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The pandemic impulse purchases we grew to hate

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Amid Covid-19 pandemic social distancing and mask-wearing restrictions and requirements, beach-goers take a boat ride with their dogs on a sunny summer day off Santa Catalina Island, California, on August 11, 2020. | Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

From Pelotons to pets, the Covid buys people wish they’d left on the shelves.

Marta Crilly has come to despise her outdoor patio heater. She bought it in the late summer of 2020, hoping it would allow her to host some outdoor gatherings before the Boston winter really hit. “It wasn’t honestly that warm, but it was better than nothing,” she says. At least it was an excuse to get people over. In the summer of 2021, she decided to get rid of it — she figured there’d still be a market for it, since Covid-19 was still with us, as would soon be the Boston cold.

Turns out nobody wanted it. She’s been trying to sell the device and even give it away for nearly a year, and she’s had absolutely zero bites. In the Buy Nothing group she’s in, all anyone would have to do is come pick it up. “Nobody’s even interested,” says Crilly, an archivist for the city of Boston. “People don’t even like the post.”

Crilly is hardly alone. Plenty of people are sitting around their houses and apartments, weighing their pandemic purchases — sometimes the house or apartment itself — and wondering, “Huh, what was I thinking?” Consider it a Covid-specific flavor of buyer’s remorse.

When in distress, a lot of consumers are inclined to throw money at their problems. During the early days of the pandemic especially, there was all this pressure to better ourselves, or at least channel our energy somewhere, which in our society often translates to buying stuff.

“It gave people an opportunity to spend some time to reflect on who they are and who they would like to be,” says Ross Steinman, a psychology professor at Widener University who focuses on consumer behavior. “And as human beings, especially Americans, consumerism is a key aspect of who we are.”

Some buyers have started to look back on their purchases and wish they hadn’t made them. Take a peek at secondary marketplaces online and you can see a plethora of items such as Pelotons and bicycles that were hot commodities just a year or two ago. Google searches for “sell bike” and “sell Peloton bike” have gradually crept up over the past year.

Crilly says she doesn’t exactly regret the patio heater. But it now sits in her basement, where it will stay for the foreseeable future. “I also don’t want to revisit that period,” she says.


Practically everybody has a story of a questionable pandemic buy. Some are trivial, such as a board game that’s now unused, or a pair of roller skates. Others are aspirational, like a treadmill or a bread machine. Others carry more weight.

Doreen falls in the last camp — she and her husband got a new dog. (Doreen is a pseudonym. Vox granted her anonymity to speak frankly about her situation because people can get pretty wound up about dogs.)

Doreen and her husband, both retired, bought a puppy in the spring of 2021. They would have preferred to get a rescue dog, as they’d done with their previous pets, but there weren’t many available. Now, more than a year later, the dog has foiled their retirement plans. They’ve lost their spontaneity and ability to go places at the drop of a hat. Doreen’s husband worries “the dog is going to be quote-unquote lonely” if they leave it alone for more than a few hours. It doesn’t do well in the car, meaning any plans for a cross-country road trip are out. The dog is cute, but it is bigger than they thought it would be. “I’m looking at this dog and thinking 15 years of my life, what am I going to be like when this dog finally kicks the bucket?” she says.

She would never give the dog up — she doesn’t think that would be the right thing to do. “It’s not a Peloton, it has feelings, and the dog is very attached,” she says. Still, she can’t help but resent it a little and wonder whether they made the right choice, given how much time, energy, and money the dog requires at this moment in their lives. “Dogs are always toddlers.”

When we think about purchase regret, “we’re looking back at our past consumer behaviors and consumer decisions, and ultimately, we believe a better outcome would have occurred if we made a different choice,” Steinman says. For Doreen, the outcome would have been very different from what she’s currently staring down in the years to come.

Many people who made significant pandemic purchases are indeed experiencing real regret. There has been a litany of stories about people who wish they’d thought twice before buying a new home, with multiple polls showing over two-thirds of new homebuyers feeling remorseful. The same goes for stories about people returning their pandemic pets, especially amid current levels of inflation.

