This may not come as a shock to many, but Americans are pretty undisciplined when it comes to money. According to data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the personal saving rate in June 2017 was a measly 3.8%. In effect, it means working Americans are putting away just $3.80 for every $100 they earn. For the average American earning $30,000 annually, that equates to just $1,140 a year in savings.
Of course, that assumes the average American is saving money, which isn't always the case. A study from GoBankingRates, conducted last year, found that 69% of the Americans it surveyed had less than $1,000 in savings, including about a third of respondents who had a big goose egg -- $0.
So, what are we doing with our money? Considering that the U.S. economy is 70% based on consumption, we're probably buying things. In fact, we're probably buying more stuff than we can reasonably afford. The Federal Reserve recently released data showing that aggregate credit card debt had hit an all-time high of $1.027 trillion, eclipsing the previous high that was set before the Great Recession. Add in well over a trillion in auto-loan and student-loan debt, and we have a growing profile of debts that Americans are struggling to pay.
These data points paint a pretty scary picture, but they're nothing compared to the newest survey from CareerBuilder.
A staggering number of full-time workers are living paycheck to paycheck
According to the latest survey, conducted on CareerBuilder's behalf by Harris Poll, 78% of U.S. full-time workers are now living paycheck to paycheck, up from 75% in 2016, to make ends meet. If we utilize full-time employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016 (123.8 million full-time workers), it means about 97 million of those full-time workers are living paycheck to paycheck. That includes 23% who said they always lived paycheck to paycheck, 17% who claimed they usually do, and 38% who noted that they sometimes do.
What was particularly interesting about CareerBuilder's survey is that well-to-do individuals weren't free of financial issues. Roughly 9% of workers making $100,000 or more annually was living paycheck to paycheck, and 59% of these highest-income folks were carrying around debt. In the middle-income to middle-upper-income bracket of $50,000 to $99,999 in annual income, 28% were living paycheck to paycheck, and 70% were in debt.
Debt itself proved to be a major issue for a majority of workers, regardless of their income -- and it's a big reason workers are struggling to save money. Just 19% of workers surveyed admitted to saving more than $501 monthly, while at the other end of the spectrum, 56% were saving less than $100 a month, including 26% with no monthly savings whatsoever.
When questioned, less than a third (32%) of respondents admitted to following a detailed monthly budget, and a number of respondents refused to give up certain luxuries, despite their financial woes. For example, 54% refused to give up their internet connection, 53% wouldn't give up their mobile device, and 48% wouldn't stop driving, to lower their monthly expenses and save money.
In all, the American labor force is in a sad state, financially.
Two simple steps to be smarter with your money
However, that doesn't mean American workers are completely lost. There's always time to right the ship and fix your finances. The key point is that you have to be proactive and make things to happen if you're among the 97 million full-time workers who are, in some form, living paycheck to paycheck.
1. Create and stick to a budget
CareerBuilder's survey correlates identically with a 2013 poll from Gallup that also found that just 32% of American households were keeping a detailed monthly budget. Without a budget, it's practically impossible to have a good understanding of your cash flow, and therefore it's difficult to optimally adjust your spending and saving habits.
Formulating a budget today is easier than ever. Gone are the days of writing out a budget by hand and having to do all of the math by yourself. Today, budgeting software can be found online, and in many cases for free. All you'll need to do is devote about 30 minutes a month to inputting in your expenses and income. In addition, budgeting software may even be able to help you formulate a saving plan if you know how much you'd like to sock away each week, month, or year.
Perhaps the biggest issue with a budget isn't formulating it, so much as sticking to it. To that end, here are a few helpful tips:
- Consider setting up an automatic weekly, biweekly, or monthly withdrawal from your paycheck or your checking/savings account and into an investment account, to keep yourself honest to your budget and remove the "I forgot" excuse from the equation.
- Try using cash instead of credit when making purchases. While using a credit card will give you a neat list of everything you've purchased, it's an intangible form of capital. Using cash, and having to hand over physical bills, will probably make you think twice about discretionary purchases.
- Get everyone in your household involved with budgeting. The more you surround yourself with like-minded people, the more likely you are to be successful.
- Be "SMART," which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Using SMART budgeting goals should improve your chances of success and keep you from straying off track.
2. Be smart with what you save
On top of just saving a lot more, workers need to be smarter with what they are saving. According to Gallup, just 52% of those it surveyed in 2016 owned stocks, which matched an all-time low. The concern is that the stock market is arguably the greatest wealth creator of all time. Inclusive of dividend reinvestment, the stock market has appreciated in value by an average of 7% over the long term. That's well ahead of inflation, gold, housing, bonds, and practically every other asset you can think of.
However, with the Great Recession and the stock market's steep losses still in investors' minds, many have avoided jumping back into stocks -- and they've missed one of the greatest eight-year bull runs in the process.
Though there are no certainties when it comes to investing in stocks, perhaps the closest certainty I can offer is that high-quality companies tend to increase in value over time. Since 1950, the broad-based S&P 500 has had 35 corrections lower of at least 10% when rounded to the nearest whole number. In each and every instance, be it in a matter of weeks, months, or years, a bull market rally has eventually erased any and all downside. Patient long-term investors who stick with stocks are rewarded with real-money gains far more often than they aren't.
Saving more and being smarter with your money is the not-so-secret formula some 97 million working Americans can use to no longer be a worrisome statistic.