8 Key Money Lessons I Learned During the Pandemic

A few weeks ago, our older kids started their first day of school.

While we’ve seen the news stories of how challenging school has been in other states, I hope that our county’s high vaccination rate (the high 80s), and our children’s ages (more likely to maintain distance and also keep their masks on), will work in our favor.

So far, we’ve been lucky. Very lucky.

Their return to school also gave me the chance to be a bit reflective about how we’ve navigated the pandemic.

It’s far from over, but I feel we’ve perhaps gotten over the crescendo and a little analysis is fair. As the old riddle goes, you can only walk halfway into a forest. I hope that we’ve reached that point, and it’s time for some reflection on the way out.

With that in mind, here are eight pandemic money lessons I’ve learned during the past 18 months.

Table of Contents
  1. 1. Automation was crucial
  2. 2. Remember local charities need help too
  3. 3. Keep your world small
  4. 4. Keep your world simple too
  5. 6. Watch what you consume
  6. 7. Gratitude is important
  7. 8. There Will Be More

1. Automation was crucial

One of the most challenging aspects of a pandemic is that it’s everywhere.

Unlike personal crisis, which can be inwardly all-consuming, a pandemic is all-consuming for everyone around you too. When you deal with a personal crisis, your friends and family will try to help. When everyone is dealing with a pandemic all at once, it isn’t easy to come to someone else’s aid.

As they say on an airplane, put your mask on first before assisting others.

Automation played two crucial roles for us:

  • It removed another “thing” we had to do.
  • It separated our emotions from the decision making process, helping us avoid inaction, which can often be the default response in times of crisis.

For example, we make automatic monthly contributions to a taxable brokerage account that buys Vanguard mutual funds. I set it up many years ago, and I don’t touch it. It’s not a large transfer, but it happens every month like clockwork. During the pandemic, it continued to accrue as the market tanked. It continued to accrue as the market recovered.

Those contributions, done automatically, are up 18.2% as of late September (when I drafted this post and ran the numbers, it’s since gone down a bit)

If you asked me to do it manually, I guarantee I wouldn’t have done it. Unlike the financial crisis, which was strictly about money, the pandemic was a personal crisis.

All of our kids were home. We were wiping down groceries and scrambling to figure out what was safe and what wasn’t. The market was crashing, and the death toll was climbing daily. I had no confidence the government knew what to do.

There was a zero percent chance I was taking money out of my bank account and putting it into the stock market.

Luckily, my automation did it for me. 🙂

2. Remember local charities need help too

When the pandemic started, we locked down and kept all of our kids home. We were fortunate that we were in a solid financial position to get groceries delivered and mouths fed; we just had to figure out what to do with our kids. It was challenging but 100% manageable. We were fortunate.

But many families relied on schools for free meals before and during the pandemic.

As Congress debated the first of several pandemic rescue packages, several local charities jumped in to fill the void.

Our school system, thankfully, offered free bagged lunches through the year at various pickup locations. Still, we began donating to these local charities because they were, in effect, the first responders during the crisis.

I didn’t know about these organizations before the pandemic. Previously, we tended to give to larger organizations (national or regional, like our county’s food bank), but there are even smaller organizations that we now know need help too.

These organizations serve the same community we live in – a nice bonus.

3. Keep your world small

I learned this lesson years ago but didn’t have a concise way to explain it until I heard Andy Stumpf talk about it on a podcast. Andy Stumpf is a retired Navy Seal, and he was talking about Navy Seal training and how important it was to “keep your world small.” Say what you will about Joe Rogan, but I listen for his guests, and he gets some good ones thanks to his large audience.

Stumpf talked about Hell Week and how, as an instructor, he had a chance to speak to the soldiers who dropped out. In many cases, they felt overwhelmed. They had failed to “keep their world small” by focusing just on the task at hand. That is, making it from sun up to sundown.

The key to navigating challenging and overwhelming situations is to keep your world small.

When you have systems to do the big things, you can focus on the small stuff instead of just getting through the day. You don’t have to worry about it when your retirement contributions are being taken care of via automated contributions. When your bills are on autopay, you don’t have to worry about them either.

During the pandemic, I left our finances on autopilot, and they were fine. I’d check in occasionally, but I made no major decisions because we didn’t need to.

While I set up many of these systems before the pandemic, I didn’t have everything set up that way. I had a few stragglers that I’d still manually take care of – those all were done away with because I couldn’t afford the luxury of doing them manually anymore.

4. Keep your world simple too

In addition to keeping your world small, I also argue that when you are under stress, you should simplify as much as possible. If you need to respond to a crisis, simple systems operate better than complex systems.

After years of simplifying our money, we were prepared to deal with the financial aspects of the pandemic better than if we had a sprawling web of financial accounts.

Simple systems require fewer decisions.

You don’t have the luxury of time when you’re under duress because you’re juggling so many priorities.

As a result, you might spend money on things you would normally consider “frivolous” or “not worth it” because they make your life simpler. And that’s okay.

Simple also means offloading some non-critical decisions, even if for just a little while.

One of the steps we took during the pandemic was signing up for meal kit services. We did Hello Fresh, Sunbasket, and Marley Spoon – switching whenever we started to feel the meals were getting repetitive or less appealing.

Meal kits are overpriced for what you get in the mail.

There’s also quite a bit of packaging waste. But meal kits are cheap when you realize you’re not just buying ingredients. You’re paying for a curated list of meals to pick from (so you don’t have to think them up on your own) and saving all the time and energy, it takes to shop on your own for the required ingredients.

If your kids are old enough, they can help you prepare the meals, saving even more time.

If you enjoy a meal, you can always buy the ingredients and make it from scratch later, when you have more time.

