It's no secret that Americans don't tend to do a good job of saving money. But instead of learning from our past mistakes, it seems as though we're continuing to perpetuate them.
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Back in March, I told you that a surprising number of Americans -- 62%, to be precise -- have less than $1,000 in savings. That statistic was based on 2015 data courtesy of GoBankingRates.com. Well, the good folks over there decided to pose that question again, only to a larger sample set. Unfortunately, the results are even more discouraging. The latest data shows that a whopping 69% of Americans now have less than $1,000 in a savings account. While the news isn't shocking given last year's numbers, it does go to show that Americans aren't getting any smarter about saving for emergencies. And that's a definite problem.
Who's not saving?
It's not just that Americans are struggling to hit that $1,000 threshold; an astounding number don't have any savings at all. In last year's survey, 28% of respondents admitted to having nothing saved. This year, 34% fall into that same category. And while you might jump to blame millennials for bringing the rest of the country down numbers-wise, the fact of the matter is that this lack of savings is prevalent across the board. The following table shows how little Americans are saving by age group:
Data source: GoBankingRates.com.
As you can see, while younger millennials are slightly more likely to have under $1,000 in savings, they're also less likely to not have savings at all. Seniors, meanwhile, seem to be saving the most. According to that same set of data, 23% of those 65 and up have more than $10,000 in a bank account, compared to just 8% of savers ages 18 to 24.
But when it comes to not having savings, age is almost irrelevant, because the truth is that anyone can encounter a financial emergency at any time or stage of life. And those who aren't prepared stand to damage their finances irreparably.
The danger of not saving
What's wrong with not having an emergency fund? For one thing, you'll be forced to resort to debt if you have no money and can't pay your bills. Imagine you lose your job, it takes you two months to become reemployed, and you're stuck covering a total of $6,000 of living expenses in the interim. Without savings, you'll probably have no choice but to charge your expenses or take out a personal loan. But if your financing arrangement comes with 18% interest (which isn't even as high as rates go), you'll wind up spending over $1,800 on interest alone if it takes you three years to repay that debt. All of this, of course, assumes that you can even get a loan or high enough credit limit in the first place. If your credit is abysmal, you may have even fewer options.
That's why it's crucial to have an emergency fund. The average person needs roughly three to six months' worth of living expenses accessible at all times. If your income is variable, or if you're the sole breadwinner for a family with multiple dependents, you may want to aim even higher. Of course, going from $1,000 or less in savings to enough money to cover six months of expenses is easier said than done, but if your emergency fund is sorely lacking, it's time to start making some changes.
Go big for maximum results
A lot of financial folks will tell you that small changes, like brown-bagging your lunch or giving up your precious morning latte, will make all the difference in building your savings. In reality, those minor lifestyle tweaks aren't going to do much more than make you miserable on a daily basis. Sure, when you're struggling to save, every little bit counts to an extent. But if you really want to alter your financial picture, you'll need to think big.
First, start by evaluating your housing situation. In 2015, almost 12 million U.S. households spent more than 50% of their income on housing when, in reality, your housing costs should never exceed 30% of your earnings. If housing is eating up a huge chunk of your income, consider downsizing or moving someplace more affordable.
Then there's transportation. The average annual cost of owning a vehicle is $8,700 per year. If you live somewhere with public buses or trains, getting rid of your car could put thousands back in your pocket.
Finally, if you don't already follow a household budget, stop what you're doing and put one together. Currently, only 41% of Americans use a budget even though it's one of the most effective (free) money management tools in existence. If you're not sure how to get started, you can follow these tips to maximize your efforts.
No matter what steps you take to increase your savings, the key is to commit to doing something before you find yourself in more of a financial mess. You never know when an emergency might strike, but if a major one does, there's a good chance $1,000 or less isn't going to cut it.
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