Fact of the Week: Nearly Half of Americans Would Struggle with Unexpected Expense of $400


June 12, 2015

economic well-being

Respondents were asked how they would pay for an emergency expense costing $400, based on their current financial situation.

Forty-seven percent of Americans either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400 or would have to borrow money or sell something to cover it, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve System. The picture is bleaker for households with incomes under $40,000: over two-thirds of these households said they would struggle with such an expense. Across every income category, fewer African American and Hispanic households said they’d be able to cover a $400 unexpected expense with cash or with a credit card that was paid off at the end of the month compared to White households.

fed emergency expense by race

The Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2014 is a survey of the financial and economic conditions of more than 5,800 American households, and this year, the findings were a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, 65 percent of respondents described themselves as either “doing ok” or “living comfortably” financially, up from 62 percent in 2013. However, about one in three respondents said they are either “just getting by” or “finding it hard to get by”. Nearly a third of respondents reported going without some form of medical care in the year prior to the survey because they couldn’t afford it.

Despite the fact that a majority of respondents say they are ok with their current situation, the report found that not as many are looking down the road. Thirty-nine percent of non-retirees have given little or no thought to planning for retirement and nearly a third have no retirement savings or pension. Nearly a quarter of those 60 years old or older have no retirement savings, and the same percentage of those age 45-60 have none either.

Statistics like these make the work that we do to protect safety net and human needs programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and SNAP/food stamps all the more important. When nearly half of Americans say they would struggle with an expense as low as $400, we know programs that support our low-income neighbors are critical in helping in times of need. When nearly half of all part-time workers who responded said they’d prefer to work more hours if they were able to do so, we know we need to keep pushing for better jobs and a higher minimum wage.

For more information on the survey, watch a brief video below, or listen to a more in-depth webinar from the Federal Reserve System.

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