The U.S. is the world's most robust economy by GDP, but when it comes to making smart financial decision with our income, consumers certainly don't get an "A," at least according to the latest findings from Bankrate's June Financial Security Index.
It probably comes as no shock that Americans aren't great savers. We can look at the 5.4% personal savings rate published by the St. Louis Federal Reserve in April as confirmation of consumers' relatively poor savings habits. Comparatively, other developed nations have personal savings rates regularly approaching the high single digits or above. Of course, the U.S. economy is also consumption-driven -- 70% of U.S. GDP is based on consumption -- meaning there's a tendency among Americans to want to spend rather than save.
Americans have a saving problem
But Bankrate's latest report on emergency savings demonstrates that things are quite dire. Most financial advisors recommend that consumers keep at least enough cash on hand to cover six months' worth of expenses should an emergency arise, such as losing your job or having an unexpected medical bill. Bankrate's latest national poll asked Americans how much they had in emergency savings in regard to how much of their month-to-month expenses they could cover. The answers were both frightening and disappointing.
The June survey showed that 28% of Americans, or an estimated 66 million, have no emergency savings whatsoever, followed by another 18% who had some savings, but only enough to cover less than three months of expenses. Some 16% of respondents could cover three to five months of expenses, and 28% affirmed that they'd saved enough in their emergency fund to cover six or more months of expenses should an emergency arise. Finally, 9% simply didn't know or refused to answer.
Bankrate broke the data down a bit further, by education level and income. It probably comes as no shock that college graduates tended to be more likely to have an adequate amount of emergency savings compared with high school graduates, and that people with $75,000 or more in annual income were better prepared for an emergency than those with less than $49,999 in annual income.
However, we can also gather from the data that America's saving issue isn't wholly income-based. Yes, having a college degree and a better income has the potential to relieve certain financial stresses, allowing consumers to potentially save more. But, by Bankrate's breakdown, we also see that 55% of college graduates have an inadequate amount of emergency savings, and that roughly half (51%) of all people surveyed earning more than $75,000 don't have the recommended six months or more in emergency savings.
Why Americans struggle to save
Before we can fix America's saving problem, we first need to understand why Americans are such poor savers. Although there's no centralized culprit that we can point to, I'd opine that the following three reasons summarize our country's saving issues well.
The first problem is that many basic financial concepts aren't being taught as standard education in schools. While I was lucky enough to have teachers in high school who were invested in the stock market and passed along their passion of investing for the future to us, not all students have been so lucky. In many cases, students in high school (or college for that matter) aren't being taught how to balance a checkbook, manage their credit, or use compound investing to their advantage. In other words, they lack the basic financial knowledge that forms the foundation from which they build their wealth.
Second -- and this sort of builds off the first point -- we're a nation that aggressively uses debt to finance purchases. We go into debt when buying a house, a car, or even the new outfit we just "needed" to have. Debt is especially enticing these days, with the Federal Reserve keeping lending rates near historic lows. Unfortunately, if consumers don't make headway in quickly paying down their debt, it could become a long-term problem that hampers their ability to save.
The third issue is that many Americans have a "spend now, save later" attitude. The U.S. has the world's top economy and one of the best standards of living, so there's the perception among consumers that they can enjoy life now and reward themselves in the short term, making up the difference later in life. Doing so, though, can crush your ability to compound your savings over time, and it also reduces consumers' willingness to put money aside for an emergency.
How we fix it
Now that we have a better idea of what could be behind America's poor saving habits, we can propose some solutions.
To tackle the first problem, we need to stop relying on our schools to teach financial education (even though this should be a requirement). Instead, we need parents to step up and take an active role in teaching their kids early and often about basic financial concepts. If parents don't teach their children how to avoid the same savings mistakes they've made, the cycle will keep repeating itself.
Parents need to be willing to teach their children how to balance a checkbook, manage and save money, and use credit wisely. This might include opening a savings account at a local bank or credit union to teach younger children early about the benefits of saving, as well as getting older children (i.e., teens) a credit card after they've shown the ability to manage money wisely. You, too, need to set good examples that your children can follow, which leads to the next point.
Second -- and this is targeted at both the second and third problems I already noted -- Americans need to be working with, and sticking to, a household budget. In 2013, Gallup found that only a third of U.S. households kept a detailed monthly budget; and if you aren't keeping a budget, understanding where your cash is going is practically impossible. If you don't understand where your cash is going, you can't make adjustments in your spending habits to improve your saving potential.
The good news is budgeting software can handle the brunt of the work that previous generations of savers had to do by hand. Software can, with the click of a button, help you formulate a plan that'll have you on track to save whatever amount you want. The onus to save will then be on you.
To stick to your budget, especially if you're prone to overspending, a suggestion I'd offer would be to create separate accounts for each spending category, or even go so far as to have separate jars of cash. Having your money centralized in a single checking account, and seeing "extra" money, could cause you to break your budget and overspend. However, if you have a defined amount of money for each spending category, you'll be less likely to overspend.
By a similar token, using cash can be helpful, too. Cash is a tangible asset, as opposed to credit, so handing it over provides a firsthand reminder to the consumer that his or her wealth is declining in return for the good or service being purchased. Using cash can be a powerful tool to entice people to save, or at least think twice before spending their heard-earned money.
Finally, it's important for all Americans to realize the danger of the "save later" mentality. Investors' ability to compound the money they save through investing decreases as age increases, meaning what you fail to save now will hurt even more later. A simple solution is to have a predetermined amount of your weekly, biweekly, or monthly paycheck automatically removed and deposited into a savings or investment account before you even have the opportunity to spend it. Doing this should help you reach an adequate emergency savings level, and it'll also help keep you accountable to your budget.
We can fix America's saving problem, but it starts with having people take accountability for their spending habits.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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