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Your Money: Why you might be afraid to spend your stimulus check

Stock Markets Apr 16, 2020 04:00PM ET
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© Reuters.

By Beth Pinsker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If you got your stimulus payment this week from the IRS and it is still in your account, are you afraid to spend it?

Many recipients immediately deployed the money they received as part of the CARES Act - up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child - for urgent necessities, including food, rent and unpaid bills. Some did not even have the deposit register before it was swept away to cover overdrafts, unless they use a bank which pledged not to do this

If you are lucky enough to not to need the money right away, it may just sit there staring at you from your balance sheet. There are all sorts of suggestions for ways to make use of it: buy gift cards from local businesses, prepay your mortgage or fund a Roth IRA contribution - but that may not encourage you to budge.

When it comes down to it, you may be too anxious to spend it anyway. Sarah Newcomb, director of behavioral science at fund research firm Morningstar, studies how people react to sudden influxes of cash, known as the windfall effect, and this is not it.

"This is different, coming at a time when people are feeling financially stressed," Newcomb said.

People generally put found money in a category of "fun" and spend it accordingly. When it is expected money like a tax refund, they tend to be practical and do things like pay down debt or make a large planned purchases.

Newcomb said she did not yet know what she was going to do with the deposit that had just landed in her own account. Her behavior is akin to those she has studied - it is not something she is going to spend frivolously.

"I had thought, if I get anything, I want to find a family that needs it, and give it to them," Newcomb said. "But once it hit my bank account, it was there. It's hard to let go of money when you feel scared."

Personal finance guru Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, chief executive of and author of “Zero Debt," is a proponent of simply saving it. Do not tie it up in prepayments and do not feel bad about not contributing it back to the local businesses.

"It’s nobody’s job individually to act as a financial Hercules. You don’t have to single-handedly hold up the U.S. economy," Khalfani-Cox said. "Right now, we just don’t know how protracted this crisis will be, and more people will be better off conserving cash."

Not spending has consequences, too. The government intended the stimulus to help get the economy going again. People need money to move and change hands, and every transaction that gets halted ripples out to affect many people.

One way Newcomb has found that shifts behavior in situations like these is to turn anxiety into excitement - a theory called anxiety reappraisal in a paper by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks that Newcomb cites in her work.

"If we could trust that we will find a solution to the virus, then I think we would all feel easier about letting that money go. There has to be a sense that you’re going to be OK. That’s the missing piece," Newcomb said.

Until that happens, some people are being motivated by the spirit of philanthropy. Certified financial planner Monica Dwyer, based in West Chester, Ohio, has a client who is giving away his check to charity.

"He said that he was going to donate his check to a fund for local people in the restaurant industry, such as waitresses and waiters who have lost their jobs. I thought that was so inspiring, considering that this client is a regular guy who could use the money," Dwyer said.

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at Editing by Lauren Young and Jonathan Oatis)

Your Money: Why you might be afraid to spend your stimulus check

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Dietmar Stahl
Dietmar Stahl Apr 18, 2020 10:12AM ET
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Why has the Stimulus payment to be attached to taxes. Unfair distribution
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