is more of an “income support program.”
“Ordinarily, when governments are trying to stimulate the economy, a transfer of cash can allow people to spend more, buy more, eat out more, all of which helps to keep the economy growing,” said Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
When people have been told to shelter in place, and take every precaution, they’re not going to go out and spend more.
“The idea of the stimulus isn’t to boost the economy now but rather to aid financially stressed households and keep consumers from falling further behind,” McBride said.
The purpose is to feed families, keep a roof over their heads and keep the lights on. It’s not about shoppers spending more than they would normally.
Perhaps when the pandemic is passed, if there’s any extra money left, it can safely be spent on something more than on covering the essentials.
“The ‘stimulus’ aspect of the cash transfer can play a role later down the line when the health crisis is behind us,” said Mathur.
Despite the millions of dollars being sent out, Gould says she doesn’t think the payment to consumers will be enough.
“It’s a one-time check,” she said. “They still have to pay their bills month after month.”