“Emergency savings are not just critical for weathering an emergency, they’re also important for successful homeownership and retirement saving,” says Signe-Mary McKernan, senior fellow and economist at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on social and economic policy.
The findings are strikingly similar to a U.S. Federal Reserve survey of more than 4,000 adults released last year. “Savings are depleted for many households after the recession,” it found. Among those who had savings prior to 2008, 57% said they’d used up some or all of their savings in the Great Recession and its aftermath. What’s more, only 39% of respondents reported having a “rainy day” fund adequate to cover three months of expenses and only 48% of respondents said that they would completely cover a hypothetical emergency expense costing $400 without selling something or borrowing money.
Why aren’t people saving? “A lot of people are in debt,” says Andrew Meadows, a San Francisco-based producer of “Broken Eggs,” a documentary about retirement. “Probably the most common types of debt are student loans and costs related to medical issues.” He spent seven weeks traveling around the U.S. and interviewed over 100 people about why they haven’t saved enough money. “People are still feeling the heat from the Great Recession.” Some 44% of senior citizens have enough savings to cover unexpected expenses versus 33% of millennials, Bankrate.com found.
On the upside, the Bankrate survey found that 82% of Americans keep a household budget, up from 60% in 2012. Even in the age of the smartphone, most people keep a budget the old-fashioned way, either with a pen and paper (36%) or in their heads (18%). Just 26% of those surveyed say they use a computer program or smartphone app. “A solid majority of Americans say they have a household budget, which is a good thing. But too few have the ability to cover expenses outside their budget without going into debt or turning to family and friends for help,” said Claes Bell, a banking analyst at Bankrate.com.
But while the jobs market is improving and the Affordable Care Act has given an estimated 15 million people access to medical care, the Great Recession does appear to have taken its toll on Americans’ finances; in fact, they’re 40% poorer today than they were in 2007. The net worth of American families — that is, the difference between the values of their assets, including homes and investments, and liabilities — fell to $81,400 in 2013, down slightly from $82,300 in 2010, but a long way off the $135,700 in 2007, according to a report released last month by the nonprofit think tank Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.
Quentin Fottrell is a personal finance reporter and The Moneyologist columnist for MarketWatch.