Survey: 35% say stress from COVID-19 made them impulse-buy

A woman sits under a blanket while online shopping at home during shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19 Image: A woman sits under a blanket while online shopping at home during shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19

In a Nutshell

A Credit Karma survey asked Americans about their spending habits during the coronavirus pandemic and found that more than a third (35%) of those polled said they’re spending to help deal with feelings of stress. We’ve got some budgeting tips to help you avoid stress spending in times of crisis.

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COVID-19 has us all feeling stressed — and some Americans are impulse spending because of it.

In a recent Credit Karma survey, more than a third (35%) of respondents said they’ve made impulse purchases to deal with stress from the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s not to say Americans are necessarily spending more overall than they did before the coronavirus led to stay-at-home orders —  just 18% from our survey said they’re spending more or a lot more, while 60% said they’re spending less or a lot less.

Interestingly, both respondents who said they’ve spent more during the crisis — and those who said they’ve spent less — overwhelmingly cited the same reason for the change in spending: sheltering in place. (Learn more about our methodology.) This likely reflects the vast range of circumstances people are facing — financially and otherwise — because of the pandemic.

But if you’ve found yourself stress spending or buying impulsively during this time, it’s clear you’re not alone. Read on for more data — and tips for feeling more in control financially.


Key survey findings

More than one third (35%) of respondents said they’ve made an impulse purchase during the COVID-19 pandemic because of feelings of anxiety and stress.
Among those who said they’ve made impulse purchases, nearly half (45%) said they’re stress spending at least once a week, and 17% are making impulse buys daily.
About 1 in 5 (18%) in the survey say they’re spending more now than they were before the emergence of the virus in the U.S.
Of those who said they’re spending more, 1 in 10 have gone more than $1,000 over their budgets since sheltering in place.
Nearly all respondents who said they’ve spent more — and nearly all who have spent less — cited sheltering in place as the reason for their change in spending.

How are people spending money during the coronavirus pandemic?

Nearly 1 in 5 respondents in our survey (18%) say they’re spending more money now than they were before the virus hit. Setting the question of impulse spending aside, we asked this group to share where their money is going generally during this time.

While these categories are not necessarily where people are impulse buying, here are the top 10 categories where people are spending. Check to see if you’ve been spending a lot in these categories while you’re sheltering in place.

  1. Groceries and other household goods (73%)
  2. Food delivery (45%)
  3. Pet food (34%)
  4. Personal care products (32%)
  5. Alcohol (19%)
  6. Children’s games/puzzles (19%)
  7. Fitness or mental health (17%)
  8. Electronics or entertainment (14%)
  9. Interior/exterior house decor/projects (14%)
  10. “Everyday” or “fashion” clothing (14%)

Looking at respondents who say they’re spending more during the pandemic, the data for different demographics in our survey reveals some variation in spending habits. Here are some examples.

  • Men in our survey said they’re spending more than women on food delivery (51% vs. 37%, respectively) and on alcohol (28% vs. 9%).
  • Women in our survey said they’re spending more on personal care products than men (38% vs. 28%, respectively).
  • A higher percentage of millennials in our survey (20%) said they’re spending more on “everyday” clothing than members of Gen Z (13%) or Gen X and older (10%).

Tips for combatting stress spending

The coronavirus pandemic has hit home for a lot people — creating stress not only over health but new and unprecedented economic challenges. Feeling as if you don’t have control is understandable, and taking some sort of action can help.

Budget for the short term to midterm

It’s unclear when shelter-in-place and social distancing measures will end. Planning your budget over the short term to midterm — think three to nine months — may be easier to deal with than planning longer term for the unknown. While you’re planning, acknowledge that you may feel like buying some things that aren’t necessarily essential. Under more-normal circumstances, a helpful guide to follow is the 50/30/20 rule, where 50% of your post-tax money goes to needs, 30% goes to wants and 20% goes to savings. Consider adjusting the amount you dedicate to each category, if you can. Putting more into savings now may help ease anxiety, while stress spending often just creates more.

Be aware of how you’re paying for things

Among respondents who said they’ve been impulsively stress spending, they said they mainly used cash and debit cards to pay for those purchases (43% of impulse payments). Credit cards weren’t too far behind, making up 33% of impulse payments. If you can, consider setting aside a certain percentage of your budget in a separate account that you can use for “wants” each month. Or, consider carrying only a certain amount of cash when leaving the house — and leave your cards at home so that it’s harder to overspend.

Build an emergency fund 

Among respondents who expect to receive a stimulus check, 21% said they plan to put most of it in savings. And nearly half of respondents (47%) who plan to save that money said they’re doing it to build an emergency fund. Even if you have only a few dollars left after paying for essentials, putting that money toward an emergency fund will help you prepare for the unexpected. Learn more about how to build an emergency fund — even if you can contribute only a bit at a time.

Take advantage of programs that may help you

Many financial institutions are working with people directly impacted by the virus to potentially defer payments or provide other kinds of relief. And governments at the federal, state and local levels have programs to help with unemployment, furloughs and other challenges. Check out our coronavirus resources page where you can learn more about those programs and get other information that may help you navigate this challenging landscape.


Methodology

On behalf of Credit Karma, Qualtrics conducted a nationally representative online survey in March 2020 of 1,039 U.S. adults to better understand how the coronavirus has affected their finances.