Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency

Since 2013, the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

If you ask economists to explain this state of affairs, they are likely to finger credit-card debt as a main culprit. Long before the Great Recession, many say, Americans got themselves into credit trouble. According to an analysis of Federal Reserve and TransUnion data by the personal-finance site ValuePenguin, credit-card debt stood at about $5,700 per household in 2015. Of course, this figure factors in all the households with a balance of zero. About 38 percent of households carried some debt, according to the analysis, and among those, the average was more than $15,000. In recent years, while the number of people holding credit-card debt has been decreasing, the average debt for those households carrying a balance has been on the rise.

Part of the reason credit began to surge in the ’80s and ’90s is that it was available in a way it had never been available to previous generations. William R. Emmons, an assistant vice president and economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, traces the surge to a 1978 Supreme Court decision, Marquette National Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp. The Court ruled that state usury laws, which put limits on credit-card interest, did not apply to nationally chartered banks doing business in those states. That effectively let big national banks issue credit cards everywhere at whatever interest rates they wanted to charge, and it gave the banks a huge incentive to target vulnerable consumers just the way, Emmons believes, vulnerable homeowners were targeted by subprime-mortgage lenders years later. By the mid-’80s, credit debt in America was already soaring. What followed was the so-called Great Moderation, a generation-long period during which recessions were rare and mild, and the risks of carrying all that debt seemed low.

Financial impotence has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not least of which is the desperate need to mask it.

Both developments affected savings. With the rise of credit, in particular, many Americans didn’t feel as much need to save. And put simply, when debt goes up, savings go down. As Bruce McClary, the vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says, “During the initial phase of the Great Recession, there was a spike in credit use because people were using credit in place of emergency savings. They were using credit as a life raft.” Not that Americans—or at least those born after World War II—had ever been especially thrifty. The personal savings rate peaked at 13.3 percent in 1971 before falling to 2.6 percent in 2005. As of last year, the figure stood at 5.1 percent, and according to McClary, nearly 30 percent of American adults don’t save any of their income for retirement. When you combine high debt with low savings, what you get is a large swath of the population that can’t afford a financial emergency.

So who is at fault? Some economists say that although banks may have been pushing credit, people nonetheless chose to run up debt; to save too little; to leave no cushion for emergencies, much less retirement. Choice, often in the face of financial ignorance, is certainly part of the story. “If you want to have financial security,” says Brad Klontz, “it is 100 percent on you.” One thing economists adduce to lessen this responsibility is that credit represents a sea change from the old economic system, when financial decisions were much more constrained, limiting the sort of trouble that people could get themselves into—a sea change for which most people were ill-prepared.

Many Americans still remain optimistic—at least publicly. In a 2014 Pew survey revealing that 55 percent of Americans spend as much as they make each month, or more, nearly the exact same percentage say they have favorable financial circumstances, which may just mean some of them are too frightened to admit they don’t. Or perhaps they are just too financially illiterate to understand the severity of their predicament. Many of the scholars I have talked with are optimistic too. “People have this ingenuity to solve so many problems,” Annamaria Lusardi told me. “I think we are finally getting it that the brain does not work around money naturally,” Brad Klontz said, believing that Americans are realizing they have to take more control of their financial lives.

But optimism won’t negate the fact that wages continue to stagnate; that the personal savings rate remains low; and that a middle-class life seems increasingly hard to maintain. (A pre-recession survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association found that 21 percent of Americans felt the “most practical” way for them to get several hundred thousand dollars was to win the lottery.) Some try to hang onto hope while still being a realist. Yet hope doesn’t come easily anymore, even in a nation of dreamers and strivers and idealists. What so many of us have been suffering for so many years may just seem like a rough patch. But it is far more likely to be our lives.

Closing Remarks

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