Many Americans are just one burst pipe, car breakdown or sick pet away from costly credit card debt, a Bankrate survey shows.
Only a little over half (53 percent) of U.S. adults have more money stashed in an emergency savings fund than they’ve racked up in credit card debt, the January 2022 survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found.
And more than 1 in 5 (22 percent) U.S. households carry more credit card debt than the amount they have saved for unexpected expenses. The good news is that number is down 5 percentage points from Bankrate’s January 2021 emergency savings survey.
Finally, 15 percent of households have no credit card debt but zero emergency savings. That’s also a precarious financial position to be in, says Greg McBride, CFA, chief financial analyst at Bankrate: “Without emergency savings, you could be one unplanned expense away from having high-cost credit card debt.”
Millennials are most likely to have more card debt than savings
Millennials were most likely of any generation to say the tally of credit card debt they owe is higher than the amount they have saved for a rainy day.
Here are the percentages of each generation that have more credit card debt than emergency savings, according to the poll:
- 32 percent of millennials (ages 26 to 41)
- 24 percent of Gen Xers (ages 42 to 57)
- 23 percent of Gen Zers (ages 18 to 25)
- 15 percent of baby boomers (ages 58 to 76)
Lacking an emergency fund may mean you borrow money from friends and family or pull out a credit card when something goes wrong, says Melinda Opperman, president and chief relationship officer at Credit.org, a nonprofit that offers education and debt relief for consumers.
Using a credit card can add more strain if you’re carrying debt. And you might not even have the option if your cards are maxed out, Opperman points out. Being in this kind of financial bind can exacerbate the stress of an everyday mishap like a flat tire. “It becomes a huge emergency, and you panic. It can gum up your whole day,” she says.
But an emergency fund can make the same problem into just a minor inconvenience, she says. “It gives you such peace of mind; you can’t put a price tag on it.”
The pandemic hit younger adults’ wallets harder
Many households stashed away some cash during the COVID-19 pandemic because they were spending less within expensive categories like travel and getting help through federal stimulus checks and other relief programs.
“During the pandemic, many people made progress toward meeting their financial goals,” says Bruce McClary, senior vice president for membership and communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC).
In fact, a pre-pandemic Bankrate poll from 2019 found that only 44 percent of Americans then said they had more emergency savings than credit card debt, almost 10 percentage points less than the new poll.
But overall, about 1 in 3 U.S. adults say the balance in their emergency savings account has fallen over the past two years. Compared with before the pandemic, the poll found that:
- 34 percent have less emergency savings now
- 33 percent have the same amount of emergency savings
- 27 percent have more emergency savings now
The generation most likely to have less liquid savings now than before the pandemic: Gen Z. Forty-six percent of Gen Zers have less cash in emergency savings now than they did before the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Only a little over 1 in 4 within this age group (28 percent) have more.
“Younger workers were hardest hit by unemployment and income disruptions in the early stages of the pandemic,” Bankrate’s McBride says. “And it has taken a toll on their emergency savings.”
That’s likely due partly to the fact that many young adults work in the service industry in areas that were hit hard by the pandemic, including travel, food and beverage, and hospitality, NFCC’s McClary says.
Upper middle-income households are more likely to have higher card debt than savings
Households making $50,000 to $74,999 a year are most likely (38 percent) to have more credit card debt than emergency savings, the survey found.
That may be partly because consumers in higher income brackets also tend to have higher credit limits on their cards, Credit.org’s Opperman points out. Here are the percentages in different earning brackets whose credit card debt exceeds their emergency savings:
- Lower-income (under $30,000 a year) — 31 percent
- Lower middle income ($30,000 to $49,999 a year) — 26 percent
- Higher-income ($75,000 and up) — 14 percent
“The impact of every dollar on a person’s budget is amplified when making less money,” McClary says. “And the cost of carrying high-interest debt can also put a lot of additional pressure on lower-income households comparatively.”
Top priority: ditching debt vs. building savings
The poll found that half of Americans (50 percent) are focused on boosting their savings while almost 1 in 3 (32 percent) prioritize paying down debt. Less than 1 in 20 households (4 percent) are focusing on both simultaneously, the poll found.
Older millennials and Gen Xers were split almost evenly between prioritizing debt repayment versus emergency savings. But almost 2 in 3 Gen Zers (64 percent) said they prioritize boosting emergency savings over paying down debt (30 percent). Younger baby boomers (ages 58 to 67) also are prioritizing savings (57 percent) over debt repayment.
The survey found Americans that have been building their savings have made a lot of headway recently. The number of households that say they have more savings now than before the pandemic increased 10 percent, compared with results from a July 2021 survey.
Many struggle to know whether to prioritize paying debt or saving. It’s smart to make saving your number one priority, to a point, Opperman says. “Until you get an emergency nest egg of at least $1,000, I would keep that as the focus,” she says.
How to pay down debt and boost emergency savings
Do you lack enough emergency savings to help you weather a crisis? Here are five expert tips for chipping away at any credit card debt you have while bulking up your emergency savings:
- Revamp your budget. Many people get tripped up by “emergencies” that are actually irregular expenses they forgot to budget for, says Kristy Marshall, founder and CEO of Money Bliss. For example, the auto insurance premium you pay every six months, property taxes you pay every year or your dog’s annual checkup at the vet. “Not having money set aside for these things is typically what causes people to have an emergency,” Marshall says.
- Start small with emergency savings. Do you lack an emergency savings account? Start small, Opperman recommends. At Credit.org, they recommend starting by socking away $500 in an emergency savings account, she says. Once you reach that goal, aim to build to $1,000, she says. Even having a small amount of emergency savings can help you handle day-to-day issues like needing to replace a $100 tire. You can start by having as little as $25 transferred to a savings account every payday, she says. Try using a savings calculator to set an achievable, trackable goal.
- Do a money-saving challenge. Participating in a money-saving challenge can be a great way to jump-start or build an emergency fund, Marshall says. Her favorite challenge: a no-spend month in which you write down items you have the urge to buy — but don’t buy them. Instead, save that money. And check social media for a local “buy nothing” group you can join to get rid of clutter and pick up items you want without spending money. “At the end of the month, decide what you missed and actually want in your budget,” she says.
- Minimize interest payments. High interest can eat up a sizable part of your monthly credit card payments and make it take much longer to pay off your debt. Try to lower your credit card interest rate if possible, McClary recommends. If you’ve got shaky credit and are struggling to make payments, that might mean setting up a debt management plan (DMP) through a nonprofit credit counseling agency. They may be able to negotiate lower interest rates with your credit card companies, he says. And if you’ve got good credit and can easily make your payments, you may want to look for a zero-interest credit card deal.
- Grow your emergency fund. Once you’ve got a small emergency fund established and you’re on the road to paying off your credit card debt, build your fund. But what’s a good emergency fund amount? Many personal finance experts recommend you strive for six months of expenses to buffer you in a big emergency like a job loss or illness. Start by putting a small percentage of your income into your emergency account, then increase it over time, McClary says. For example, build up to saving 10 percent of your income for a year, he says, then increase it to 15 percent the next year.
One final thought: It’s important to know that you will sometimes need to spend some of the money in your emergency fund, and there will be progress and setbacks, McClary says.
“Your emergency fund is supposed to be there for you to dip into if you have an emergency,” he says. “So don’t let that worry you.”