Color of Money: Does America have a savings crisis?
WASHINGTON -- Americans save so little money that there is now an annual, weeklong campaign to encourage people to put cash aside for life's financial emergencies.
If faced with an unexpected expense of $400, four in 10 adults said they wouldn't have the money to cover it, according to a report from the Federal Reserve last year. To get the funds, they would have to sell something or borrow.
There was a time in the 1970s when the savings rate in America was in the double digits. But the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put it at 6 percent, the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis. The drop is part of a 60-year downward trend in the personal savings rate, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
For the next week -- from Feb. 25 until March 2 -- the "America Saves" campaign will strive to get people to understand why it's critical for their financial success to make savings a priority.
America Saves Week, along with Military Saves Week, is a national effort by government agencies, nonprofits and financial institutions to encourage people to not just save but reduce their debt load and invest for their future financial needs. The Consumer Federation of America handles the overall management of the campaign. During the week there are webinars, Twitter chats, Facebook discussions, YouTube live talks and saving challenges. You can find links to events and activities at americasaves.org
"Life is full of unexpected financial emergencies," said Carol Kaplan, a spokesperson for America Saves. "Your car breaks down, your refrigerator dies, a family member gets sick. We need to be prepared for such events to the best of our abilities, without going bankrupt. Life has enough stress as it is. Having a savings cushion relieves a lot of that stress and protects us financially."
Americans struggle to save for a number of reasons. It's hard to put money aside when you're only earning enough to cover the basic necessities. Yet some, if they were honest, would admit that they could save, but instead they've chosen to live an elevated lifestyle.
Others aren't saving because they are concentrating on getting out of debt.
"My bank tried to convince me that I needed to have an automated savings account while I was carrying almost $6,000 on my bank credit card," wrote Mark Pashia from Missouri. "I refused to do that, as they offered less than 1 percent interest on the savings, while they charged me 12.24 percent on the card balance."
Even while you are diligently paying down debt, you still need savings. If you don't have money put aside and an emergency comes up, you'll just get deeper into debt.
My explanation still didn't make mathematical sense to Pashia, who said he would soon pay off the debt.
"My money 'earned' more paying on the card than sitting in an account waiting for an emergency," he argued. "I believe in savings, just not when you are already paying credit-card interest."
In part, I agree that you shouldn't park thousands of dollars in a low-interest savings account when you have expensive credit-card debt.
But having savings is like wearing a life jacket, even if you're a great swimmer. You might not need it, but you're grateful you have it should you get caught in choppy waters.
Besides, if math were all that mattered, then folks wouldn't be in debt in the first place, paying double-digit interest rates for meals out, movies, clothes or vacations. That makes no financial sense.
Make it your goal to accumulate at least $1,000 in an emergency fund. Once you hit that target, stop saving so that you can attack the debt.
Here's a story of someone who was saved by her saving prowess.
She's the single parent of three kids in college. The children's father had a stroke, and as a result, he couldn't continue his financial support. At the same time, a broken water line flooded her basement. During the repair, the contractor found mold, which was not covered under her homeowner's insurance policy.
"I feel sick about all these things, but I am still able to handle all these costs," she wrote. "I have an adjusted gross income of $50,000, and I have put away enough money for all these emergencies. It's important to note that I never got behind, because that makes everything all the more difficult. But giving up little things such as cable and dining out makes a huge difference. People can do this."
Take the America Saves Pledge at americasaves.org. Set a goal and create a plan to achieve it. I don't want you out there without a life jacket.
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