Some consumers may have overestimated how long the duration of their changed circumstances would last, Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, explains. They thought fully remote work would go on forever or that social outings would be permanently depressed. People moved to the suburbs thinking they would never want to commute back to the city. They got pets without thinking ahead to what that meant once travel picked back up. “Some purchases would have been apt at the time they were made,” Labroo says, “not so much when circumstances changed again.”

Not everyone’s purchase was as life-changing as Doreen’s, or as ultimately insignificant as Crilly’s. For Michael Avery in Los Angeles, his purchase was more of an ambition that didn’t quite work out.

Avery and his partner bought brand new Solé bicycles, or as he refers to them, “modern hipster bikes,” in 2020. They were bored at home, saw some guys on YouTube talking about them, and kept noticing the bikes around. “Maybe a bike will be the answer to our happiness,” he thought. Plus, he’d known a guy from the Netherlands who biked a lot, and maybe he would be the type to bike to cafes and bookstores, just develop a whole new facet of his personality.

So the pair spent hundreds of dollars on the bikes, plus helmets, plus locks. Avery, a former high school teacher who just completed a degree in higher education, paid to get a hitch installed on the back of his car so they could tote the bikes around town. After a few goes, they realized LA isn’t the most conducive for biking, what with the traffic and the hills and the heat. He used the hitch exactly one time.

He’s gotten a couple of Instagram pictures out of the bike, but otherwise, it just sits in the garage. “I hate looking at it because it’s a reminder that we probably wasted a lot of money,” he says. He’s looked into selling it used, but he just can’t stomach the loss. “Am I supposed to sell it for one-third of the price and take the L? Part of me is like, ‘We will use it eventually,’ but I know we won’t.”


I’ve talked to many people about pandemic purchases they now regret. Most people approach these missteps with a sense of humor, shrugging it off as a bit of an oops.

“I hate my air fryer,” one woman told me. She’d heard it would be useful for “everything,” but beyond frozen French fries, she doesn’t see the point. “When I reheat a pizza slice, the air blows it upside down. It’s loud, hard to clean, it’s a giant bulbous appliance that takes up half my counter and it freaks my dog out,” she wrote in an email. “The day I realized my toaster oven has a convection setting was the day I realized I’d been had.”

Alex Tolford, who works in human resources for a hospital in Florida, says he “definitely went a little stir crazy and needed stuff for activities” during the pandemic, and it turns out most of it wasn’t useful to him. Amid his pandemic buys — many of which he’s been able to get rid of — were a Peloton bike, a PlayStation 5, and an iPad. Only the iPad remains in his possession. A couple of his friends were able to buy boats, and while he might have envied them at the time, not so much now. They “were out on their boat two to three times a week, and now, it’s once a month since they’re back to the office.”

Beyond the missing cash, there’s nothing particularly bad about buying something to make yourself feel better. Research shows that buying can cheer people up. Clinical psychologist Scott Bea told the Cleveland Clinic that “there’s actually a lot of psychological and therapeutic value when you’re shopping — if done in moderation, of course.” It can help people feel more in control, and distract them from their anxieties, among other benefits. To be sure, impulse buying and compulsive buying are more problematic, as the emotional release people get can be unhealthy.

Also, the boost consumers get from buying doesn’t last forever, and eventually, the shine on whatever new thing wears off. People “can come to regret these ‘pacifier’ purchases later,” Labroo says.

A glance at Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace would indicate that many people are not so impressed with their Pelotons. I recently came across an ad for one for sale in Brooklyn that was one year old and advertised as “lightly used, hence why I’m selling” by the seller. Peloton becoming less trendy has been one of the company’s woes, but even for people who like their bikes and use them often (I am one of them), there’s a limit to how many Pelotons you’re going to buy, which is one.

Still, it’s worth interrogating why we’re like this, why we see buying as a means of feeling anything at all. Shopping can trigger a release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes you feel good. Buying things for other people is also a mood-booster, research shows. Money is inherently emotional.

