How to spend your stimulus check money so it will have the most impact, according to economists

April 16, 2020, 4:33 PM UTC

Many Americans woke up this week with an extra $1,200 (or more) in their bank accounts.

In ordinary circumstances, it would likely be a reason to rejoice—but for the majority of Americans everywhere, the past few weeks have meant a complete overhaul of their lives: Nonessential businesses are closed, many employees are working from home, and unemployment is on the rise. Activities that seemed so normal, mundane even, have been put on pause until further notice.

According to a recent report by Moody’s Analytics’ economist Mark Zandi, “The damage to the economy to date has been mostly the result of the supply-side shock from the business shutdowns.” But, the demand-side of the equation (households pulling back on their spending) “is just now hitting.”

If there was one meager bright spot for many Americans adjusting to this temporary new way of life, it’s the recent passage of the CARES Act and a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, that will provide low-and-middle income Americans with either $1,200 or $2,400 (for couples) stimulus checks, plus an additional $500 for every dependent.

But “stimulus” is an interesting word to use here. In fact, for Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan, these checks aren’t meant to get consumers into shops or stimulate spending, in the way a normal stimulus package would: they’re intended for survival.

“This recession is different, which means this stimulus package is different,” Wolfers tells Fortune. “This is a recession caused by the government wanting to get people out of work and out of the stores.”

When it comes to thinking about the impact things like stimulus packages and tax cuts have on the economy, those like Deutsche Bank’s senior U.S. economist Brett Ryan point out the “multiplier effect.”

Essentially, the effect is an increase in the total GDP resulting from an injection of spending. Through a ripple effect, Ryan notes that multiples for economic stimulus are anywhere from $0.30 to $0.80 to the dollar—or, in other words, depending on how you spend each dollar of your stimulus check, it can go on to generate another $0.30-$0.80 cents.

With the checks, says Deutsche Bank’s Ryan, the government is “in triage mode for the economy.” That means “There’s not much you can do right now to spur on the economy—it’s all about covering a liquidity gap right now,” he tells Fortune. And first and foremost, these cash grants were intended to “get people by,” he notes—paying for rent, food, and other bills is the top priority.

But obviously, for an economy that has basically ground to a halt, getting closer to $0.80 to the dollar is the goal. And for those who are able, say some economists, one way is to spend your dollars locally.

Get the most bang for your stimulus bucks

Some studies suggest the multiplier effect may be more pronounced when you shop local. One study conducted in 2011 by the Maine Center for Economic Policy found that every $100 spent at locally owned businesses contributed an additional $58 to the local economy, versus $33 if spent at a chain store, even one located near you. The idea being, that local business owner is much more likely to put the proceeds from the transaction back into the local economy again, kicking off a virtuous cycle. And during the coronavirus shutdown, supporting your local businesses could help keep them afloat.

“One of the things that we’ve seen from previous studies in economics looking at the impacts of cash grants generally, is that where they’re having the biggest macroeconomic impact is when you see people spending as they would already be spending on necessities like food and housing and clothes and all of that, but directing your spending toward local businesses,” notes Belinda Archibong, assistant economics professor at Barnard College of Columbia University.

If, in ordinary times, you went out to eat frequently, economists suggest keeping up those normal expenditures, instead getting takeout or donating to local supermarkets, restaurants, and coffee shops.

That’s “where your stimulus money can have the biggest macro spillover effects,” notes Archibong. “[The checks are] not just helping you but your local businesses as well.” When it comes to the multiplier effect, Archibong says economists think of it in two ways: the big pie (GDP), and the distribution of the pie (how much is going to different regions, businesses, individuals, and households).

“If you spend more money locally, then yes, that distribution to local employers and local businesses and local producers will benefit more relative to the big Amazons and the big huge firms, which is a significant positive impact to these local economies,” she says. For her part, Archibong is frequenting a local Korean grocery store in her neighborhood in the Bronx.

Others like Mark Hamrick, chief economic analyst at, think each person is going to have a different response “to ultimately what they might view as their social responsibility connected to spending,” he tells Fortune. Hamrick has been getting takeout from a locally-owned Italian restaurant “that we want to try to help,” in the D.C. area.

While it may be tempting to spend your extra time at home online shopping on sites like Amazon, some economists suggest that may be doing more harm than good while restrictions remain in place.

In fact, the University of Michigan’s Wolfers points out that Amazon delivery, for example, is already overloaded. “So, no, don’t buy a new couch today,” he advises. Buy that “new couch the day the orders are lifted.”

Deutsche’s Ryan adds that, if you have the means and the visibility, booking travel and airline tickets now (for later in the year) could help companies’ revenue and cash liquidity. “Booking things way in advance would be something to do that kind of helps companies get through,” he says.

But once those restrictions are lifted, will consumer spending return to its former strength?

In short, Wolfers says, “No one has a clue.” Others like Deutsche’s Ryan speculate “You’re going to have the pent up demand,” once restrictions are lifted, but “It takes years, unfortunately, to get [consumer] confidence back to those previous levels once people have experienced such a large shock.”

While economists suggest this round of stimulus likely won’t have too big an impact on the economy on the whole, for now, notes University of Michigan’s Wolfers: “What you should do is spend money to keep your family healthy, happy, eating.”

More must-read finance coverage from Fortune:

Stimulus checks are depositing: How people are spending the money
—Couldn’t track your stimulus check? Errors and long waits plague IRS portal rollout
—What the government bailout means for airline investors (and CEOs)
—How every sector of the S&P 500 has been impacted by the coronavirus selloff
—How Fortune 500 companies are utilizing their resources and expertise during the pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—VIDEO: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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