How to put 'found money' generated from pandemic savings to good use

CALGARY — An elevator salesman in Calgary says two months of working from his house in the northwest part of the city have convinced him there's no place like home to conduct business.

Tracey Webb says he plans to make his home base his work base permanently after seeing major savings on daily expenses without hurting his performance as a local sales representative for an international elevator company.

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"There's really no change in my productivity, it might even be better, and my pay's the same," he said in an interview, adding he's sharing the two-storey house with his wife Corinne and daughter Sarah, both working full-time from home as school teachers.

"My wife has a station set up in the basement, my daughter is in her room (on the second floor) and I'm in an office on the main floor, so we're all on different levels."

The financial benefits of working from home are adding up for the family at a time when most of the city's businesses are shut down.

In more normal times, Webb said he would be attending hockey and football games, going out for lunch with coworkers or clients, taking part in Friday pub nights and going to movies with his wife, all adding to his expenses even if some of those costs are covered by his employer.

The family is saving "dramatic money" on fuel for their cars, he said, but shopping bills are about the same — although delivered through Amazon more often now than before. Other than takeout food bills, entertainment expenses are almost nil.

Some of the savings are bittersweet, like the $5,000 he estimates it would have cost for a cancelled vacation to San Francisco and San Diego.

The same goes for the substantial savings realized when 24-year-old Sarah's wedding celebration at a downtown restaurant this summer had to be scaled back to a small ceremony with a deferred reception.

Financial advisers say it's important that people review and adjust their financial plans when faced with unexpected savings or costs.

"When we come into found money — and that's what people have right now if they're both still working and not paying as much expenses — it's just super important we make that money work for us for the long-term," said Mark Kalinowski, financial educator for the Credit Counselling Society.

About half of the people he deals with are still earning their usual income while working from home, he said, while the rest are less fortunate, struggling to make ends meet after being laid off or losing part of their income because of the economic downturn.

Less driving means savings on fuel and possibly auto insurance, said Kalinowski. Not commuting means no need for transit passes, with savings of $100 or more per month.

Hundreds of dollars are being saved by not going out for lunch or coffee or snacks and staying home instead of going to the theatre or other events. Parents are saving hundreds of dollars through refunds on school bus fees and not paying for summer camps or sports for the children.

The suddenness of the lockdowns to try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus serve as a reminder of the importance of having an emergency savings account, he said.

People should look to build such a fund, even if just $1,000 or $2,000, as a first priority for their savings.

The next priority should be making sure there's money to pay any income taxes owing by the extended Canada Revenue Agency deadline of Sept. 1 to avoid penalties.

Next, pay down debt, starting with the highest interest rate account, usually the credit card. When it's paid off, put it away for a while, he said.

If there's still money, top up your tax-free savings account or registered retirement savings plan, he advises.

"During normal times, people are always so busy, right? It takes a lot of discipline to get on top of your finances and budget," said Jeet Dhillon, vice-president and senior portfolio manager with TD Wealth.

"I always say, if you're not going to look at it now when you have so much time, when will you?"

When calculating your work-from-home savings, it's important to separate permanent savings, like foregone haircuts, and deferred savings, like putting off buying a new car, she said.

No one is going to spend money to catch up on their missed barber appointments, but they will probably eventually need to buy that car and should budget for it.

Tracey Webb's satisfaction in his day-to-day savings over the past two months have been offset by his dismay over the performance of his retirement investment portfolio as the pandemic weighs heavily on markets around the globe.

His investment losses have helped him resist the urge to run out and spend the money he's saved by working from home.

Still, he admits there's one area where expenses have unexpectedly been on the rise.

"Because you're home all the time, you're looking at things. So I've been fixing things and that costs me a little bit of money," he said.

"We just got new patio furniture."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2020.

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