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Survey: Less than half of Americans have savings to cover a $1,000 surprise expense

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David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Illustration by Bankrate
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Only about 4 in 10 Americans have enough savings to cover an unplanned expense of $1,000, meaning more than half would need to find other means to pay for an unexpected car repair or emergency room visit, according to a Bankrate survey.

Just 44 percent of the 1,004 U.S. adults surveyed have enough money saved, yet this number reflects the highest percentage capable of covering the expense in eight years of polling, up from 39 percent last year.

“While the ability to cover an unplanned $1,000 expense from savings is the best we’ve seen over the past eight years, the majority of Americans still cannot afford to do so,” says Greg McBride, CFA, chief financial analyst for Bankrate. “The reliance on borrowing is still high, with more than one-third of households having to turn to a credit card, personal loan, or family and friends in the face of unplanned expenses.”

Key findings:

Less than half of adults could pay a large expense with savings

The 44 percent of U.S. adults who can afford to cover a $1,000 unexpected expense is the highest in eight years of polling, as numbers hovered between 37 and 41 percent from 2014 to 2021.

One in 5 adults would put the charge on a credit card and pay it off over time, which can be a costly move. Bankrate data shows the average rate for variable-rate credit cards was 16.15% in 2021, and experts predict credit card interest rates are likely to climb in 2022.

The 15 percent of adults who would cut expenses elsewhere to cover the expense is down slightly from last year, as well as the 10 percent who would borrow from family or friends. The 4 percent who would take out a personal loan is down significantly from 2021.

In all, nearly 35 percent of those surveyed would need to borrow the money in some way.

Age matters little in ability to cover a large expense

There was little difference in how those from different age groups would pay for an unplanned expense, whether from savings, borrowing or reducing spending. Fewer than half in each age group were able to pay the $1,000 from savings.

Experts recommend that people in most age groups have an emergency fund that covers three to six months’ worth of your expenses. Those who are retired and receiving a considerable amount from investment accounts should consider saving more. Anyone who is self-employed or who has medical issues could also benefit from having more money saved in case of emergency. The best place to keep your emergency fund is in a high-yield savings account, which offers quick access and pays a competitive yield.

College graduates can better withstand emergencies

The ability to cover an unplanned $1,000 expense rises with education level, with 59 percent of college graduates able to use savings, compared to 40 percent of those with some college and just 34 percent of those with no more than a high school diploma.

Similarly, those with higher levels of income are more likely to be able to cover such an unexpected expense.

Inflation is making it even harder for many to save

Prices are rising at the fastest pace in nearly 40 years, and many U.S. adults say inflation is inhibiting their ability to save money. The majority of those surveyed said inflation is causing them to save less for unplanned expenses, as prices continue to rise on everything from groceries, apparel and utilities to rent, cars and gasoline.

More than half of millennials (54 percent) and Generation X (53 percent) said inflation is causing them to save less for surprise expenses, compared to 36 percent of Generation Z.

“A telling indicator of the impact inflation is having on household finances is that nearly half of Americans say inflation is holding back their ability to save for unplanned expenses while just 1 in 6 say it is enabling them to save more,” McBride says. “And that savings is sorely needed, with just 44 percent of households able to cover an unplanned $1,000 expense from savings.”

Methodology

This study was conducted for Bankrate via telephone by SSRS on its Omnibus survey platform. The SSRS Omnibus is a national, weekly, dual-frame bilingual telephone survey. Interviews were conducted from Jan. 4-9, 2022, among a sample of 1,004 respondents in English (973) and Spanish (31). Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (203) and cellphone (801, including 603 without a landline phone). The margin of error for total respondents is plus or minus 3.41% at the 95% confidence level. All SSRS Omnibus data are weighted to represent the target population.

Written by
Karen Bennett
Consumer banking reporter
Karen Bennett is a consumer banking reporter at Bankrate. She uses her finance writing background to help readers learn more about savings and checking accounts, CDs, and other financial matters.
Edited by
Wealth editor