Retail spending spiked in March as $1,400 checks hit, but don’t fall for ‘revenge spending’ stories

According to a recent survey by the New York Federal Reserve, people were expecting to use 24.7% of their American Rescue Plan relief checks on consumer spending, with 13% going to essential items and just 8% going to nonessential spending. In contrast, people expected to use 33.7% of the money to pay down debt and were planning to save 41.6%. Heads of households without college degrees or with lower income levels expected to spend more on paying down debt than those with college degrees or higher incomes.

For all the talk of revenge spending and pent-up demand for travel, you wouldn’t know it by seeing just 13 percent of stimulus check recipients indicating that any of the money would be spent on discretionary activities or nonessential items,” Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate, told NBC News. That means stories like this CNBC gem, which opens in line at the Gucci store at New Jersey’s Mall at Short Hills: “Among the shoppers waiting to enter are Gucci’s typical clientele as well as new customers who just became $1,400 richer.”

In reality, more people are like the woman who told the Associated Press, “I finally caught up on my bills and could go on a bit of a spending spree”—$500 in moderately priced clothes and shoes, and $500 in nonperishable pantry goods. Those nonperishables like ketchup and sugar are telling: This is someone who is still worried about what’s coming. And six in 10 people reported to a Bankrate survey that the $1,400 checks would only last them three months, while one in three said the money wouldn’t last a full month. Women in particular, hit hard by the COVID-19 economy, were expecting to use the money to pay for monthly bills and essentials.

Despite the relatively small fraction of the COVID-19 relief money that people were planning on spending on consumer goods, let alone nonessential ones, though, it was enough for that expectations-exceeding retail spending surge. Sporting goods stores were the biggest beneficiaries, with spending spiking by 23.5%. Next came clothing stores, with an 18.3% increase; motor vehicles and parts dealers rose by 15.1%; and restaurants and bars saw a 13.4% increase, with rising vaccination rates likely contributing to people feeling safer going out.

These spending increases could in turn fuel a retail jobs recovery—and in fact, March saw the largest jobs numbers in seven months. That’s not all that matters here, though. This spending represents a moment of rising hopefulness for people who have been scared not just about a deadly virus but about paying the rent or the mortgage and feeding their families. And while Congress only passed one-time relief checks, many families with children will soon start seeing the results of the expanded child tax credit, helping keep them afloat even if the economic recovery takes some time to fully materialize.

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