Eating Our Feelings

Jonathan Clements

PANDEMICS MAKE US hungry and thirsty, or so say the monthly spending data from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

In March 2020, as the pandemic hit with full fury, our collective spending on groceries jumped 23% from a month earlier. We can chalk that up to hoarding. Since then, monthly spending on groceries has never matched March 2020. Still, it also hasn’t fallen back to pre-pandemic levels, no doubt partly because of food price increases. Still, the numbers suggest that preparing meals at home has become more popular.

What about wine, beer and spirits for home consumption? Similar to groceries, spending on booze soared 19% in March 2020 from a month earlier and it, too, has been at elevated levels ever since. In fact, over the past 16 months, there have been six months when spending was above that of March 2020. Zoom cocktails, anyone?

But not every spending category has been booming. In April 2020, the dollars lavished on things like gyms, live entertainment, sports events, amusement parks and movies was 85% below January 2020. Even today, we’re at barely half the pre-pandemic level. Similarly, in April 2020, spending on gambling was 77% below three months earlier. But in this case, we’ve seen a full recovery, with monthly spending now above January 2020.

What about other discretionary spending? Monthly spending on restaurant meals—as well as alcohol when eating out—is also above January 2020, while hotel and motel spending has almost fully recovered. But spending on foreign travel is at just half the pre-pandemic level, while air travel generally remains 25% below January 2020. What about getting our hair cut—not something I’d usually consider “discretionary”? It seems many folks are still hacking away at their own hair. As of July 2021, the latest month for which data is available, spending at “hairdressing salons and personal grooming establishments” remained 40% below pre-pandemic levels.

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