Beyond shopping, we so often find ourselves trying to solve problems with our wallets — something that’s increasingly difficult to do with rising costs of nearly every kind of good and service. On a personal level, this can mean buying something silly we’ll use a handful of times. On a broader level, it can translate to trying to vote with our dollars by choosing one modestly better corporation over another. Or we buy as an act of patriotism. During the early days of the pandemic, as in so many other moments of American history, consumers were told it was basically their patriotic duty to try to buy their way to a better economy. (Ironically, the best thing consumers could probably do now for the economy is slow their buying to curb inflation.)

Two and a half years in, we certainly didn’t buy ourselves out of the pandemic, but some of us did buy a little bit of joy.

Avery got an espresso machine, which he says “took my coffee obsession to the next level.” He learned a lot about coffee, which he feels very proud of. Still, on the bikes, his overall mood is just, ugh. “We were in the middle of this pandemic and looking for something to fill the hole,” he says. “The bike was a purchase where we were kind of insane.”

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Dadster
17 days ago
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Young Americans are sticking close to their hometowns

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A young woman unloads a moving truck
If this young adult is like 58 percent of her peers, she’ll stay within 10 miles of where she lived at 16. | Getty Images/Maskot

80 percent of young adults still live within 100 miles of their home as teenagers.

In my family, moving long distances is the norm.

My mother was born and raised in Honolulu, where her grandmother had moved during the Great Depression from a sleepy upstate New York town on Lake Ontario. (You can read all about it in a novel my mom just published.) As adults, she and my dad left Hawaii for, of all places, New Hampshire, where my brother and I grew up.

(“Why would you leave paradise for the frozen reaches of New Hampshire?” one might ask. Don’t worry, Dan and I asked this many, many times as children.)

My parents met in Hawaii, but my dad was born in France; his dad, born in North Dakota, was a career Army officer, and so my dad and my aunts and uncles grew up everywhere from France to Belgium to San Francisco to Germany to Honolulu.

Our family is a somewhat extreme case, but if you inhabit a certain class position in the United States, this kind of mobility can seem normal. People grow up in one place, but then they go to universities a few hundred or thousand miles away, before moving on to a big city to find work.

But it’s not the norm. A new paper by Harvard’s Ben Sprung-Keyser and Nathaniel Hendren, and the Census Bureau’s Sonya Porter, takes an in-depth look at young adults leaving home. The big takeaway is … they do not.

At age 26, the authors find, 30 percent of Americans live in the census tract they lived in at 16. Fifty-eight percent live less than 10 miles away; 80 percent live less than 100 miles away; 90 percent live less than 500 miles away. Census tracts are tiny, hyper-local designations, with populations between 1,200 and 8,000 each; mine is only 0.2 square miles in area. The small town where I grew up has three tracts within it. Staying within your tract is an extreme level of residential stasis, but 30 percent of young adults do just that. By contrast, huge leaps, like my great-grandmother’s from New York to Honolulu or my parents’ from Honolulu to New Hampshire, are extremely uncommon.

As the demographers and sociologists reading this are likely to point out, the finding that people mostly stay put is not new. Indeed, residential mobility inside the US has been cratering for years, and kept falling even during the pandemic, despite narratives about city residents fleeing.

Where did you come from, where did you go?

While Sprung-Keyser, Hendren, and Porter aren’t the first to find low levels of mobility, the granularity of their data is impressive. They look at “commuting zones,” or collections of cities and towns that make up a regional labor market. For instance, the New York zone includes Long Island and Westchester County, but not farther-away cities like Newark or Poughkeepsie. The authors have data on what share of young adults leave and where they leave for.

You can explore the data yourself here; it turns out that only 1 percent of people from where I grew up move to DC, like I did, which still makes it the third-most-common out-of-state destination after Boston and New York.

The data covers young adults born between 1984 and 1992 — that is, millennials. But there are some indications that the level of residential stasis the authors find is persisting among even younger adults. A recent survey from the personal finance site Credit Karma estimated that 29 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 live at home with their parents or other relatives; this phenomenon surged during the pandemic, even among people in that age group not enrolled in colleges or universities, before waning as the country reopened.

