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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. Shortly after, the vast majority of the U.S. economy was shut down, outside of essential businesses and services.
As of this writing, only 41% of U.S. businesses report being fully open, while 20% remained closed or have closed permanently.
More than 30 million Americans (about 20% of the U.S. workforce) are unemployed. And those Americans who are still working live in fear that they could be laid off at any time.
It’s not hard to imagine that the current economic landscape — one in which most businesses cannot fully operate, and one-fifth of the workforce is unemployed — has led to a widespread change in how Americans are managing their money. This brings up interesting questions:
How and where have they been spending their money? Are they spending money? Have they been struggling to keep up with making payments? How much are they spending on things like food and transportation?
The Congressional Budget Office released a report recently that projects that it will take until 2030 for the unemployment rate to drop to 4.4%. Experts at The Balance are projecting as much as a 50% drop in the U.S. GDP growth rate.
In short: It doesn’t look good. But just how bad is it?
Table of Contents
Before we dig into specific industries, want to take a high-level look at how people are spending, in general, during the COVID-19 pandemic. We looked at credit card spending, credit card payments, and ATM withdrawals to see how people were spending or not spending, and how often they were spending.
One way to look at how the U.S. economy and American citizens are doing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is by looking at how they are managing their debt. With unemployment numbers steadily growing over the last six months and the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight in the U.S., credit card payments are a strong indicator of what spending trends may look like as we dig further into the date below.
Credit card payments saw a negative arc in 2020. They started up from December in January 2002, then quickly dropped off as news of COVID-19 hit the mainstream media starting in February.
There was a slight increase (1.2%) in payments from February to March. It’s possible that consumers — perhaps worried about their economic outlook — were attempting to pay down some debt before things got worse.
And while credit card payments were up from April in May and June, credit card payments are still down 22% or more for the last three months.
The next thing we looked at was how people were spending with credit cards at a high level. People’s overall credit card spending should be another pretty indicator of what to expect when we drill down further.
In January 2020, overall credit card spending was up by ~1% (from Dec. 2019). From there, it follows the same negative arc as credit card payments did.
March saw credit card spending drop concurrently with the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic. As a result, the U.S. economy all but closed and credit card spending dropped to -34.17% of what it was in December 2019.
Since April, there have been incremental increases in credit card spending each month. This tracks with the limited reopening of parts of the U.S. economy. It also paints a slightly hopeful, but misleading, picture that the economy is recovering, which we’ll get into more below.
So why has there been a drop in credit card spending during the pandemic? According to experts, there is a diverse range of potential causes.
LetMeBank’s Emily Deaton attributes to financial uncertainty:
“People are spending less money on credit cards as they are living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. They do not want to spend on a credit card and not know where the next paycheck is coming from.”
Loanry’s CEO, Ethan Taub, points to financial uncertainty as well:
“The drop in credit card spending can be attributed to people not wanting to borrow money at the moment, to the fear that they might not be able to pay it back. Fewer people are able to pay back their credit cards because of losing their job, being on a smaller income, and other situations related to the pandemic.”
MoneyFit’s Todd Christensen, too, agrees but attributes the difference in spending to a shift toward saving:
“Drops in credit card spending mirror increases in personal savings during recessions. When economic crises hit, consumers go into “caveman” finance mode. During good economic times, consumers overspend on their credit cards. When crises hit, credit card spending drops. They pull all their spending back into their safe place, putting it into savings.”
And lastly, CardRatings’ Jennifer Doss attributes to change in spending habit to a shift in credit card companies and users are adapting to the pandemic:
“Before the pandemic, there was a huge focus on travel reward credit cards, but as people started to put their travel plans on hold, credit card issuers were forced to shift gears. Suddenly, credit card users who had saved up thousands of miles weren’t going anywhere, so the motivation to use travel cards was low. Because of this, we’ve seen travel credit cards add redemption options for things like food delivery, takeout, grocery purchases, and streaming services. Now, instead of using points/miles just for vacation, rewards can be used to help offset everyday costs. This is likely more valuable to many cardholders right now, so there’s a new motivation to use these cards again.”
An argument can be made that credit card spending is not necessarily indicative of people are spending less money. So the next thing we explored was cash spending by looking at ATM withdrawals.
For this analysis, we looked at the year-over-year spending data for each of the first six months of 2020. What we found in the analysis matched closely with what we’d seen already.
ATM withdrawals were up by ~11% from January 2019 to January 2020. That was followed by a decreasing trend for withdrawals YoY until they bottomed out in April, decreasing by nearly half (46.3%) of April 2019’s withdrawals.
Since April, withdrawals have increased again as parts of the economy have reopened, but spending in 2020 is still significantly down.
The first of two high-level categories we explored was people’s spending as it relates to food. We took a closer look at how people were spending on fast food and dining out as well as how they were spending on delivery services like UberEats.
So far, analysis has shown that credit card spending and ATM withdrawals are down in 2020, but which categories of spending have been hit the hardest? Dining out is one of the most expensive activities every month for most consumers, so we took a closer look at how spending in the fast food industry has been affected by the overall reduction in spending.
As we’ve seen in the previous charts, fast food spending starts up YOY for Chipotle, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Domino’s in January 2020. Then, spending at each chain drops every month before bottoming out in April. Starbucks saw an incredible drop of nearly 74% YOY in April.
From there, spending at all of the chains trends up YOY for May and June.
