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Fact checker: Does staying home decrease my cost of living?

Jenna Careri
By Jenna Careri May 18th, 2020
3 min read
For business


(May 18, 2020)

As the state reopens, some Texans may see an impact to their cost of living.

As stay-at-home orders begin to lift across the country, citizens are slowly returning to their normal lives – with some distinct changes. While residents may no longer be confined to their homes, evidence suggests many are not ready to return to life as it was before the orders and it may affect their cost of living.

There is also the question of multi-stage reopenings, which still prevent restaurants from operating at full capacity and restrict how many people can gather together. All this said, it may be a while before America is anywhere near the “normal” of pre-pandemic life.

This also means Americans may see some changes to their cost of living.

How has coronavirus changed Americans’ habits?

Instead of getting in their cars and commuting to work, Americans have spent the past month traveling between their bedrooms and living rooms.

In March, Americans drove 18.6 percent less, which is a difference of about 50.6 billion miles. Of course, rural states saw less of a decline, while more urban areas and areas that implemented stay-at-home orders sooner fell more.

Meanwhile, as governments began to order restaurants closed and people became more hesitant to eat out in areas where dine-in or takeout was still an option, restaurant occupancy plummeted. Statistics show March 2020 numbers down between 22 and 64 percent across the country from the year before, averaging 40 percent. This checks out with Steak ‘n Shake’s findings, when the fast-food giant declared a 37 percent drop in sales.

As for energy consumption, what’s clear so far is that commercial energy use is down while residential energy use is up. The exact numbers are not yet known but, using China as an example, it is likely household electricity usage is up around 2-3 percent.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed a majority of the ways in which we live, particularly in the costly areas of gasoline, electricity, and food.

Will Americans save money by staying home more?

Of course, these numbers mean little out of the context of an individual’s daily life. Assuming this individual lives a life of averages, he or she likely spends about $90 per month on gasoline (yes, that little), eats out about 6 times per week (yes, that many), and has a monthly electricity bill of about $118. Or at least, he or she did pre-pandemic.

In the mid-pandemic world, these numbers look a bit different. He or she is driving 18.6 percent less, bringing the gas bill to about $73. Accounting for recent low gas prices – about 40 percent down from last year – that number is probably more like $44.

On the food side, a 40 percent drop in takeout and dine-in means 24 meals out per month becomes 15. The average meal out costs $20.37 per serving, while eating at home costs just $4.31. That leaves the average American with a pre-pandemic monthly food bill of $747.48 and a pandemic bill of $602.94.

As for energy bills, the numbers are, perhaps surprisingly, mostly unchanged based on what the statistics show so far. It’s true that Americans are streaming far more than before and generally using more energy at home. But those changes don’t necessarily translate into vastly higher bills.

Using China’s +3 percent statistic, that $118 monthly bill comes to a grand total of $121.54. Of course, time will tell if this estimate holds true, but it does not appear that stay-at-home will break the bank on electric bills.

When all is said and done, this brings the pre-pandemic American to a total of $955.48 per month on driving, power, and food. The pandemic-minded American spends an average of $768.48. So, yes, staying home could save you just under $200 per month. Most of those savings come through lower gas prices, less driving, and fewer meals out – only one of which is solely controlled by the pandemic.

Overall, the pandemic has changed how Americans live and what they spend money on. It has intensified the difference staying home can make on ones’ budget, but it hasn’t created the difference. The real bottom line: staying home will always save you some money, pandemic or not.

Jenna Careri is a writer covering the environment and energy industry. She is a Massachusetts native and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and French.