Millions of Americans whose livelihoods were upended by the pandemic needed their stimulus money for bare bones basics like food and rent.
For families who were doing okay financially, the two cash infusions came as a rare opportunity.
The stimulus funds, which arrived last April and again this January, totaled about $5,800 for a family of four that makes less than $150,000 a year.
The extra cash was a “godsend” that allowed one mother to deal with the dental pain that had been plaguing her for a decade.
It gave an aspiring 11-year-old musician her first full-size violin, paid for a getaway week in a lakeside cottage for an empty nester couple, and bought a puppy that brightened quarantine life for four bored kids.
And more than a few charitable souls seized the chance to “love on” their neighbors by paying it forward.
‘I took that money, called up the dentist. For once, I had to put myself first.’
After 10 years of waiting, Debbie Galgan, 53, of Milford, Pa., used the first round of stimulus money to “get a full new mouth.” Some teeth were missing and others were chipped, but it was the pain that was wearing her down.
“I was in constant pain but I just lived with it,” she said. “I got an antibiotic here and there, but I never had the money to get it done.”
The full procedure she needed would cost about $9,000, which was out of the question. Even when her husband – a blue-collar worker who commutes to Queens daily to work for the city – upgraded his insurance last year, the single-income family didn’t have the money lying around to cover the $2,200 of out-of-pocket costs.
Galgan is a homemaker who cares full-time for her 23-year-old daughter, who is handicapped. Her daughter’s twice-weekly day program for adults with disabilities has been cancelled since COVID-19, and the aide who was coming to the house once a week no longer comes.
So their lives have gotten more challenging since the pandemic, but not financially, because her husband kept his job.
“So when that extra money came, that was my dental money,” she said. “I took that money, called up the dentist. For once, I had to put myself first.”
Although she believes that government handouts are a slippery slope and does not want to see any more of them, she acknowledges that, “for me, that stimulus was like a godsend.”
On the last Wednesday of January, Galgan went to the dentist, got 15 needles in her mouth and had 23 teeth pulled, top and bottom. When we spoke 48 hours later, her gums were still swollen and she had temporary teeth in while her mouth healed.
Even though it would be a good five months until she has her permanent implants, already she felt like a new person.
“I feel like a million dollars. Even though there’s so much pain, the blood, bla bla bla,” said. “To be out of pain and have a full set of teeth, my god. I have to get used to eating, talking – but it was well worth it.
“Once everything is done and healed and I get my real stuff, oh, the confidence will be back,” she said. “I can look for something maybe porcelain.”
The timing turns out to be ideal, too, to get work on her mouth done: “I have to wear a mask anyway.”
‘This one, she doesn’t ever have to change – unless she wants to get an even better one.’
Payton Iadarola’s first violin was a garage sale buy, a spur of the moment purchase to see if she would like it.
“She loved it,” said Danielle Iadarola, her mom. “Anytime she’s moved up in size it was always a loaner violin from her teacher.”
Six years later, Payton, 11, a member of the Sussex County Youth Orchestra, was ready for a really good, adult-size violin.
“We were talking about it for probably almost a year now,” Danielle said, “because we knew she was getting to the point where she was going to be growing into a full-size violin.”
But it was a big purchase, which can run from hundreds of dollars into the thousands, so they wanted to get input from Payton’s private teacher.
Payton’s teacher, Dawn Tedesco, went with her to The Music Den in Randolph, N.J., to test out seven violins and narrowed it down to three.
After playing those three, Payton settled on a $1,900 Eastman.
“I picked it because it sounded right, better than all the others,” said Payton. “A deeper G string sound.”
When she plays her new Eastman, “it makes me, like, calm, almost and happy,” said Payton, who wants to be a musician when she grows up.
“She loves it, and her teacher was so happy she picked this one, because it was her top choice,” said Danielle. “This one, she doesn’t ever have to change – unless she wants to get an even better one.”