The outlier in this chart is Domino’s. In June 2020, Domino’s was up almost 22% YOY. While the company is considered by many to be fast food because of its assembly-line style of production and quick turnaround times, most consumers do not eat at Domino’s locations, which tees up the next section of this analysis.
With so much of the economy closed and the vast majority of Americans living under shelter-in-place orders, it makes a certain amount of sense that fast food spending would be down. But what about food delivery services?
Food delivery services like Doordash, Uber Eats, and Instacart have seen significant gains in 2020. All three companies started up YOY in January.
YOY spending at all three steadily increased or hovered between January and March. In most of the data looked at in this article, March tends to be part of the upward or downward trend. Here it’s more consistent with the pre-COVID-19 status quo. One explanation for this might have to do with March being a bit of a transitional period where food services and restaurants were pivoting to operations that worked within the new, more limited circumstances.
Whatever the circumstances in March, April through June falls in line with the other data. In fact, delivery services followed the reverse arc of fast food, making huge YOY gains in April, then seeing those gains drop in May and again in June (while still being up significantly YOY).
Instacart saw massive YOY gains in April. Its services are more focused on groceries than meal delivery; April was a bit of a transitional month for grocery stores, which, like restaurants, had to pivot to meet new federal regulations and face limited ability to operate. The massive gains likely have to do with a huge uptick of people shopping online for groceries to avoid long lines and wait times at stores.
The other high-level category we looked at spending data for was spending related to transportation. We asked: Are people spending on their personal vehicles? What are they spending on fuel? Are they spending on other forms of transportation instead?
Another angle we wanted to look at was personal transportation. How were people spending on car-related services (maintenance, cleaning, etc.)?
The arc here is familiar as well. Starting in January, spending on auto services was up 33.3% over January 2019. But as the COVID-19 situation moved more into the public sphere and shelter-in-place orders took effect, spending dropped to 25.3% in February and -3.1% in March before dropping steeply in April to -38% YOY.
From there, car-related spending has been rising, jumping back to -12.9% YOY in May and moving back into positive territory again in June at 3%.
As with the other analyses above, the uptick for April and May are likely related to parts of the economy reopening and shelter-in-place restrictions becoming less limiting.
While auto-related service being down isn’t necessarily and direct indicator that people are driving less, it suggests that shelter-in-place orders have caused people to drive less. A better indicator of how much their driving, though, is how much they are spending on fuel.
Spending at gas stations tells, more or less, the same story as auto-services spending. The year started up YOY, dropped off significantly into April, and is showing signs of recovery while still being down YOY in May and June.
What’s interesting here is, rather than dipping in February as with most of the other categories looked at in this analysis, spending at gas stations actually ticked up a couple of percentage points in February, even though the price of gasoline was down from January. This means people were purchasing more gas in February, which suggests that concerns of COVID-19 may have led to people buying more gas in anticipation of shortages, as you would see ahead of a hurricane or other predictable natural disaster.
And while spending at gas stations hasn’t bounced back completely, it was just -13% YOY in May, in line with increases in spending in other industries as COVID-19 restrictions have relaxed.
One line of reasoning would suggest that if people are spending less on their cars, perhaps they’re using other forms of transportation. So, for the final part of this analysis, we took a look at rideshare spending.
While personal transportation-related costs may have been ticking up in a meaningful way over the last couple of months, the outlook spending on rideshare services is looking less great. Spending on both Uber and Lyft started the year up at 9.1% and 37% YOY in January.
But again, YOY declines set in quickly as COVID-19 concerns and measures grew. In February, Lyft dropped to -5.8% YOY and then to -20% in March. Uber faired a bit better during these months and stayed up YOY with 33.6% in February and 6.7% in March.
Then in April, both companies dropped quickly and significantly. Lyft dropped to nearly -80% YOY while Uber hit -44.4%.
Lyft has been recovering since March, reaching -70.4% in May and -45% in June. Uber, on the other hand, remains significantly down, having declined between -55% and -45% YOY.
It’s worth noting that Lyft and Uber serve somewhat different consumer bases. Lyft services more suburban areas and is mostly based in the U.S. Uber, however, is more of a global company and has a strong presence in most major cities. This could, at least in part, explain why spending on each company has dropped and recovered at different rates.
The last angle we looked for transportation-related spending was public transit, which like the other categories, suffered because of COVID-19 — but in a more significant way.
While similar, the arc for public transit spending tells a slightly more interesting story. Public transit spending was way up in January 2020, at 181% of January 2019. February 2020 was only up 64.8% YOY, but up in a significant way nonetheless.
Then in March, we see the established trend of spending dropping into the negatives as COVID-19 concerns and restrictions begin. Spending on public transit continues to drop into April, as expected but continues to drop in May, hitting a low of -56.2%.
Public transit spending bottoming out in May, rather than April, bucks the trend we’ve seen in other industries of May being the month when industries start to recover.
One reason for this is the added risk of COVID-19 transmission public transit has. Buses and trains are efficiently designed (read: “tighter”) spaces and group many people together with them. They’re also not the cleanest spaces. That all does a lot to increase the risk of contracting the virus.
In spite of the higher risk associated with public transit, spending did increase to -36.9% YOY in June. Even if it poses a higher risk, people are spending more on public transit, again, likely due to the limited reopening of the economy and the need to have a regular income.
For this analysis, we looked at 7,500 users who applied for a loan with Stilt between Jan 1, 2019, and July 31, 2020. We considered only those applicants with data for the full period between the starting (Jan 2019) and ending months (July 2020).