Americans have neglected their savings accounts.
Consumers are saving less of their income compared with before the recession, even as wages show signs of life. The so-called personal savings rate hit 2.4 percent in December 2017, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the lowest point since August 2005. The rate has since increased to 3.1 percent, still less than half of its long-term average.
“The main reason for the downward trend is that, even though wages are increasing, spending is increasing faster,” says PNC senior wealth strategist Jim Benedict.
Which is not good.
The economy is chugging along in one of the longest expansions in American history, but good things don’t last forever. In the post-World War II era, the economy has averaged a recession about every seven years, or roughly two years fewer than the current run.
No one knows when the wheels will come off, but with the Federal Reserve hardening monetary policy — from hiking short-term rates to lowering its trillion-dollar balance sheet — confidence may soon dampen.
And when that happens, American workers, with less savings and higher debt, will find themselves exposed. Now is the time to save and prepare.
The problem with saving more later
“Many Americans view savings as an optional activity. And particularly when economic times are good — and it is easiest to move the needle on savings — it is not given high priority,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst. “By the time households realize the need for savings, it is oftentimes in an economic environment where doing so is noticeably more difficult given rising joblessness, reduced income and deteriorating economic conditions.”
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, American households tightened their wallets. The personal savings rate hit 7.6 percent in June 2012, three years after the end of the Great Recession, before skyrocketing to 11 percent by the end of the year.
Only 39 percent of Americans would pay for a $1,000 expense out of their savings, according to a Bankrate survey. A separate Federal Reserve report showed that 44 percent couldn’t pay for a $400 expense with cash.
More than a third of Americans don’t have a savings account, according to the Navy Federal Credit Union, while the amount in the average American’s bank account hasn’t risen since 2001 (although average earners do have $600 more than they did before the crisis).
Home prices way up, wages less so
Americans’ declining savings rate coincides with a strengthening economy
Employers added an average of 208,000 workers to their payrolls over the past three months, helping to push the unemployment rate down to 3.9 percent, an 18-year low.
Still, your paycheck may not feel bigger. Raises for the average worker haven’t grown above 2.9 percent since the end of the recession, although they’re starting to trend upward in recent years, which dovetails with the employment cost index, a broader view of compensation that includes benefits.
Those gains are outpaced by your spending. Consumer debt is at its highest level since the recession and trending in the wrong direction.
“Even though wages are increasing, spending is increasing faster,” Benedict says. “When people don’t have cash, they borrow.”
What’s going on?
One clue rests in the cause of the financial crisis: housing.
Home prices bottomed out in the beginning of 2012, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home-price index, while households were savings twice as much as they are today.
As home values skyrocketed in recent years, homeowners may have felt more financially secure, and thereby more willing to take that vacation or buy a new car.
While your income hasn’t risen dramatically, your overall wealth has.
What should you do
“The personal savings rate becomes a casualty when income growth is sparse but the increase in household expenses is not,” McBride says.
You need to trick yourself into increasing your savings.
Be suspicious of feeling comforted by rising home prices, and pay mind to your emergency fund. At some point a recession will come, which increases the risk of a layoff. You need three to six months’ worth of expenses in a high-yielding savings account as a bulwark.
That’s a lesson easier understood than practiced. The financial crisis and its aftermath were so severe that you can be forgiven for speeding past your budget.
But make that the exception, rather than the rule.