No one knows how long Texans will be forced to stay home, or how long it will take businesses to get back on their feet. But even Texans who’ve been furloughed or laid off are still expected to pay rent and medical bills, and need to buy groceries. For those juggling many financial obligations, deciding how to spend impending stimulus checks from the federal government isn’t an easy choice.
This month, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Treasury will begin distributing checks to individuals making less than $99,000 and married couples making less than double that. Those making $75,000 or less individually will receive $1,200, and married couples making $150,000 or less combined will get $2,400, with gradual deductions as income rises above those thresholds. An additional $500 is allocated for each qualifying child. Social Security recipients also will receive a check.
Based on household spending numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Guardian found that the stimulus checks would support the average American making $75,000 or less for only two weeks.
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Texas Monthly talked to six Texans across the state—from essential employees, to those laid off; from students to single moms—about how they plan to spend their checks.
Mary Ann Janecka, stay-at-home mom, Missouri City
Amount expected: $2,900
Mary Ann Janecka, 53, will use her check to buy insulin. She developed diabetes while pregnant with her son fourteen years ago, and manages her blood sugar with prescription Tresiba insulin injections. She typically pays between $5 and $25 for a month’s supply, but in March, her pharmacy in Missouri City said it would now cost her $607.
“I really don’t understand it,” Janecka said, adding that it had never been that expensive before. (Janecka isn’t sure if the pharmacist, manufacturer, or insurance company is to blame.)
Her husband is an attorney who’s working from home and she’s a stay-at-home mom. While she describes her family as “solidly middle class,” they already pay nearly $900 per month for health insurance for just her and her son. An extra $600 each month isn’t sustainable.
Janecka decided not to pick up her prescription in March and opted instead to get a different kind of insulin over the counter at Walmart for $25. Since she started taking it, her blood sugar levels went from seventy milligrams per deciliter on average to nearly three hundred, a level considered “significantly elevated,” and well above the mark at which people start experiencing symptoms. Janecka said it has made her “terribly anxious.”
“It’s like you can’t even breathe,” Janecka said. “You are falling, falling, falling and there’s no help. Even if you wanted to, they have already publicly announced for no one to go to the hospital unless they believe that they have coronavirus symptoms, so everyone with serious conditions, we’re just out here trying to survive.”
Hayden Eagleston, unemployed, Amarillo
Amount expected: $1,200
Hayden Eagleston, 35, worked at a whiskey distillery, hosting tastings and setting up events around Amarillo, but he stopped receiving paychecks in March. Ever since, he’s been donating plasma twice a week to try to bring in some money, and expects to make $400 a month doing so, but that’s not enough to cover all his expenses. He filed for unemployment, but was denied as an independent contractor. He’s in the process of appealing the agency’s decision (while typically contractors can’t receive unemployment benefits, they can under the stimulus bill Congress passed).
Eagleston is worried about how far the check will go but plans on putting it toward his car, rent, grocery, phone, and hospital bills. Eagleston is epileptic and was recently hospitalized for a week. He’s paying the minimum amount required each month on his medical bills. The government check will help fill the gap for a while, but he’s budgeting wisely.
“I’m literally donating plasma to survive right now,” Eagleston said. “I bought a box of TP that should last till July. Eating a lot of tuna and PB and J.”
Steve Sanchez, government employee, El Paso
Amount expected: $1,200
Steve Sanchez, 36, is considered an essential government employee in El Paso so his income hasn’t been affected by state and local stay-at-home orders. He plans to use his check to pay for dental work for himself, his fiancé, and her kids—between them they need a few fillings, a root canal, and a cap—and to invest in a professional dartboard with his friends.
“I figure with all the money we’ve collectively spent at a bar playing darts, why don’t we just buy one and set it up at one of our houses,” Sanchez said.
The kind of board they have their eye on can run $3,000-$5,000, according to Sanchez. The friends plan to split it four ways.
Jessica Fuller, unemployed, Lindale
Amount expected: $2,200
Jessica Fuller, a single mom of four who lost her job as a server at a Mexican restaurant last month, will use her check to buy food for her kids and pay her electricity bill and car note. Fuller filed her 2019 taxes early and used her return to pay her rent through July, but she’s having trouble covering her remaining expenses—including groceries for her children, who are all stuck at home. She says she’s already nearly drained her savings, but thinks the government check will cover her for about a month if she limits her spending.
“I have been rationing,” Fuller, 34, said. “I can’t let [the kids] just go into the pantry and eat every time they’re hungry or bored.”
She’s submitted applications for work at warehouses and tried reaching out to a temporary agency, but no one is hiring. She’s been delayed in applying for unemployment by the overwhelmed Texas Workforce Commission. The commission estimates that 361,000 Texans filed claims last week, a stark jump from the 54,400 who filed claims in all of February.
Fuller had been laid off from an accounting job in November and enrolled in government assistance programs then. Her kids have health care and receive food stamps. Now she’s glad she has that to fall back on.
“I am still considering myself very blessed,” she said. “I know there are people way worse off than I am.”
Kyndal Sligh, student, College Station/Waco
Amount expected: $1,200
Kyndal Sligh, a senior at Texas A&M University in College Station, plans to invest her check in the stock market while it’s down. Sligh’s tuition is covered by FFA and 4H scholarships, and her family helps her with other expenses, but she’s not a dependent and files her own taxes so she’s eligible for a check.
“I’d like to have a fun story come from it, like help pay for a wedding or a car,” Sligh said. “I’m flexible with the investment so I’d just wait and play it by ear.”
Sligh works for the Texas Farm Bureau presenting agriculture lessons at local grade schools and for the grocery delivery service Shipt. With the increase in people opting for grocery delivery, she’s making more money than usual.
“We have been super busy in this craziness,” she said. She went back to her parents’ house in Waco when the university stopped offering in-person classes.
Mónica Gonzáles, tattoo shop employee, Harlingen
Amount expected: $3,400
Mónica Gonzáles, 34, will use her stimulus check to help pay her rent, electricity, phone, and water bills for next three months, if she can limit her spending. Gonzáles and her husband both work at a tattoo shop, a “nonessential” business that closed in March. She cleans and does paperwork and he’s a tattoo artist.
“A few tattoo shops and some tattoo artists are still flying under the radar,” Gonzáles said. “However, the shop owner as well as my husband would rather be safe than sorry.”
The Harlingen couple filed their taxes early and have been living off of their tax return. Gonzáles said they’re trying to avoid dipping into their savings because they need it for months when fewer tattoo clients come into the shop–usually in the summer when parents are buying clothes and school supplies for their kids, according to Gonzáles. She said early spring is usually their busy season because many people use their tax returns to pay for tattoos.
They were planning to get a second car this year because Gonzáles often has to shuttle her kids between doctor’s appointments. One has autism and the other has asthma. Now that’s not in the cards.
“We will hold off another year,” Gonzáles said. “We have survived this long with one vehicle, what’s one more [year]?”