Stocking the pile

It’s at the point where it’s meme-worthy: so many people grabbing toilet paper and canned goods for their stockpile that there’s nothing left for the average Jane. Empty shelves, price gouging. “Why would anybody take more than they can reasonably use?”

The practice is uniformly ridiculed and shamed – why would you take more toilet paper than you need? What about health care workers that need hand sanitizer? An individual’s stockpile simply means that the community has less to go around.

And yet – despite the shaming, the shelves in the stores are bare. The instinct to draw up your own supplies and protect yourself and your family, even if the community may suffer, is strong.

The same shaming attitude seems to be non-existent for money. There are talks of a government stimulus. “Add that to your emergency fund, money for six months of expenses isn’t enough.” Daycare is closed, sock that money away. Money saved on gas needs to go straight to paying off debt faster.

And I get it. I have an extra pack of toilet paper, extra cans of soup. I just sent an email to my student loan servicer to put my loans on hold for two months, and if it goes through, my plan is to put that money into the bank. Our emergency fund is paltry, we are in no way prepared for whatever doomsday is headed our way. Two grand from not paying loans makes a huge difference.

And yet.

Unlike stockpiles of toilet paper, there’s no limit to how much money you can hoard. No voice in the back of your head reminding you that your basement is already filled with the Christmas tree and boxes of hand-me-downs, and so you really can’t buy 100 packages of toilet paper. With money, the more you pile up, the better you feel, leading you to want to pile up more.

The problem here is the same as the one that comes up when you pull a package of N95 masks out of the market so it can sit on your shelf for when there might be a forest fire some day in the next ten years. Masks that are pulled out of circulation for some unknown time in the future cannot be used by those who need them now. “Just in case” is another word for “manufactured shortage.” Money that I hoard for myself won’t stimulate the economy. It won’t help small businesses stay afloat. It won’t provide income for my daycare provider to buy groceries for her family.

I completely understand the instinct to buckle down, cut expenses, shore up our assets and pay down debt so that when the storm really hits, we’re ready. I also think it’s the wrong thing to do. Like I said, I’m also participating in this stockpiling to a certain extent, so it’s not like I can sit up on my high horse and point fingers. But I can do this: make it a point to be conscientious about how my actions affect the community, not just myself. Set some money aside, yes. But also spend more on takeout. Give freely to those who I know are struggling. Continue to pay my YMCA membership, my daycare cost, my gymnastics fees.

Especially when I’m still getting a salary, I’m not going to work to shrink my expenses. Stay on track to pay off debt? Yes. Use specific funds to build up my emergency fund just a bit even though I just said I think it’s wrong? Okay, I’ll give myself some leeway there to soothe my panicked mind. But my money does nobody any good sitting in a bank.

We are truly all in this together.


3 thoughts on “Stocking the pile”

  1. This is a great point. I’ve been writing a lot lately about how the coronavirus pandemic is a remarkable opportunity for us to save the planet by changing our behaviors (telecommuting instead of driving unnecessarily, stopping the needless use of paper towels, etc), but your idea of socially thoughtful spending also totally applies. This is a great opportunity for us to develop a more robust sense of social generosity, and it starts with small things like not hoarding toilet paper and, for those of us with relatively secure jobs, making sure to order take-out from our local restaurants to help keep them afloat. There’s always a cascade effect with virtuous things like generosity and environmental conservation: even one or two virtuous acts feels genuinely good, because we know in our hearts it is the right thing to do, and that pleasurable feeling reinforces the behavior. Keep spreading the word — we’re going to use this crisis as an opportunity to make the world a much better place!


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