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Negative personal savings rate: What does it mean?

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It’s a bit soon to tell if American consumers made — and are keeping — New Year’s resolutions to save more money this year. But they should.

The number-crunching folks at the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis dished out some discouraging news recently, saying that Americans spent more than they earned in 2005 — a negative savings rate of 0.5 percent for the year. That’s the first time that’s happened since the Great Depression.

A negative savings rate can’t be good, but is it as dire as it sounds? Why are people seemingly so carefree about spending?

If your savings rate is negative, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have any savings. It means you’re spending more than you earn, so you’re dipping into your savings or you’re borrowing to pay for purchases.

Our saving habits have been doing a gradual slide since May 1985 when we saved 11.1 percent of our disposable income. Here’s a chart illustrating our choppy savings habits over the last 10 years.

People may engage in excessive spending for a number of reasons. It may be that they’re not concerned about losing their jobs. Perhaps the rebounding stock market has boosted their portfolios, or they may be in line for hefty inheritances, or they may be assuming that the newly bloated value of their homes caused by the real estate boom will last forever.

In any case, the question remains: How serious a problem is the negative savings rate? We asked three experts to give us their view of the savings/spending situation and to give us some insight into the economics and psychology involved.

Negative personal savings
Just how serious a problem is the negative savings rate? Click on each expert’s name to view his answer.
Is negative savings a problem?
Joel Naroff, president and chief economist, Naroff Economics Advisors Inc., Holland, Pa.
John Merrill, investment manager and founder, Tanglewood Capital Management, Houston
Tony Proctor, certified financial planner and president, Proctor Financial, Wellesley, Mass.