Our Favorite Quarantine Budget Hacks

family playing chess together

While millions in the U.S. are out of work, many are still earning their normal income, even if the rest of their life isn’t very normal at all. Regardless of your work situation, most of us are spending way more time stuck at home than we ever have before, and that shift is having a massive impact on how we spend our money. Beyond the added costs associated with being home more often, you may also find yourself more prone to falling into certain spending traps.

So how can you best stick to a budget despite the additional costs that come with life in quarantine? Here are a few ways how:

Balance Out the New Costs

When you’re home more, some expenses might spike. For instance, you might want to upgrade your internet plan with faster speeds or subscribe to more streaming subscription services. And depending on where you live, your gas or electric bills might see an increase, too.

On the flip side, some costs might’ve gone down. For instance, if you’re working from home, you aren’t spending as much on gas for your car. And unless you’re living dangerously, you probably haven’t been to the hair salon in quite a few weeks.

The easiest way to keep your quarantine spending clean is to simply balance the costs that have gone down against the costs that want to go up. That means taking a real look at your non-isolation spending and seeing where (and how much) it’s inevitably gone down. Once you do that, all you need to do next is make sure that your new spending doesn’t exceed this sudden surplus.

If you’re someone who doesn’t really love the nitty gritty parts of budgeting, doing this little bit of leg work saves you from having to do a “real” budget and let’s you know if you’re okay or if you need to cool it with some of these new expenses.

Limit Your Online Shopping

When there’s not much to do except surf on the internet, you might get more click-happy and spend more money online. To avoid overdoing it, set some limits. For instance, set a max amount you can spend on certain items. This goes for both essential and non-essential shopping.

I have a monthly limit as to what I can spend on food and household items. And as long as I’m still earning income and can afford it, I allow myself to make a small, non-essential purchase. For instance, I might spend it on clothes, stickers, or some random gadget or doohickey that has caught my eye.

If you still find yourself going on mini shopping binges due to anxiety or boredom, consider unsubscribing to newsletters, email notifications, and online offers from retailers. What’s more, you might want to unfollow social media accounts of retailers and brands to help reduce the temptation.

Some other ideas to limit virtual shopping sprees:

  • Remove your credit card information from Amazon, Google, and other online retailers. It may seem convenient to have your credit card information all saved and ready to go, but that convenience can lead to impulse spending gone awry. Forcing yourself to go and find the physical credit card every time gives you a chance to talk yourself out of an impending mistake.
  • Limit yourself to one virtual shopping trip every two weeks. The trouble with online shopping is that those websites never sleep. The ability to almost instantly go from, “I think I need a new garden hose,” to “The garden hose is arriving tomorrow” is a miracle of industry, but also just a bit dangerous. Instead, treat online shopping like you’re going to a physical store. Plan, wait, then and execute.

Schedule “Low Power” Activities

You’re never going to reach the end of Netflix (although I’m sure quite a few of us have tried). Even as self-isolation restrictions begin to loosen, it seems pretty certain that we’ll continue spending a lot of time at home.

With so many of us working and learning from home, we can't really avoid spending more on electricity. But there are still so many things we can do to reduce that cost. One simple idea is to plan “low or no power” activities every day. Get outside. Play board games. Gather the family together in one room and read (separately or together).

You don’t need to be an electricity hawk, but if you make it a point to all do “offline” activities regularly you’ll save money and help break up the monotony of binging The Office for the 40th time.

Batch Your Delivery Orders

If you’re ordering groceries or getting food delivered straight to your doorstep, order at least the minimum to get the free delivery. And if you get items delivered quite frequently, you might want to consider purchasing a monthly subscription to a service such as Instacart.

If you’re ordering DoorDash or Postmates, look for a referral code or discount code online that you could apply for some savings. Otherwise, consider buying several days worth of food to make the most of that tip and delivery fee, then store the rest.

Also, we may be talking about reducing expenses, but be sure to take good care of your delivery people. We’re all leaning very heavily on delivery options these days because it’s literally dangerous to be out in public too much, so tip generously when you can.

Tap into the Art of Referral Codes

If you’re finding yourself ordering a lot of take-out or shopping online, consider sending referrals to friends who might be interested in the service or product. Before you fireblast referral codes to everyone you know, there’s a subtle art to sending out referral codes.

First, you’ll want to make sure the person you are sending the code is someone who would genuinely be interested in the service. And you’ll want to preface the send by explaining your experience and why you think it might benefit them. Last, be upfront about what you might gain if they used the referral. If the person likes you and you’re transparent about the win-win, they might be more likely to take you up on your offer.

Put Your Health First

This probably gets repeated more than seems necessary, but when it comes to spending during a crisis, always keep your essential wellbeing in mind. Try to find a balance as best as you can, but at the end of the day, your safety and health come first. If that means your spending outpaces your income during this pandemic, so be it. There are ways to recover from that.

Tagged in Budget tips, Coronavirus, Psychology and money

A corporate headshot of Jackie Lam.

Jackie Lam is an L.A.-based personal finance writer who is passionate about helping creatives with their finances. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Mental Floss, Business Insider, and Bankrate. She's also a 2022 Financial Literacy and Education in Communities (FLEC) award winner. You can find her at heyfreelancer.com.

  • Better Business Bureau A+ rating Better Business Bureau
    MMI is proud to have achieved an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau (BBB), a nonprofit organization focused on promoting and improving marketplace trust. The BBB investigates charges of fraud against both consumers and businesses, sets standards for truthfulness in advertising, and evaluates the trustworthiness of businesses and charities, providing a score from A+ (highest) to F (lowest).
  • Financial Counseling Association of America Financial Counseling Association of America
    MMI is a proud member of the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA), a national association representing financial counseling companies that provide consumer credit counseling, housing counseling, student loan counseling, bankruptcy counseling, debt management, and various financial education services.
  • Trustpilot Trustpilot
    MMI is rated as “Excellent” (4.9/5) by reviewers on Trustpilot, a global, online consumer review platform dedicated to openness and transparency. Since 2007, Trustpilot has received over 116 million customer reviews for nearly 500,000 different websites and businesses. See what others are saying about the work we do.
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development - Equal Housing Opportunity Department of Housing and Urban Development
    MMI is certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide consumer housing counseling. The mission of HUD is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD provides support services directly and through approved, local agencies like MMI.
  • Council on Accreditation Council On Accreditation
    MMI is proudly accredited by the Council on Accreditation (COA), an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. COA’s thorough, peer-reviewed accreditation process is designed to ensure that organizations like MMI are providing the highest standard of service and support for clients and employees alike.
  • National Foundation for Credit Counseling National Foundation for Credit Counseling
    MMI is a longstanding member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), the nation’s largest nonprofit financial counseling organization. Founded in 1951, the NFCC’s mission is to promote financially responsible behavior and help member organizations like MMI deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.