In March, the threadbare couch in the living room was merely an annoyance, but Megan Barney, a book publicist in Cambridge, Mass., was not ready to spend hundreds of dollars to replace it.
By August, after six months of working from home, Ms. Barney could not stand looking at what had become an unsightly beige monstrosity. It had to go.
Ms. Barney, 26, and her husband, a research scientist, ordered a blue sectional, which arrived last month, joining a collection of other household amenities that the couple has splurged on since the pandemic began.
Cuisinart pots and Crate & Barrel pans. A cocktail shaker and martini glasses. New dishes.
“If I’m going to be here,” Ms. Barney said, “I want it to be as comfortable as possible and as calming as possible.”
With limited restaurant options, even fewer travel options and little reason to spend money on nice clothes for the office, those fortunate enough to have kept their jobs during the pandemic are using their disposable income to upgrade their pandemic headquarters.
And some of them feel guilty being able to buy freely when so many other people are unemployed. Shouldn’t they be giving money to charity, or decluttering their lives?
“I definitely feel weird,” said Ms. Barney, who has donated and also tried to help friends who were laid off. “I also just feel weird generally about having a job because I don’t necessarily feel special or better than any of my friends who have lost their jobs.”
But experts warn against being too hard on yourself in a time of great anxiety.
It may feel indulgent to splurge on your household now, but it’s perfectly normal, even healthy, said Asia Wong, a social worker and director of counseling and health services at Loyola University New Orleans.
“Think of this as an amplified nesting response,” she said. “Yes, we’re looking for ways to make home feel more entertaining and vibrant. But we’re also looking for ways to feel safer and more cozy.”
Keeping up with the Joneses on Zoom.
But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re also looking to impress others, experts said.
The pressure to have a home pretty enough for Instagram was already intense before the pandemic. As video conferences and virtual learning have opened up people’s living spaces to more outside scrutiny, that pressure has only grown, said Annetta Grant, an assistant professor of marketing at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
“Colleagues who may never have been to your home, see the inside of your home,” Professor Grant said. “Kids carry their classmates and teacher through the house to show off a book or toy.”
What’s more, we are seeing the inside of others’ homes, which may be bigger or better decorated and equipped than ours, increasing the desire to make our home feel as luxurious, she added.
“That may prompt them to do the renovation they’ve been thinking about doing just a little more quickly,” Professor Grant said.
Reenat Sinay, a journalist in Manhattan, said she had felt pangs of envy during Zoom chats with friends who live in cheaper parts of the country and can afford large, airy houses or with colleagues living in meticulously decorated apartments.
“There is one woman on my team who is engaged and has this gorgeous apartment with this awesome balcony,” Ms. Sinay, 32, said. “She always Zooms from there and I’m always like, ‘Damn.’”
Ms. Sinay, who described herself as thrifty, said the pandemic had pushed her to indulge. She has bought a Dutch oven and roasting pans to make better meals and glass-encased scented candles.
After her two roommates moved out in March, the apartment felt empty. Ms. Sinay bought a plant, a Zanzibar Gem she named Margot-Anaïs. She said she had begun scouring the internet for the “perfect throw pillow” that doesn’t cost $100.
“I feel like I’ve let myself buy things that I wouldn’t,” Ms. Sinay said. “I feel like: ‘OK, is this going to make me feel better? Is this going to brighten my day when I’m sitting here by myself and lonely? Probably.’ So I should get it.”
Splurging to feel normal again.
Meg Casey, 38, a lawyer in Nashville, said she and her husband, a doctor, loved going to the movies before the pandemic.
To recreate the lost experience, they bought a movie projector with a large white screen, then built a fire pit in the backyard, where her family has watched “Star Wars,” “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and “lots of Scooby-Doo,” she said.
“It almost feels like normal life,” Ms. Casey said.
It is the kind of investment that many consumers have made in recent months, buying kayaks, pools, outdoor patio heaters and trampolines to liven up their backyards and soften the blow of lost vacations.
Not everyone feels comfortable splurging. Louise Dunlap, 82, a retired writing teacher in Oakland, Calif., said she had used pandemic savings to donate to organizations seeking to return land to Indigenous people.
“I just don’t think that buying things is going to stabilize our world,” Ms. Dunlap said.
She said she had indulged a little, however, buying kippers at the grocery store and was considering buying a printer and a new chair for her desk.
Ali Besharat, a marketing professor and co-director of the Consumer Insights and Business Innovation Center at the University of Denver, said many people were also saving money or paying down debt. In April, consumers reported saving 33 percent of their income, up from an average of 7 percent, he said.
But not everyone has that luxury, he said.
Unemployment filings remained high in August, job growth continued to slow down throughout the summer and the threat of mass evictions is expected to loom. Even lower-income people fortunate enough to keep their jobs have been unable to save their money, much less buy household luxuries, Professor Besharat said.
“They didn’t notice a difference because pre-pandemic they were paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “They kept their jobs, but they never had a nest egg. They already were not spending money on traveling.”
Alisa Thiede, 43, a high school teacher who lives in Moorestown, N.J., said she bought a trampoline for her 13-year-old daughter, who has epilepsy and learning disabilities. Ms. Thiede also bought an adult stroller large enough to take her daughter when she goes on runs.
“Most of the things that I have purchased was stuff to try to make lockdown more manageable” Ms. Thiede said.
She has also paid off debt, she said.
“It is hard as a single mom with a special-needs kid to stay in front of expenses,” Ms. Thiede said. “While my credit card debts aren’t wild trips to wherever — it’s just like you need to fix your car, or you need a new mattress — you’re creating debt for pretty small things. So it definitely has felt to good to pay off credit cards.”
A cozy nest, or a cozy doomsday bunker?
Michelle Iorio, 46, closed on a new house in Belmar, N.J., in February. When the pandemic shut down the state the next month, she sped up her move.
She promptly donated her furniture to Habitat for Humanity and spent hours on Wayfair, Overstock, Amazon and Walmart, looking for inexpensive furniture and home goods. She invested in patio furniture so she could invite friends over for socially distanced visits outside.
“All of this is nicer furniture than I had,” Ms. Iorio said. “Is it top of the line? No, but it’s definitely a heck of a lot nicer than what I had.”
Ms. Iorio, who has lupus, said it quickly became clear that her new house was about to become a haven from a world that was especially dangerous for her and others with compromised immune systems. Her doctor had all but ordered her to move into the new house quickly, she said.
“He told me get into self-quarantine right away,” Ms. Iorio said. She moved in March 15.
“And I pretty much haven’t left,” she added.
Ms. Wong, the social worker, said people should be vigilant that the comfortable spaces they are creating do not become a permanent retreat from the world.
“Are you building yourself a nice little nest?” Ms. Wong said. “Or are you trying to make this place as palatable as possible because you’re never getting out of there?”
Ms. Wong added: “There is a difference between ‘I like it here’ and ‘I hate it out there.’”