Published in: Research | Sept. 10, 2020
By: Maurie Backman
The Federal Reserve reports that 39% of Americans don't have enough money on hand to cover a $400 emergency.
Every adult should have enough money in savings to cover a minimum of three months of essential living expenses. Ideally, everyone should have six months' worth. That means some people still have work to do.
But what is the average savings account balance? How much do Americans save? Do they favor physical banks or online ones for their savings accounts?
We surveyed 2,000 Americans to find out.
You'll note that we cite both the median and the mean for several statistics in this piece, though we rely more heavily on the median as a representation of what's average. Here's why:
Means are what most people think of as an average -- in this case, it would be the total amount of savings in the United States divided by the number of people who have savings accounts.
But there's a problem with that: very high values skew the mean quite a bit. For example, if we have five people who have $10, $100, $1,000, $10,000, and $100,000 in savings, the mean is over $22,000. Is that a good representation of the average person's savings? Not really.
The median, on the other hand, is the middlemost value. So, in the example above, the median would be $1,000. That's a better representation of what most people in the list have in savings. And the median becomes even more robust as you survey more people.
We do report both the median and the mean, though, so you can compare the two.
70.70% of Americans have a savings account. But how much do they have in their accounts?
We asked our respondents how much they had in savings, and the median value was $3,500. The mean savings balance, however, is $26,619.43.
Why such a large gap?
It's the small number of people with over $100,000 in the bank who bring that mean so far up.
However, when a median is much lower than a mean, it means a larger number of people have less than the mean. To put it simply, $3,500 is more representative of the average savings account balance.
In addition to asking about the specific amount that they had in their savings accounts, we also asked people to choose which range their savings fell in:
The most common answer was $1,000 to $5,000, lending further credence to our median finding of $3,500.
Unfortunately, 56% of Americans have $5,000 or less in savings. And a third have $1,000 or less. When the average American's monthly expenses are $5,102, that's not enough to cover an emergency.
Unfortunately, the numbers are even more dire when we look at savings accounts specifically held for emergencies.
We asked people about their emergency funds as well as their general savings accounts. Not everyone keeps a separate account specifically for emergencies, though --we'll talk a bit more about that in a moment.
Among people who do keep a separate account, though, the median emergency fund balance is $2,000. The mean emergency fund balance among those same people is $39,900.45.
(We'll talk more about those people in a moment.)
That mean might seem like a lot, but remember, three months' worth of living expenses is the minimum to aim for with an emergency fund.
Many people need six or more months' worth of living costs in the bank to feel secure, so it's likely that some people pad their emergency savings for extra peace of mind.
74.83% of Americans keep their savings account at a brick-and-mortar bank, compared to 48.24% of those who keep their savings at an online-only bank. Those numbers include people who have accounts at both.
What's the better choice -- online versus brick-and-mortar? Well, it depends.
Online banks often have better interest rates because their overhead is low -- they don't maintain physical storefronts. But physical banks might provide better customer service. They also offer benefits like safe deposit boxes.
And your computer screen can't spit out cash like an ATM at a brick-and-mortar bank can. Unfortunately, most of the best online savings accounts don't offer ATM cards.
You'll notice that people were able to choose more than one option. That's because many people with a savings account -- 55%, to be exact -- have more than one. And they aren't always at the same bank.
Some people have a single savings account for general savings and emergencies. Others maintain separate accounts.
In our survey, respondents were split roughly equally between the two camps.
There's no right or wrong approach.
You should have enough money in the bank to cover a minimum of three months of living costs. If you have extra cash and it's easier for you to manage a single bank account, consolidating your general savings and emergency fund makes sense.
However, it can also pay to separate those accounts so you don't accidentally withdraw from your emergency stash.
Imagine that you need a $9,000 emergency fund for three months of living expenses. Let's also say you're saving to take a trip, so you keep padding your savings after your emergency fund is complete.
If your balance comes to $10,200, but your trip costs $1,400, you might accidentally dip into your emergency fund without realizing it.
There's a benefit to keeping those accounts separate.
The hard part about saving money is avoiding the temptation to spend. That's why it often pays to set up an automatic recurring transfer from a checking account to a savings account.
In our survey, 76.45% of respondents with a savings account have an automatic transfer from checking to savings or an automatic deposit to savings from their paychecks.
This increases the likelihood of meeting savings goals.
Many people have grappled with income loss during the COVID-19 crisis and have tapped their savings accounts because of it.
In our survey, the median amount withdrawn from savings was $1,000, but the mean withdrawal was $3,138.79.
Again, this combination of median and average tells us that more people withdrew less than $3,138.79 than those who took out more.
Given that the median emergency fund contains $2,000, this means many people had to deplete half of their emergency savings to cover expenses during the pandemic.
One thing to keep in mind is that the above numbers represent average savings account balances based on our survey.
We recognize that our sample set offers a limited snapshot of how people are saving, so we've compiled some additional data:
So far we've focused on near-term savings -- money to tap in a pinch. But what about long-term retirement savings?
Just 54% of families headed by workers aged 32 to 61 participate in any kind of retirement plan, which means nearly half of families have no retirement savings at all, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Meanwhile, the estimated median retirement savings across all generations is $50,000.
This figure increases with age: $23,000 for millennials, $64,000 for Gen Xers, and $144,000 for baby boomers, according to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
Since older workers have had more time to save and invest in a retirement plan, it stands to reason that their median IRA or 401(k) balance is higher than that of younger generations.
The median general savings and emergency savings balances among our respondents indicate that most households have less saved than what they should.
Given that the average American household spends $5,102 every month, a median balance of $2,000 isn't going to cut it for emergency savings. Of course, when we take the average balance of $39,900.45 in emergency savings, those numbers get a lot more comforting.
But most people have account balances well below these averages.
If you feel that your savings could use some work, a few simple moves on your part could help your bank account grow:
We all need savings to pay for emergencies and meet our personal goals. Once your bank account balance starts looking more robust, you'll sleep better at night knowing that if the need for money arises, you've got it covered.
The Ascent distributed this survey via Pollfish to 2,000 American adults ages 18 and over on August 24th, 2020. While efforts were made to create a representative sample, there is variability in any sampling method, and no strict statistical testing was performed.
Respondents were 59% female and 41% male. Age breakdown was approximately 13% 18–24, 28% 25–34, 27% 35–44, 15% 45–54, and 17% over 54.
Some percentages may not total to 100% due to rounding.
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