The Iadarola household, in Hopatcong, N.J., is a musical one. Payton’s dad, a fiber technician, plays the saxophone and was in marching band and jazz band and in the Navy. Payton loves playing Christmas music around the holidays.
During the shutdown last spring, she would sometimes go out in the driveway and play for the neighborhood. Her 12-year-old brother has been playing trumpet for two years. He’s okay with his little sister getting her own violin before he gets his own trumpet.
“We told him, you stick with it and you start improving, then we’ll buy you your own trumpet instead of renting,” said Danielle. “We need to see more commitment.”
If not for the stimulus, the violin would have come eventually, maybe around tax time. “This just made it so much easier,” said Danielle, a school bus driver. “We’re like, let’s get it now.”
‘This is our first going away, anywhere, since Covid started.’
Like most people, Larry Polagye, 61, and his wife “did nothing last summer, just a couple of day hikes – go to a park and hike in the woods.” The couple live in Sussex Borough, N.J.; their two adult sons are out of the house.
“We haven’t had any health issues,” he said, “but it’s been a drag because we haven’t seen our boys, other than on video now, since last March.”
Polagye is an unemployed accountant and his wife is a physical therapist who is working again after a five-month furlough.
This coming summer, they do have a plan on the calendar: Larry’s brother’s wedding, a small gathering on Cape Cod in July.
They were thinking: why not stay the week?
“We started looking around. Everything was showing up being expensive, we said eh, it’s probably not going to work out. The stimulus check arrived the next day and we said, okay, well now we got the money!” he said. “We were in a situation where she’d been working, so it wasn’t like we required it to pay bills.”
They booked a lakeside cottage Friday to Friday for $1,800, and their fingers are crossed. “There’s still always a chance of travel restrictions and we’re not going, but...”
His wife, since she works in a health care practice, has gotten the first dose of vaccine, but Larry is in the general population and not yet eligible.
Will his boys be at the wedding? “Well I don’t know what their plan is,” he said. “Finding out what their plan is for the weekend” is hard enough. “I have no idea what they’re doing in July yet.”
But he’ll get to see his sister, whom he hasn’t seen since the pandemic began. “It’ll be a treat,” he said. “This is our first going away, anywhere, since COVID started.”
‘They’re getting lethargic, playing video games and everything’s on the computer.... They need a pow’
John Pendleton, of Milford, Pa., used his stimulus to “invest in some happiness” in the form of an outrageously adorable German Shepard-mix puppy for his kids.
“They’re on Zoom and school, it’s the same thing every day,” said Pendleton. “It was just boring. I knew they needed, you know, a pow.”
He and his wife were thinking about surprising the kids with a puppy for Christmas, but as it happened, the perfect puppy and the cash infusion came together about a month later.
Pendleton is an electrical contractor and his wife, Jenine, is a homemaker. They have five kids, ages 5 to 22, the youngest four of whom live at home.
After job sites shut down at the beginning of the pandemic and he found himself out of work, Pendleton decided to seize the opportunity to start his own business: Flamingo Electric, servicing generators and all things electric. (“I figured it would stand out in Pennsylvania,” he said of the name.) Business has been bustling: the evening I called his cell, he was driving home around dark during the Nor’easter. The family is actually a bit better off now than they were pre-pandemic, said Pendleton, which makes him feel “guilty, almost. But, you know, doors open in weird ways.”
So when the second stimulus check came in January, they didn’t need it for the basics. “It was pretty much the stimulus that did it, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”
The puppy idea had been simmering ever since the world shut down last spring. “The kids really need a dog so they can go outside and play with him, run around. They’re just getting lethargic, playing video games and everything’s on the computer,” said Pendleton. The family opted to do remote schooling, he said, “just ‘cause we didn’t know what was going on, I don’t know. It stinks. I want them to be out there,” doing their sports and Scouting, “and there’s nothing going on lately.”
