Shocking number of Americans can't cover $400 surprise expense

Even as the U.S. economy strengthens, many Americans are having a hard time saving – even for unexpected emergencies.

The Federal Reserve Board released its Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households on Thursday, finding that only 61 percent of Americans could cover an unexpected $400 expense with cash, savings or a credit card paid off at the next statement. The Fed noted that the figure is a modest improvement over its findings from the year prior.

Meanwhile, more than one-quarter of people would either borrow or sell something to foot the $400 bill, while 12 percent said they would not be able to cover it at all.

“Relatively small, unexpected expenses, such as a car repair or replacing a broken appliance, can be a hardship for many families without adequate savings,” the report noted.

Seventeen percent of people are not able to pay their monthly bills in full. Another 12 percent of people would not be able to cover those monthly bills if they were faced with an unexpected $400 expense.

That’s bad news considering 20 percent of people said they had a “major, unexpected” medical bill to pay over the past year and 25 percent skipped necessary medical care because they were not able to afford the cost.

When asked about their overall financial comfort levels, three-quarters of Americans said they were either living comfortably or doing okay – a 13 percentage point increase when compared with 2013.

Savings difficulty comes even as the U.S. economy strengthens. First quarter gross domestic product (GDP) expanded at a 3.2 percent annualized rate in the first quarter, while disposable income rose $116 billion. The unemployment rate is also at a half-century low.

It’s not just emergency savings that people are struggling with. According to the Fed’s data, one-quarter of non-retired adults have no retirement savings or pension.


Meanwhile, lawmakers are looking to help Americans save for retirement, as the House approved a bill on Thursday that would make changes to popular savings plans, like 401(k)s and IRAs. It would also encourage businesses to offer retirement plans to employees, including some part-time workers.

The Fed’s findings are based on the financial experiences of 11,000 respondents, who were surveyed in 2018.