Survey: Food Is the No. 1 Pandemic Comfort Splurge

Americans stock cabinets with food, alcohol, and cleaning supplies to keep calm

Top 5 Comfort Purchases During the Pandemic

The Balance / Bailey Mariner

Nearly one year after COVID-19 spurred lockdowns in the U.S., Americans are reflecting on how the pandemic has impacted their spending habits. According to a recent survey conducted by The Balance, 59% of Americans say the pandemic has changed how they spend their money.

Of the 1,000 Americans who responded to the survey, 52% said they spent the most money on groceries during the pandemic (excluding rent and mortgage payments). Each respondent manages their own personal finances and has at least one financial account—such as checking, credit, or savings—in their name.

Specifically, half (50%) of the survey respondents spent more money on groceries over the last 12 months than they had in past years, while more than a third (37%) spent more on cleaning supplies, and 15% spent more on medicine. 

“The rush to purchase cleaning supplies goes beyond our collective desire to avoid a highly contagious virus,” said Mélanie Berliet, general manager and senior vice president of The Spruce. “It's also about maintaining a nice environment now that we're spending so much more time at home.”

On the flip side, nearly a quarter of Americans spent less money on restaurants this past year, while a fifth spent less on clothes, and 8% spent less on cosmetics and skincare.

Most Spent up to $500 on Comfort Purchases

Some purchases resulted from emotional spending as Americans sought ways to cope with the pandemic, the survey showed. More than half of all Americans (56%) said they made at least one comfort purchase over the course of the pandemic, with 58% of them saying the purchase was worth $500 or less.

About 53% of those who made a comfort purchase said it was food-related, including groceries, meal plan/subscription food services, or restaurants. Parents were more likely to cite meal plans as their comfort purchase (22% versus 10% for non-parents) and were less likely to list groceries as a comfort purchase (32% versus 42% for non-parents).

“When we feel panic, we'll do almost anything to get relief,”  said Amy Morin, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind and a licensed clinical social worker. “People often turn to food because it provides a sense of comfort.”

Not only is food comforting, it’s right there. A meal-service subscription might even make you feel like you’re taking good care of yourself, Morin added.

“Many healthy coping skills were taken away,” Morin said. “When people couldn't go to the gym or see their friends, they turned to whatever they could to feel better while still inside their homes.”

Other popular comfort purchases included alcohol, cleaning supplies, pets/pet supplies, and streaming services.

“Pets make wonderful companions, so it's no surprise that people are looking to pets during a time when we're being discouraged from socializing with each other.” Berliet said. “Pets can also imbue us with a sense of purpose as they require regular care and nurturing.”

Conflict & Guilt Over Pandemic Spending

Unsurprisingly, Americans have mixed feelings about their current spending habits. Nearly a fifth of Americans said they wish they spent more on groceries, while a similar amount said they wish they’d spent less on them. Similarly, near equal percentages of Americans wish they spent more and less on cleaning supplies, electronics/technology, and clothing/shoes.

Additionally, Americans regret not spending more money taking care of others. Fifteen percent of those surveyed said they wish they bought more gifts and made more donations during the pandemic, while 13% said they would have liked to shell out more cash on pets/pet supplies. 

On the other hand, some Americans wish they spent less money on necessities like living expenses and medicine, while others said it would have been nice to have spent less on alcohol and streaming services.

“People often feel bad that they've spent money on things they don't need,” Morin said. “They might think about how some people don't have enough and they've just ‘wasted money’ on too many extras. Other people feel guilty because they don't have enough money to cover the bills or they feel bad that their partner works hard to earn the money they just spent.”

Morin said it’s important to acknowledge, not suppress, those feelings.

“Learn from your experience and develop a plan to do better in the future. But don't engage in toxic self-blame. That can be bad for your mental health.”

People Are Ready to Splurge on Restaurants & Travel

Once the pandemic is over, Americans plan to splurge on things they couldn’t do or didn’t have a need for over the past year. Twenty-eight percent of Americans said they will splurge on restaurants and 27% on travel, while 20% of them said they will spend more money on clothing and shoes.

While four of the five top planned splurges are identical throughout the country, the fifth item varies by region. In the Midwest, 14% of respondents plan to spend on a vehicle, while 15% of people in the Northeast hope to splurge on electronics/technology. In the West, 15% of those surveyed will turn to home improvement after the pandemic is over, while 14% of Southerners plan to splurge on more cleaning supplies.

As for shopping habits that will remain, Americans said they are most likely to keep spending more money on groceries, cleaning supplies, and medicine.

Methodology

This survey was fielded from Feb. 10-12, 2021. Respondents (U.S., 18+) are representative of the U.S. population across age, gender, race/ethnicity, and region, manage their own personal finances, and have at least one account in their name (checking, credit, savings, retirement, brokerage, and/or cryptocurrency).

  • Age: Gen Z 11% | Millennials 16% | Gen X 25% | Boomer 28% | Silent 8%
  • Gender: Man 49% | Woman 51% | 0% Nonbinary/Self-describe
  • Region: Midwest 21% | Northeast 17% | South 38% | West 23%
  • Race/Ethnicity: White 60% | Black 12% | Asian 8% | Latino 18% | Mixed Race/Self-describe 5%
  • HHI: <$25k 23% | $25k-$50k 27% | $50k-$75k 16% | $75k-$100k 13% | >$100k-$200k 17% 
  • Location: Urban 32% | Suburban 45% | Rural 22%

Data by Amanda Morelli