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How NOT to spend your stimulus cash: Avoid purchases that require future payments

How NOT to spend your stimulus cash: Avoid purchases that require future payments


How NOT to spend your stimulus cash: Avoid purchases that require future payments

Peter Dunn
 |  Special to USA TODAYFed expects key rate at near zero through 2023The Federal Reserve foresees the economy accelerating quickly this year yet still expects to keep its benchmark interest rate pinned near zero through 2023, despite concerns in financial markets about potentially higher inflation. (March 17)APDear Pete.I’m feeling very positive about the direction of the economy, especially with the stimulus payments hitting bank accounts again soon and vaccines going into people’s arms. Do you think the average American is in the clear? Or do you think there’s more trouble financial trouble ahead? Personally, I’m feeling rather optimistic. – Robert, Columbus, OhioWithout a doubt, my hope for the economy turned to optimism too sometime in the last six weeks or so. But unfortunately, my optimism feels contained to the year 2021, as I fear the pendulum might swing too far back in the direction of abundance. The real question is how many Americans will be able to use the stimulus and advance child tax credit to move themselves forward as opposed to creating new spending habits which can easily introduce instability once again. The fear remains:  Coronavirus pandemic likely to leave legacy of fear and uncertainty that holds back economy for decades’Remarkable outcome’: Big gains are likely for economy this year even as COVID-19 damage lingersTo understand the risk of what’s ahead, you have to think back to both the math and emotions of 2020, and I’m just talking about money. The year was difficult enough without the financial considerations, but the financial realities of 2020 were nothing short of crippling. Yes, tens of millions of people lost opportunities, hours, and jobs, but tens of millions of other people voluntarily reduced their spending as the economy shutdown, thus tearing our consumer-based economy to shreds. Fear led to pain, but fear also led to increased stability.The latest unemployment numbers:  US jobless claims rise to 770,000 with layoffs still highAnd while 2020 was financially awful for many from an income perspective, it actually proved to be a rather healthy year from a financial behavior standpoint. The threat and/or reality of scarcity led to reduced debt levels, increased focus on emergency funds, and renewed financial discretion. Scarcity does that. It makes a person consider both current and potential resources, and then influences the person’s resourcefulness. And despite the fact the beginning of that phenomenon is a painful one, the end result of renewed resourcefulness is quite healthy. I’m thrilled Americans’ pockets are getting filled with tax refunds, stimulus payments, and soon, advanced child tax credits, but the switch from scarcity to abundance can be a wild one, especially when the abundance is artificial. The word artificial feels very negative here, but it’s not meant to be. I simply mean the increased cash flow of 2021 is a byproduct of government intervention, not the natural ebbs and flows of economic output. This intervention will be great for the economy over the next few years, and great for Americans’ personal finances in 2021. It’s what happens next that scares me. The emotions of 2020 were so intense and painful that I believe American consumers are going to overcorrect financially in 2021, thus compromising the very stability their increased scarcity provided. While about a third of Americans are really struggling and are unlikely to overcorrect because they need every dime of the increased cash flow to get current, I believe somewhere between 55 to 60% of Americans are at great risk of forming or re-forming financial habits which are unsustainable once this period of artificial cash flow ends. I’m not suggesting the stimulus and advanced child tax credits shouldn’t happen. Instead, I’m asserting a sudden increase in resources put incredible strain on a person’s ability to make objectively wise decisions. Don’t believe me? Imagine your ultimate treat food showed up at your home in abundance, without warning. For me, that’s a huge tray of homemade Rice Krispie treats. I don’t keep them around, because if I did, they wouldn’t be around for long. And if for some reason they were legitimately habit-forming, or they created a long-term obligation to continue to consume them, I’d be in big trouble. That’s what artificially-increased cash flow can do, and that’s what gives me pause about Americans’ personal finances in 2022 and beyond. If people use all of this money to create new habits or obligations, financial pain will be the result when that supplemental income dries up. The key is for people to use the temporary increased cash flow to get back to solid ground or to make self-contained purchases which don’t create future payments or unsustainable habits.If you happen to receive any of the additional funds just discussed, get current on your bills, set a little to the side for the future, and support your local small businesses. But do everything you can to make sure you aren’t creating a payment plan or future obligation.Surgery for a child, car loan, electric bills:  We asked Americans how they’d spend $1,400 stimulus checks. This is what they said.Stimulus check:  Young investors use $1,400 COVID-19 relief payments to join stock market boomPeter Dunn is an author, speaker and radio host, and he has a free podcast: “Million Dollar Plan.” Have a question for Pete the Planner? Email him at The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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