For 47-year-old mom Kim Norton, it’s a “constant battle” to find enough money to even pay her bills, let alone save up.
“I rob Peter to pay Paul; I don’t spend my money frivolously on crap; I just make sure my kids have what they need,” Norton, who works part time as a research coordinator through a temp agency, told The Huffington Post. “I get really wound up thinking about how you just can’t get ahead.”
A single mother of four living in Bangalore, Maine, Norton says she often writes checks for bills without enough money in her bank account to pay them, hoping the check won't clear until her next paycheck arrives. Between rent, child care and other necessities, Norton says her expenses cost more than she earns, leaving her without a cushion to fall back on in case of emergencies.
More than three-fourths of Americans don’t have enough money saved to pay their bills for six months, according to survey results released Monday by Bankrate. Half of the survey respondents said they had less than three months’ worth of expenses saved up, and more than one-quarter -- like Norton -- have no reserves to draw on in case of emergency.
Bankrate compared its survey results from this year with results from 2006, and it found that Americans are saving more now than before the recession. However, the results of this year's survey, which was conducted through phone interviews of a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 adults, indicate that Americans haven't changed their saving habits much over the past three years.
The survey brings into stark relief what many experts have said for some time: While the Great Recession and recovery brought the importance of savings to the forefront -- for everyone, not just the poor -- persistent unemployment and stagnant wages have made it difficult for Americans to put any money away. Low- and middle-income Americans were hit harder by the recession and slow recovery than their wealthy counterparts. The annual wages of the bottom 90 percent of workers declined between 2009 and 2011, according to a January analysis from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The wages of the top one percent rose 8.2 percent during the same period.
“It’s alarming” how little Americans have saved up, Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate, told The Huffington Post. McBride noted that if Americans want to ensure they're protected in the event of a financial emergency, like a job loss or a medical issue, they should have enough money to cover about six months' worth of bills saved up.
“People have long been woefully under-saved for emergencies,” McBride said. “While they may now realize the importance of emergency savings, they’ve done very little to move the needle.”
With less money to spend on bills and interest rates on savings accounts now at record lows, there's little incentive for most Americans to stash their money away for a rainy day. The disincentive could be part of why nearly half of Americans are one disaster away from a financial emergency, the Corporation for Enterprise Development found earlier this year.
“It’s not like the lesson has been lost on people,” McBride said, “they’ve had a very difficult time making any substantive headway.”
Gevon Lockhart is one of those Americans struggling to put money away, even though she knows the value of savings. Lockhart, 42, said she was able to survive 24 months of unemployment and underemployment thanks to a financial cushion she built up while she was working.
“If I hadn’t saved, my story would've been much worse than it was,” she said.
Though Lockhart knows from personal experience how important keeping money stashed away can be, she’s had trouble building up her savings again, she said. Lockhart works full time at a credit union and skimps on things like eating lunch out, but there still isn't much left after paying all her bills.
“When you’ve depleted the savings that you had before, it becomes a struggle to try to put back,” she said.
Lockhart said she’s not comfortable with the little she’s been able to put away and is concerned she won’t be able to cover her expenses if something “major” happens. Indeed, that’s the case for many Americans, McBride said.
“A lot of people are dealing with stagnant incomes that make it very difficult to ramp up saving,” he said. “Even in the cases where people have managed to squirrel away some money, they don’t really feel good.”