As you might expect, migration patterns depend a lot on race and income. Black young adults move 60 miles less, on average, than white young adults, and children of the top 1 percent of the income distribution move 325 miles on average, compared to just 160 miles for those whose parents were in the 25th percentile of income. This might seem surprising; there are diminishing returns to income (going from $30,000 to $50,000 in earnings is much more meaningful than going from $100,000 to $120,000), meaning there might be less reason for high-income people to move in search of additional wages. But children of high-income families still move substantially more, and farther, than children of low-income families.

One of the more interesting subgroups the paper examines is Black children of relatively affluent backgrounds. Black young adults from high-income families, the authors find, are driving the “new great migration” into Southern cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston; they are 10 times more likely than Black children of low-income families to move to DC.

The data also lets the paper’s authors measure how people’s movements are influenced by job opportunities. If wages suddenly rise in one region, you’d expect more people to move there — but how many people would you expect to move? This measure is called the elasticity of migration.

The surprising takeaway: Even big changes in average wages don’t spur much movement. The authors consider a shock to a particular commuting zone that increases regional wages by $1,600 a year, which is quite large, especially for people in low-wage industries. Such a shock, they find, would lead more people to move to the area … but in the end, its population would only grow by about 1 percent.

High-income and white or Asian young adults are more sensitive to these regional changes in wages, moving at higher rates in response to them than low-income and/or Black and Latino young adults. And a lot depends on local housing markets. Jurisdictions that allow for increased housing supply in response to new demand, the authors find, see more of an influx when wages there rise than jurisdictions (like, say, San Francisco) that restricted housing supply growth even as their economies boomed.

Do we need to get moving?

What, if any, policy implications does this work have?

One is that policies that boost the labor market of specific places provide the most benefit to those places, not to migrants who might be attracted to them. If a $1,600 wage bump only grows a city’s population by 1 percent, Sprung-Keyser told me in a phone interview, that implies that “99 percent of people benefiting were going to be in that city regardless.”

Now, I don’t know of the existence of “place-based policies” meant to improve job opportunities and wages in a particular city or region (say, the Rust Belt or Appalachia) that actually work, or that we have good evidence of effectiveness for. But this research implies that if policymakers hit on plans that could, for instance, revive the labor market in Detroit, they don’t need to worry about migrants soaking up all the gains. The main winners would be Detroiters.

The bigger question raised by the paper is whether Americans are moving enough. There are big advantages to moving: In previous work with Raj Chetty and Lawrence Katz, Hendren found that public housing recipients who moved to lower-poverty areas as young children earned hundreds of thousands of dollars more over their lifetimes compared to those staying in high-poverty areas. Encouraging moves like that could make people durably better off. Indeed, we have extensive evidence about international migration suggesting that it’s a powerful tool for reducing poverty.

But there are major barriers to mobility, even within the US. Housing policy is the principal one, especially for low-income workers. Economists Daniel Shoag and Peter Ganong note that in 1960, after adjusting for housing costs, wages in New York were 39 percent higher for lawyers, and 70 percent higher for janitors, than they were in the Deep South states like Alabama or Mississippi. By 2010, wages in New York were still 39 percent higher for lawyers — but were 7 percent lower for janitors.

Tellingly, the only reason janitors were worse off in New York was housing costs; they earned more, in actual dollars, than janitors in the South, but it all got eaten up by rent. Allowing for more apartment construction in cities (including, yes, New York City, which is building housing at much too slow a pace) would lower rents and allow more people to move for higher wages.

That said, the phenomenon described in Sprung-Keyser, Hendren, and Porter’s paper can’t be entirely explained by barriers to housing in high-wage cities. Many people simply want to stay where they were raised, even though they could earn more money elsewhere. That won’t change even if rents in big cities were to suddenly become affordable.

We shouldn’t put up barriers to movement for people who want to move. The trickier question for me is how to help people who simply do not want to leave, even if they’re in a struggling area. We don’t have good “place-based policies” to revive such areas. But the stubborn homeboundedness of American citizens means we probably should develop some.

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17 days ago
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I'm peeling sad about banana.

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