How are some college students spending their stimulus checks?

(Christian Aguilar-Garcia/Lariat)

As unemployment rates continue to rise across the country and millions of people find themselves in new and unpredictable financial situations, the significance of social services in our lives becomes increasingly apparent.

Without a reliable source of income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many look to the government for any available forms of assistance. Luckily through various social programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), CalWORKs and the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program, a certain amount of assistance is provided to low-income families so that a standard of living can be maintained during times of hardship.

One specific group of people that is hit particularly hard by unemployment as a result of coronavirus is college and high-school students whom rely on part-time work to provide for their needs and yet are canonically the first group of people to become unemployed due to changes in the economy or in this case, widespread pandemic.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an average of 72% of college students across the country rely on some form of assistance, financial or otherwise to pursue higher education. So, it should come as no surprise that assistance programs such as food pantries, scholarships, health services and FAFSA are well-known terms in the vocabulary of the average college hopeful.

College is expensive for most and in some cases prohibitively so. The result of the high costs associated to college is students who work part or full-time jobs and collect financial aid to help supplement income. Despite this however, even in situations where financial aid is an option, some students still end up short as far as obtaining enough funding. Now, due to recent events pertaining to mass unemployment, attempting to stay afloat is even more a challenge than before.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the absolute necessity of well-maintained social service programs is at the forefront of the discussion on how authority figures in government can better assist the public in obtaining assistance during times of national crisis. Workers in various industries are experiencing a lack of wages as a result of the various stay-at-home and social distancing recommendations put forth by local and state governments. As such, unemployment claims are at an all-time high and are expected to continue to rise as we adapt to the current situation, however college students are arguably affected in a much more tangible way during this adaptation.

In what was an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort on behalf of members of Congress, the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27th, 2020. The CARES Act includes several programs designed to assist the public during the pandemic, mostly in the way of providing financial assistance for business owners and individuals.

Of note is the controversial provision included in the $2 trillion-dollar economic relief package that provides a direct payment of $1200 to individuals (with an additional $500 for parents) in an attempt to infuse the failing economy with an influx of funds. This $1200 dollar payment comes with no restrictions on how it should be spent and thus provides insight into the necessities that are prioritized by the public during a financial crisis.

Speaking with college students across Orange County and asking for insight into how they would spend their stimulus checks and what they deemed ‘essential’ during the COVID-19 pandemic. The responses I received were wide and varied and seemingly echoed feelings of uncertainty and for some, optimism.

For some, the stimulus check is the medium through which debt is settled, for others it acts as a proponent of opportunity. Some view the one-time payment as justification towards purchases that are otherwise out of the question and some view the funds as a way to plan ahead for the coming months and perhaps, years,

“I thought about it for a while, things are pretty rough when you don’t have a reliable form of transportation and that’s one of the things that a lot of people in college don’t really have access to,” says Saddleback College student Keane Cooks. “I know that with this amount of money, I could make a down-payment on a new car for myself and even widen my employment options now that delivery services are so essential. I think it’s the best I could do with what I’ve received.”

Other students view the stimulus check as an opportunity to splurge on hobbies and interests that they have otherwise avoided due to a lack of expendable funding. When college is as expensive as it is demonstrably is, it’s often rare to have expendable funds after priorities are met.

“I’m gonna spend the cash on some nice rims, maybe some really high-end anime figures or maybe just splurge it all on a bunch of concert tickets once all this clears up,” says Saddleback student Efrain Montes. “I’ve been thinking about how being able to spend some money freely for once is nice and it’s honestly so hard to resist. I don’t normally live like this, so I want to really do something dumb.”

“I’m looking to spend my stimulus check money on a few things actually,” says Saddleback student Madison Rischmann. “I’m planning on splitting my cash between some specific purchases. Specifically, on car repair and existing bills, new clothes and maybe some new items for around the house.”

Elsewhere, some students consider the future when deciding what to use funds, elaborating on the possibilities of what the one-time stimulus payment could eventually become through savings or investment.

“I got my stimulus check today. I’m saving all that, I’m not sure what might happen soon,” says Lariat staff member Courtney Baclawski. “I don’t have any debt currently, so I’ll probably put it away for a car maybe. Mine is pretty old and it’s on its last mile I’m sure.”

“I’m considering investing my money into a few different options, I’ve got a friend who works in finance and he suggested a few different options like investing into index or mutual funds and a money market account,” says Saddleback student Miranda Blackgoat. “It’s a good opportunity to make some investments for the future since I’m optimistic that with enough time, the pandemic will clear up.”

Based on the wide range of responses that were submitted, it’s evident that the average college student contemplates the importance of money far more than some might initially assume. If for nothing else, the stimulus check acts to determine which needs are prioritized both in the sense of daily life and in the specific case of pandemic.