The U.S. Census Bureau regularly conducts a survey of income and program participation that offers insight into Americans' financial well-being. Earlier this month, the Census Bureau updated the public on changes it has made to improve the survey's results, and in that report, it included intriguing new insight into Americans' net worth. Specifically, U.S. households' median net worth reached $80,039 in 2013. Are you keeping pace?
United States net worth by the numbers
The Census Bureau's estimate of household net worth comes from its 2014 survey, which reflects changes that more accurately show where net worth is coming from. The 2014 survey now includes questions on subjects such as annuities, passive business ownership, education savings accounts, and the cash value of life insurance. According to the Census Bureau, without including these new questions, the median net worth of households could have been reported to be as low as $74,083.
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The biggest contributor to Americans' net worth is home equity. Overall, 63% of the survey's respondents say they have equity in their home, and the bureau reports that, across all respondents, equity represents about one-third of the median $80,039 in net worth.
If you're a home owner, and you're curious how your equity compares to that of other homeowners, the median value of home equity that was reported was $81,000.
A 401(k) plan or a thrift savings plan, a type of defined contribution plan that's offered to government employees, was the second-biggest contributor to U.S. household net worth. Overall, 40.7% of respondents say they have one of those plans, and that the median value of their account is $46,000.
Individual retirement accounts and Keogh accounts are also popular, with 28% of people surveyed saying they have one, with a median balance of $40,000.
Americans' assets also commonly include the cash value of a life insurance plan, and stocks or mutual funds. About 19% of people report a median $12,000 in cash value of life insurance, and 20% say they have a median $32,500 in stocks or mutual funds.
Student loans and credit card debt were the biggest unsecured liabilities weighing down net worth. Mortgages and auto loans were included in the asset column, because on average, home and car owners reported having equity in them.
More than half of households owe debt that is unsecured by collateral, and over 40% report owing money on credit cards and store bills. The median amount that's owed on credit cards is only $3,000, so student loans that are the biggest drag on U.S. net worth. Almost 20% of Americans owe a median $18,000 in student loans or other education-related debt.
Increasing your net worth
Americans' biggest assets are their home and retirement plans, so if you're on the fence about buying a home, or increasing your contribution rate to your 401(k) plan, those two moves could be your best options for increasing net worth over time.
If you already own your home, making an additional mortgage payment every year can help you quickly build up home equity, and it can save you thousands of dollars in interest payments at the same time. A smart and budget-friendly way to increase your contributions to your 401(k) is to boost your contribution annually by the amount of your pay raise.
On the liabilities side of your ledger, revolving credit card debt is a big no-no because credit card interest rates can be high, and money that's used to make monthly credit card payments can be better used if it's invested in your IRA.
Overall, set reasonable goals for increasing your net worth, and check in annually on your progress toward those goals. Remember, however, that most of your net worth comes from homes and investments, and returns on those assets can vary widely in the short term, so make sure you set your goals with a long-term mindset.
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