At first people looked away when I wore a mask. Then they hugged me. Then they berated me. Now masks are en vogue and in Vogue. Whaaat happened?

Social norms are changing quickly thanks to COVID-19.

Social Norms

Let’s start with mask-wearing. Then I’ll Squawk about your money.

I started wearing a face mask in public when my immune system crashed during chemotherapy last summer – seven months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada. Wearing a medical mask in public was odd and isolating; it signaled I wasn’t well. People looked away out of discomfort and I stuck out in public because masks did not fit in. I didn’t look ‘normal’.

Drawing a pink ribbon on my mask helped a lot. Adding the well-recognized breast cancer symbol to my masked face communicated WHY I was shielded. People now waved, smiled, and even approached me to share stories about their own cancer experiences. I even got a few virtual hugs at the grocery store.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Suddenly, personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply and anyone wearing a medical mask in public was called out for it. Whaaat? How did my mask use become so reviled?

I went from being shunned in public, to being approachable, to being despised – all in a hot minute.


Actually, not awesome, but totally horrible. Then something happened. Again.

Fashion houses started creating designer masks, entrepreneurs on Etsy started selling unique face covers, and social influencers donned fashion masks in public places to support a unified front against the spread of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would wear a mask on Parliament Hill to prevent the dreaded “speaking moistly”, and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer – Dr. Theresa Tam – now recommends wearing a mask in public.

Retailers like Costco have a new mask policy.

Wearing a mask suddenly became acceptable, required, and very fashionable. Vogue announced that masks are the breakout trend of summer.

My immune system doesn’t care much about Vogue, but people do. We are social animals and we respond strongly to social approval.

To create this level of change, a new behaviour must reach a higher level and hit the status of a social norm. Social norms shift when two things change: our perception of how people should behave (does this look and feel right?), and the notion of fitting in (does this behaviour conform to or violate the norm).

A social norm gets real when we collectively believe we’re doing something others expect us to do. The expectation of wearing masks already existed in the cancer community, but it became a community-backed social norm to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. “We’re all in this together” is the collective thinking that turned mask wearing into a social norm so quickly.

But what about money? If COVID-19 has the power to change face wear, what about our spending, saving, and cash-using habits?

Social Norms, COVID-19, Your Money

When was the last time you’ve used cash during the pandemic? Since lockdown, I’ve noticed retailers moving towards cashless payment systems. The Bank of Canada has asked retailers to keep accepting cash despite COVID-19 concerns because many people depend on cash and have limited payment options.

The administration at my local farmers’ market asked vendors to provide cashless payment as a precautionary measure against COVID-19.

Can you get COVID-19 from physical money? Fair question. Recent science regarding the risk of infection from contaminated surfaces says: “It is possible to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 through indirect transmission, but it appears to be exceedingly rare.”

Science is one thing. Public perception is another. If the public collectively believes passing cash around increases personal risk, then guess what? Mobile payment systems and touchless payment processes increasingly become the social norm and human contact with physical currency becomes less socially acceptable.

So what’s the big deal? As a money expert I’ve been a long time fan of physical dollars and cents because paying with cash increases loss aversion – it feels more painful to pay in cash than it does to tap a credit card – and this pain decreases spending.

Going mobile and cashless is proven to increase spending – check out Behavioral Science: 3 Tricks to Help You Pay Off Debt Faster for the details. My bottom line is I’m a fan of spending less and saving more, so I’m concerned by a further decline of cash.

So what’s the future of cash? It’s unlikely cash will completely disappear, but we may be moving to a “cash-lite” system where contactless payment processing is favoured. As we’ve seen with mask wearing and use, social norms can change quickly in the face of this pandemic.

Social Norms! So where am I going with this?

Social norms and consumption habits are notoriously hard to change. The pandemic has forced us to change shopping patterns too.

Ask yourself this:

What changed your spending habits?

  • A budget
  • Hiding your credit cards
  • COVID-19

Staying at home cuts commuting costs, transit, and fuel. Eating at home cuts restaurant, takeout, and bar tabs. Cosmetic and clothing sales are down. We all need a haircut. Travel and tourism are of course waaaaay down.

In a few short weeks the pandemic has accomplished more change to consumption patterns than any budget spreadsheet I could offer.

As we slowly move out of quarantine, go ahead and reflect on what mattered most in isolation. What was worth the spend? What is worth ditching? You may be surprised how some new habits are worth keeping. Personally, I hated grocery shopping online. Ugh. Awful.

Stay safe, you are loved.

Love love love,