A rescue dog would have been ideal, but with adoptions soaring since the shutdown, they couldn’t find the puppy they’d been imagining. Pendleton had his heart set on a puppy that his kids could grow up with, as opposed to an older dog; and a German shepherd, since he’d had one as a kid and knew they were super-loyal, good with kids, as well as big. “When I’m out working I’d like them to have more protection,” he said.
They’d been in contact with a local breeder since before Christmas. When he showed them a German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix, they knew they’d found their puppy.
“I guess basically that’s a designer dog nowadays, I don’t really know,” said Pendleton, referring to the $850 price tag.
Jenine named the puppy Nanook – or “polar bear” in Inuit – inspired by a 1922 silent docudrama about life in the Canadian Arctic called “Nanook of the North.”
The day their parents came home with Nanook, “my kids went ballistic, they had no idea. We walked in with a puppy and they went crazy,” said Pendleton. “My son didn’t know if he was going to laugh or cry. My 10-year-old, he just lost it. He said, ‘Now my life is complete,’” said Pendleton, sounding like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, either.
A week later, eight-week-old Nanook is already peeing on a pad and sitting for a treat, thanks to the tutelage of the Pendletons’ 19-year-old daughter. “He’s like the perfect puppy, honestly, except that he’s a total pig,” Pendleton said, imitating the puppy’s yowl anytime anyone goes into the kitchen.
“Plus it’s like the best friend ever,” he said. “They got a puppy and they’re best friends for life.”
‘A lightbulb went off in my head: You know, I don’t really need this money’
When she got the second round of stimulus money in January, an executive assistant in Hampton Township, N.J., started daydreaming about spring projects, maybe landscaping or changing a room.
“I did kind of think oh, that’s cool, there must be something around the house I could use it for,” said Marie Raymond - a pseudonym she chose because she prefers not to draw attention to herself for charitable giving.
Then she read an article online about restaurant workers, for whom unemployment benefits can be nominal. For a waitress trying to figure out how to pay her utilities and meet basic living expenses, the $600 stimulus check would be “a drop in the bucket,” said Raymond. “That’s when a lightbulb went off in my head: you know, I don’t really need this money.”
The mother of two adult sons, one of whom has Down Syndrome and lives at home, Raymond can’t get out and volunteer as much as she’d like even under normal circumstances. “I’ve been blessed with a steady income so I kind of give back monetarily. It’s not a ton of money,” she said.
She supports her church and sponsors a child through World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group. “The bible says tithe ten percent,” she said. “I give what I can where I’m able, it might be more, it might be less.”
While COVID hasn’t affected her family financially, “it’s just impacted us with living like hermits,” she said. “We haven’t attended church in person since last March, we just prefer to attend online.”
Raymond felt that food pantries were already on people’s radars (see sidebar), so she wanted to zero in on organizations that were helping with less obvious daily needs like housing and utilities.
“I think people are aware of food pantries and the important work that they do, and you know there’s definitely the need for that as well with people being under-employed and unemployed,” she said, “but this was an area that kind of spoke to me.”
Poking around online, Raymond found groups that were meeting needs on the front lines. She narrowed it down to Family Promise and My Brother’s Place, both focused on homelessness prevention and short-term housing; Benny’s Bodega, which gets food and basics to families with limited incomes; and Norwescap, which supports the low-income population of Northwest New Jersey through educational programs and grants, job training, and financial empowerment including providing family loans.
Although she gives with a global perspective as well, it felt important to give in the community right now, “because we need to love on our neighbors,” she said. “These organizations are probably struggling to do more with less because they haven’t had a chance to do typical fundraisers.
“It’s actually kind of fun, to pick a charity and go online and give a donation,” she added. Maybe “fun” isn’t quite the right word, she mused, but still, “It gives me a good feeling, to know I’m helping in some way.”
The last thing Raymond wants is to “come across as a Debbie Downer” if someone wants to use their stimulus to go out to a nice dinner. She just wants to plant the seed, like that article about restaurant workers did in her mind, to think about paying it forward if you can.