Much like automation, the kits took away one stressor in our life so we could better manage the other more critical stressors.

The nice thing is, you can simplify without making it permanent. We stopped meal kits at the beginning of 2021, when the vaccines were more readily available.

By that point, we had more bandwidth to manage our meals and grocery shopping.

6. Watch what you consume

When stressed, I don’t feel compelled to eat as a way to manage that stress. A lot of people do. I never understood it until I read about the impact of long-term stress on the body. With long term stress, the adrenal glands release cortisol which increases appetite.

There’s an apparent biological reason why stress eating is so common.

The problem is that overeating leads to weight gain, which leads to more stress, which is a dangerous spiral.

But my focus is not on what you eat or drink (even though that is important!). I want to focus on the source of the original stress, not the end result.

You must be careful about what you consume in the news and on social media.

When you’re quarantining at home, it’s not clear what is happening in the outside world. It’s very easy to get a distorted view of what is happening because the view from your window might seem relatively calm.

There’s also the issue of seeing what happens in other countries or other states and thinking it’s similar where you live. What happens in Texas, New York, or California will often dominate the headlines because they’re the most populous states. The headline numbers there will be massive and very scary.

But it might not be the same for you locally.

More to the point, what happens in Texas, New York, or California has minimal bearing on you but can have a tremendous impact on how much stress you feel. Even if you live in those states, the local county or city information is far more critical.

When you get stressed, you may feel the impulse to do something.

When it appeared the stock market was crashing and hospitals were overflowing, and you saw the temporary morgues are being erected, you might have thought it was time to sell everything. That would have been a mistake driven strictly because of the news you consume.

And finally, if you quarantined, the only news that truly “mattered” was the progress of the vaccine. And even that was of limited use until the vaccine was released. You don’t need to check the news, check social media and get into arguments. It only adds to the stress you already feel as a result of the pandemic.

By reading and watching the news, you create stress for yourself, leading to bad decisions that can have a compounding effect in other areas of your life.

Cut it out and keep your world small.

7. Gratitude is important

With apologies to U2, you can only find what you’re looking for.

If you only look for bad things, you will feel like they are all around you. When you search for good things, you’ll find them even if they are very small.

The pandemic was a very difficult time for everyone. If you tried to quantify how hard it was for each specific person, you’d see everyone fared differently. We had it harder than some. We had it easier than others. But in the end, it was still hard.

One of the things that helped us manage was understanding that we had plenty to be grateful for. By talking about what we were thankful for, rather than focusing on how difficult it was, we were able to find the silver lining in the proverbial storm clouds.

When you’re trying to put one foot in front of the other and make it through something like a pandemic, being grateful helps quite a bit.

Back to the riddle that I like to tell my kids – how far can you walk into the forest? The answer is “halfway” because then you’re walking out. I hope we’re walking out of the forest now and the skills that got us this far will lead us home.

8. There Will Be More

As I write this in the fall of 2021, the pandemic is not over.

In the early summer of 2021, once the vaccine was more readily available for those 12 and older and people were starting to return to “normal” lives, it felt like the pandemic was over. Then the Delta variant appeared and things began to look grim again as hospitals in different areas began to fill up with unvaccinated patients.

We are now close to a EUA vaccine for 5-11 and Delta cases are declining in many areas, but we have to maintain our vigilance.

Even if Covid ended today, there will be additional challenges and crises in the future. Covid may become endemic like the flu. There may something brand new we’ve never seen before. Something more acute may affect you and your family and not necessarily the world.

We continue to have wildfires in the west, hurricanes in the south, and other extreme weather patterns that force us to contend with situations that our infrastructure may not be accustomed to.

That’s not to say we should live in fear of what will happen, just that it’s important to be prepared.

In the space between your inevitable moments of struggle, try to learn from your experiences and build a system that will help you withstand them for you and your money.

What have you learned from the pandemic about yourself and how you do things? What you have improved? What will you change next?

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  1. steveark says

    Local charities might be doing better than you think. I chair the board of a local foundation in our small city. It runs a fitness facility that provides low income free memberships, a medical clinic, a hospice house and other nonprofit ministries to the community. We qualified for hundreds of thousands of dollars in Covid relief aid from the federal government to help pay employees and to help with operating costs over the last year and a half. We did have to pull back some of what we were doing but we were able to help our clients throughout the pandemic and did not hurt our long term financial position.

    • Jim Wang says

      That’s awesome! I’m glad the relief aid didn’t forget about local charities even though I did briefly.

      I knew that our local charities were doing quite a bit, which is what educated me about them in the first place, and without the pandemic, I wouldn’t have known.

  2. Ally says

    Very insightful and timely article. Definitely resonated with me. Couldn’t agree more on automation and simplification. And gratitude is huge. It’s so easy to get consumed by minor every day stresses and not stopping to smell the roses.

  3. Lazy Man and Money says

    As you mentioned in the end, being prepared was the biggest thing I learned. It’s not that I wasn’t prepared, but that we learned the value of preparation.

    I hadn’t intended it, but it “stress tested” a lot of systems we had in place, some that were unintentional, such as my tendency to stock up on groceries when I see a deal.

    Having multiple streams of income was helpful too. My dog boarding income went close to zero with travel being shut down. The blog income was still okay and my freelance income still came through. When travel restrictions eased with vaccinations, everyone who got a pandemic dog started traveling and my dog boarding income has been off the charts.

    • Jim Wang says

      Unintended stress tests are the worst! 🙂

      We tend to stock up too because of Costco but not for nearly as long as we probably would’ve if we had anticipated how long the pandemic would last and how stressed the supply chain was.

      Good to hear the doc boarding and walking stuff has taken off!

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