If a second stimulus check comes, here's how people would use it

A recent poll asked recipients of the first stimulus check how they would use a second direct economic payment. Here's their answers.

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Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
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How did Americans use money from the CARES Act?

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With an eye toward Congress potentially passing another economic rescue bill before the end of the year that would include a second stimulus check, individuals and families are cautiously budgeting how they would spend another direct payment, according to a new survey from Yahoo Finance and the Harris Poll in a joint effort.

March's cash infusion included expanded unemployment insurance and help for small businesses in addition to the stimulus checks up to $1,200 checks. However, the timeline for when a second direct payment could come -- if it comes at all -- remains uncertain. What we do know is that the stimulus aid is credited for keeping the economy from tanking and for temporarily staving off a crush of hunger and poverty

"The U.S. increased millions of low-income families' earnings over the spring and summer, and increased the amount of money in American pockets overall" because of the stimulus aid Congress approved in the spring, said economist Gregory Daco, who was quoted in The Atlantic's November economic report. 

With coronavirus cases on the rise and the last benefits on the cusp of ending, here's how Americans say they would use a second stimulus check -- and how they spent their first checks and unemployment money. 

This story has been updated with new information.

Watch this: Next stimulus checks: What to expect

How would people use a second economic payment?

In the Yahoo Finance-Harris Poll survey, a majority of those who responded said they would use another check to shore up their household finances instead of on nonessential items like gifts.

  • 53% of the surveyed said they would use part of the check to pay down bills.
  • 43% said they would go toward essentials.
  • 39% said they would put it toward savings.
  • 30% would use it to cover rent or a mortgage.
  • 22% would spend it on holiday gifts.

How did people use the first round of stimulus checks?

From an October study, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York asked households how many received the first direct payment (89% did) and how they used their stimulus money. The survey, which included 1,300 households, found that the median payment per household was $2,400 (here's how that's calculated). 

According to the findings:

  • 36% of stimulus payments were saved.
  • 35% of the money was used to pay down debt.
  • 18% of the funds were used for essential spending, such as necessary daily living expenses.
  • 8% used for nonessential spending, such as hobbies, leisure, vacation, and other items respondents do not need.
  • 3% of the funds were donated.

The New York Fed suggested that only 30% of funds were spent, grouping together essential spending, nonessential spending and donations. This might have been out of concern over the length of the pandemic, the authors of the study suggested, or perhaps also the effect of COVID-19 on the economy and restrictions on in-person shopping. Those concerns may have resulted in more saving rather than spending.

How did people use their enhanced unemployment benefits?

Two more surveys looked at enhanced unemployment benefits from the CARES Act: A second survey by the New York Fed asked those who received enhanced unemployment benefits how they used the money and another survey, from the JPMorgan Chase Institute, looked at what recipients of the enhanced unemployment benefits did with the funds.

How people used enhanced unemployment benefits

How the money was usedHow spending and savings changed
49% used to pay down debts Spending increased by 22% after receiving unemployment benefits
24% used on essential spending Spending declined by 14% in August after supplement expired
23% of the funds were saved Savings doubled between March and July
4% on nonessential spending Two-thirds of the accumulated savings were then spent in August alone
1% donated

For more information, here's what you need to know about unemployment during the pandemic, what is happening with the $300 unemployment benefit President Donald Trump authorized earlier this year and how to find out if you might qualify for a second stimulus check.