Stress and spending have always been linked, and the coronavirus pandemic has made vices more alluring for many Americans. In fact, 70% of consumers have spent money during the pandemic on vices, ranging from alcohol and cigarettes to adult entertainment and lottery tickets — spending nearly $950 on average. Plus, nearly 4 in 10 Americans used money from their savings account to cover these vices in 2020.
To find out how the pandemic impacted this kind of spending, MagnifyMoney surveyed 1,550 Americans on what vices people were spending on — and what money they used to do so.
MagnifyMoney’s survey found that 45% of Americans have spent money on alcohol during the coronavirus pandemic, 27% on cigarettes and vape pens, and 9% on adult entertainment. The breakdowns are even more interesting when you examine by generation.
Alcohol has been the most popular vice amid the pandemic, though this wasn’t as prominent among Gen Zers. (Of course, many Gen Zers are younger than the legal drinking age of 21.)
Nearly a fifth of millennials (17%) said they’ve spent money on adult entertainment during the pandemic. Millennials have also turned to cigarettes or vape pens more than other generations, as well as gambling and betting. Meanwhile, Gen Xers and baby boomers have spent more on lottery tickets than younger consumers. (Gen Zer didn’t top spending on vices in any of the categories we examined.)
Tracking other demographics:
While our survey primarily focused on more traditional vices (adult entertainment, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gambling and lottery tickets), we know many people may define vices differently.
With that in mind, we asked respondents who said they hadn’t spent any money on those more traditional vices amid the pandemic if they’ve been spending on anything else they consider a vice.
Multiple people said they’ve spent on vices such as snack food, online shopping, streaming subscriptions and video games. Other write-in responses included:
It would appear the lines between entertainment, everyday expenses and vices are even blurrier than they might have appeared before.
“Some things that many Americans see as vices, others may see as guilty pleasures or simply may not have any issues with at all,” said Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst. “With many of these activities, the difference between a vice and a hobby can simply be a matter of degree.”
But, he added: “If you don’t consider alcohol and cigarettes to be vices, you simply haven’t been paying attention to how much they cost. Frequent smoking and excessive drinking can wreck a budget in a hurry.”
In these stressful times, spending can provide a way of dealing. When it comes to vices and the pandemic, some options became even more popular than others.
Those who spent more on the traditional vices we pinpointed tended to do so with alcohol (22%). The next most common options were cigarettes or vape pens (17% increase) and adult entertainment (16% increase). Drugs came in last at 10%, which makes sense given the often illicit nature of the vice.
For each of the vices we singled out, millennials were more likely to say their spending has increased during the pandemic.
“People have just been bombarded by stress continuously for the past year, and many people lean on their vices to help them through really difficult times,” Schulz said. “It’s troubling because these vices can often do far more damage than good, but I also totally understand why people fall back on them.”
On average, Americans spent $946 on common vices in 2020. Millennials on average spent significantly more ($1,258) than other generations:
Along with millennials, the average spend among those who were laid off or furloughed ($1,415), those making $75,000-plus ($1,333) and men ($1,138) also topped $1,000.
Another way to examine this spending is through a lens of guilt. Gen Zers (65%) and millennials (61%) feel more guilty than other age groups. This makes more sense for millennials, who also spent more on vices. But Gen Zers spent the least of any generation, so this heightened guilt could point to a more ingrained idea of morality around spending choices.
While more than half of Americans put money in their savings accounts rather than spending on vices during the pandemic, a significant 25% said they chose a vice over saving multiple times in 2020.
Overall, younger generations tended to spend on vices rather than save at higher rates than older ones. For instance, 62% of Gen Zers and 60% of millennials opted to spend on vices rather than save money, compared with:
For those lucky enough to have savings, the temptation was often too much to forgo. In fact, 38% said they’d used money from their savings account to pay for the vices we’ve discussed.
For some, that desire to spend on vices also meant taking money out of their existing savings to fund those purchases. Some commonalities among this group include:
“If you’re tapping into savings and going into debt to pay for one of your vices, it’s possible that you could be struggling with a very real addiction,” Schulz said. “Whether that addiction involves drugs, drinking, online shopping, gaming or something else, it is a very serious thing and you should look into getting help. That untreated addiction can wreak havoc on your finances, your health and your relationship unless you do something about it.”
Three in 10 Americans who spent on a vice have gone into debt for that vice, with 17% incurring that debt within the last year.
Among those who went into debt within the last year, interesting demographic details emerged:
“By going into debt over your vices, you’re simply creating multiple problems for yourself while trying to solve another one,” Schulz said. “Instead of leaning on one of those unhealthy, costly vices, consider alternatives like exercise, meditation, reading, writing or other things that you might be passionate about that can consume your time and relieve stress. Ultimately, your body, your wallet and your family will be glad you did.”
Indeed, high tensions can lead to spending — and also arguments with loved ones. Those arguments can tend to center around vice-related spending habits. And, when it comes to romantic relationships, millennials were most likely to say their vice spending led to arguments.
Nearly a third of those who spent money on vices in 2020 said that spending translated to an argument with a loved one. Among those:
Men (24%) and those who earned more than $75,000 a year (26%) were more likely to experience this when it came to romantic relationships.
“Vices can wreck relationships just as quickly as they can wreck budgets,” Schulz said. “As with anything in a relationship, the key to managing differences over vices is communication. It can lead to some pretty awkward conversations at the dinner table. But in the long run, you’re far better off having these uncomfortable talks in advance rather than once things have gotten out of control.”
MagnifyMoney commissioned Qualtrics to field an online survey of 1,550 Americans, conducted Jan. 8-11, 2021. The survey was administered using a non-probability-based sample, and quotas were used to ensure the sample base represented the overall population. All responses were reviewed by researchers for quality control.
We defined generations as the following ages in 2021:
While the survey also included consumers from the silent generation (defined as those 76 and older), the sample size was too small to include findings related to that group in the generational breakdowns.