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As Congress haggles over a proposed $1,400 stimulus check for most Americans, Chicagoans say they spent the first two rounds of relief money on everything from septic systems and treadmills to a new winter coat.
Economists say people didn’t spend enough.
At the center of President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the $1,400 stimulus check would be aimed at helping struggling Americans navigate the economic disruption of the pandemic.
Many Americans have not used their stimulus money to buy things, with most stashing it away or paying off debts, according to recent studies.
“To the extent the U.S. government wanted to stimulate spending, you could say it was somewhat of a failure,” said Michael Weber, a finance professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Millions of Americans received up to $1,200 each in April as part of a massive $2.2 trillion pandemic relief package, but only 15% of recipients spent most of the money, according to a study co-authored by Weber and published by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research.
During the second round of stimulus checks in January, most Americans received a $600 payment.
While Biden is urging Congress to “go big” and act fast on his COVID-19 relief package, Weber said smaller checks and a more targeted approach — focusing the relief on lower-income Americans — would create more economic bang for the buck.
“Subsidizing people that haven’t lost income in the pandemic is just not efficient,” Weber said.
The Chicago Tribune asked readers to share stories of how they spent their first two stimulus checks, and more than 600 people responded. Here’s what a few of them had to say.
A new winter coat
Caroline Thomas-Hill, 45, lives in the Kenwood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side with her 10-year-old son. She was about to start a new human resources position with a Chicago building supply company in April when the pandemic hit. A hiring freeze ended her employment before it started.
Out of work until October, she landed a position as an HR contractor with a Chicago food manufacturer in October, but by then, the bills had piled up.
Thomas-Hill said the two stimulus checks — $1,700 in the spring and $1,200 last month — have helped her catch up on bills, buy food and make some needed purchases, including a new winter coat for her son.
At the top of her shopping list with a third stimulus check are a replacement dental crown for her, car repairs after a September accident and a new laptop.
“The stimulus is really just a drop in the bucket, but I’m very grateful to get it,” Thomas-Hill said. “There’s no room for savings right now.”
A swing set
Jarett Reinwald, 36, an educational marketing rep, and his wife, a kindergarten teacher, missed out on a planned California trip last year during the pandemic. Instead, they bought a swing set for their Elk Grove Village home to keep their three kids busy and their sanity this summer.
“We bought a house that was super close to a park,” Reinwald said. “But when the pandemic first started, they roped it off, so the kids didn’t have anywhere to play.”
He found a swing set for sale online that ate up about half of the first $3,000 stimulus check; it took eight weeks to deliver and two days for him to assemble by himself.
Subsequent stimulus checks are going into a kitchen remodeling fund, a project that exceeds Reinwald’s do-it-yourself skill set. But he’s been unable find a contractor available to do the work, as other homeowners spend their stimulus checks in similar fashion.
“We’re spending all our time at home,” he said. “We want to make it better for everyone.”
Artwork from a virtual Furry convention
Allison June, 31, a real estate paralegal, was living paycheck to paycheck with her boyfriend in a Glendale Heights apartment before the pandemic hit.
When she received a $1,200 check with the first round of stimulus checks and another $600 in January, she put most of the money into her savings account, watching the balance crack four digits for the first time.
“It was impossible not to just stick in savings,” June said. “It just made the most sense to be able to have that nest egg and that security blanket there.”
If there’s a third stimulus check, she intends to put some money into savings and some toward paying off her student loans, which she has already whittled down from $40,000 to about $15,000.
The only “fun” money she spent out of the stimulus proceeds was $200 used to buy artwork from the Midwest FurFest in December, an annual convention in Rosemont held virtually this year amid the pandemic. An avowed Furry — a person who dresses up in animal costumes — June said the lifestyle helps her to explore identity and self-expression.
“It’s a way to present yourself as you want people to see you, as opposed to whatever God gave you,” she said.
Baby clothes and a Lego space station
Benjamin Recchie, 39, who lives in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood with his wife, spent most of the stimulus money on supplies for their first daughter, a pandemic baby born in May. The rest went to charities like the Greater Chicago Food Depository and a few splurges on themselves, such as a Lego model of the International Space Station.
“I put that way up on a shelf,” Recchie said of his one indulgence. “I don’t want the baby touching that.”
The family received $2,400 during the first round, $1,200 from the second round and are anticipating getting an $1,100 refund for their daughter come tax time.
Recchie, an affordable senior housing developer and his wife, a librarian, are both working remotely during the pandemic and have adequate savings. Recchie said the stimulus checks provided them with “peace of mind” they could take on unexpected expenses during a uniquely stressful time to bring a baby into the world.
If the third stimulus check arrives, Recchie said it would go to buying new clothes for their growing daughter, another charitable donation and perhaps some into savings for future expenses.
“The idea is to spend it,” Recchie said. “We’re going to do our duty and spend it.”
Gina Williams, 46, of Barrington, used the first stimulus check to take a family vacation with her husband and three children in June to a rented house in the North Woods of Wisconsin. She used the second stimulus payment — all $3,000 — to pay for an unforeseen septic system repair in December.
Williams, a regional auto aftermarket sales manager, and her husband, a contractor, worked steadily much of last year, despite the disruption of the pandemic, which included remote learning for their children.
After three months of staying at home under the same roof, the trip to northern Wisconsin offered a much-needed change of scenery.
“It’s kind of away from everything,” Williams said. “Just a safe way to be in a different environment, be out on a boat fishing and things like that.”
Back home in Barrington, the family’s septic system broke down and needed repair in December. Two weeks later, a $3,000 stimulus check arrived — the exact amount of the septic bill, Williams said.
The federal funds went straight down the drain.
“So it was, you know, God provides,” Williams said. “That’s what I say to that.”
A cheap treadmill
Shana Cooper, 41, an adjunct English instructor at Harold Washington College, lives in a condo in the Printers Row neighborhood on Chicago’s Near South Side.
She and her husband, who works in information technology, both received $1,200 stimulus checks in the spring, and $600 checks last month.
The money came in handy for Cooper, who has been teaching remotely during the pandemic but had her class load, and income, cut in half.
Half of the first check went to buy a “really cheap treadmill” to keep working out while on pandemic lockdown. The rest went to pay property taxes, increased condo assessments and higher medical insurance costs through her husband’s employer.
“We burned through that this summer,” Cooper said.
Cooper said she and her husband, a frugal couple who never go out to eat, would use the money from a third stimulus check to pay bills.
“Our property tax bill just came in the mail yesterday,” Cooper said. “That will eat most of it up.”
Lindsay Graham — no, not South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — an architect who lives in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood with her architect husband and their 9-year-old daughter, didn’t need the stimulus checks, which she put into savings.
Graham, 44, said she wishes there was an opt-out option for future payments. If a third check comes, she plans to donate it to charity — something several Tribune readers reported doing with their stimulus money.
Donating to charity, while imparting a “warm glow effect” to the giver, may not be the best economic use of stimulus funds, finance professor Weber said.
“It’s winter in Chicago, there are many homeless people. Making sure they have a place to sleep and something to eat, it’s certainly good for society,” Weber said. “It’s not clear that it immediately improves the economic situation from an aggregate perspective.”