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Most Americans have inadequate savings, but they aren’t sweating it

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Americans are comfortably numb with their savings plight.

Experts recommend households hold six months’ worth of emergency expenses in a savings account as a buffer against spiraling into debt should disaster occur. Just 29 percent of adults say they have that large a reserve, according to a new Bankrate survey.

Chart: How much do Americans have in emergency savings?

You would guess Americans with insufficient savings would be wracked with angst and determined to beef up their funds.

Sadly, no.

A majority of respondents — 62 percent — say they are either very or somewhat comfortable with their level of emergency savings, according to the Bankrate survey. Which means many families are living on a knife’s edge, yet not resolute to do anything about it.

“The goal should be to have enough emergency savings to cover six months’ expenses – and anything less than that should cause discomfort,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst.

Americans are satisfied with their savings

A quarter of Americans (24 percent) say they are very comfortable with what they’ve put away, and 37 percent are somewhat so (the two groups combine to 62 percent due to rounding). Another 1-in-7 say they aren’t too comfortable, while 22 percent are not comfortable at all.

More should relate with the 22 percent.

Chart: Americans are satisfied with their savings

A separate Bankrate survey recently found that just 39 percent of Americans would pay for a $1,000 unexpected expense (like a health scare) from savings.

One problem may be that Americans simply don’t quite know how much they need to save. Six months’ worth of emergency expenses can feel like a vague target, especially if you’re not up to speed on your budget.

Bankrate issued a report in May on the hardest and easiest cities to build a six-month emergency fund. The median amount needed, for a family of four, was roughly $19,500.

Only the top 80 percent of earners have that much saved, according to the Federal Reserve. Median income households, meanwhile, have about a fifth of that in savings, according to the Fed, the same inflation-adjusted amount as they did 15 years earlier.

Emergency savings by generation

Younger workers are the most susceptible to a lack of savings.

A quarter of both millennials (age 18 to 37) and Gen Xers (38 to 53) have no savings, while roughly another quarter of both generations carry less than three months’ worth.

This is a precarious position for workers who are building a career, starting families and buying homes. Millennials, after all, represent the largest homebuying population in the nation.

More than a third of boomers (36 percent) and 42 percent of the Silent Generation have met the milestone.

Chart: Comparison of how much emergency savings do Millennials and Baby boomers have

Jennifer Brotman is one such boomer.

Brotman, 58, lives in Cleveland, earning a bit more than the average physical therapist assistant. She’s making a mad dash to save enough for her golden years.

“(I had a) late start on saving for retirement, so I’m never going to hit the number I would like to have had saved, $1 million, but I would like to hit $500,000,” says Brotman, who has $220,000 saved. “Fingers crossed.”

Brotman, though, is able to put so much toward her 401(k) — currently contributing 24 percent of her pay — because she has nine months of emergency savings sitting in a savings account.

How much do you have in emergency savings?

If you’re struggling to save, remember to crawl before you attempt to walk.

First write down all the costs you would need to keep up with, such as your mortgage or health insurance, even if you lost your job or couldn’t work for a spell.

Compare what you would need to spend in a month against what you have in savings. If you’re below the six-month threshold, make a plan to increase your savings.

One step: Automate your savings so 5 to 10 percent of your paycheck goes into a savings account. Increase your contributions anytime you receive a raise.

Train yourself to put extra cash into your emergency fund until you’ve hit one month worth of savings — then two, then three and so on.

The key, though, is follow-through. About 23 percent of those who had some amount saved, but less than three months, said they were somewhat comfortable with what they had. While that’s a start, it’s not nearly enough.

“Many Americans are kidding themselves if they have less than three months’ worth of expenses in emergency savings and claim to have any level of comfort with that,” McBride says.

This study was conducted for Bankrate via landline and cell phone by SSRS on its Omnibus survey platform. Interviews were conducted from June 6-10, 2018 among a sample of 1,006 respondents. The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 3.68% at the 95% confidence level. SSRS Omnibus is a national, weekly, dual-frame bilingual telephone survey. All SSRS Omnibus data are weighted to represent the target population.