Why Saving Money and Cutting Debt Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

Consumer savings are up, and credit card debt is down. But experts say the economic current is running against us, so even those who think they are swimming are probably just treading water.

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On one hand, we’re finally getting smart about this whole money-management thing. Consumers have built up savings from the pre-recession years, and are more likely to pay credit card bills on time. A lot of younger Americans are avoiding the credit card debt trap entirely. But experts say these efforts still aren’t enough: The economic current is running against us, so even those who are swimming like they were taught are probably just treading water. 

Collective consumer debt was cut by $100 billion in the first quarter of 2013, according to the credit reporting agency Equifax. TransUnion, another credit reporting agency, reported that credit card delinquency rates dropped almost 19% from the last quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of this year, and the average person’s credit card debt dropped almost 5% in that same time period. New data from FICO shows that the number of adults under 30 who don’t have a credit card doubled in just five years, to 16%, and a new Bankrate survey estimates that 45% of Americans have three or more months worth of expenses on hand in an emergency fund, up six percentage points since 2006.

So far, so good, right? But there’s a flip side to the story these numbers don’t tell.

We’ve replaced card debt with education debt. About that credit card debt: Although we’re paying it off and paying it on time, it seems like we’ve just traded it for student loan debt. Students and grads owe more than $1 trillion, and unless Congress takes action, the interest rate on new federal loans will double to 6.8% as of July 1. A recent Fed blog post says as many as 21% of loans could be delinquent. And unlike credit card debt, student loan debt is almost impossible to discharge.

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Another concern is that some consumers are going overboard in their efforts to avoid credit card debt. Today’s young adults are gun shy when it comes to credit cards, perhaps understandably; but avoiding credit cards together could cause them problems in the future. A sparse credit history means they won’t have much of a track record proving to a lender that they’ll be a reliable borrower, so they’ll have a tougher time getting the best rates on loans and mortgages.

Six months is the new three months. Still, it’s good that we’re managing to save money, right? When Bankrate asked people about their emergency funds, researchers found that a little over two-thirds of people have them. The problem is that the typical amount that’s in them is way too low. Before the recession, the typical rule of thumb was to save enough money to have three months’ worth of living expenses on hand. But the depth of the recession combined with stubbornly high unemployment meant that a lot of people were out of work for several months, if not years. Suddenly, a three-month cushion does about as much good as an inside-out umbrella in a rainstorm.

So now, the experts are advising people to sock away six months’ worth of expenses into their emergency fund. Bankrate found that just under a quarter of people have six months’ or more saved in their emergency fund. Among young adults (those under 30), only 38% have three months or more in savings.

Interest rates are skimpy, and account fees are growing. People who do have a comfortable cash cushion have the security of knowing that they won’t have the rug yanked out from under them if they have a financial emergency. But that’s about all they’ll get from an emergency fund. The Federal Reserve’s extended stretch of holding interest rates down to help out the economy means savers get a return of basically zilch on their money. A new report from the Consumer Federation of America finds that 17% of banks pay 0.01% — or less — in interest on basic savings accounts. That’s 10 cents or less a year on a $1,000 balance. Only 4% of banks pay more than 0.25% interest on basic savings accounts.

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There are a handful of exceptions; some online banks have attracted customers with high-yield checking promotions, but there’s often a cap on how much of your savings can earn that higher rate. Plus, both high-yield and regular savings accounts are starting to exhibit the same kind of fee creep checking accounts have been displaying for the past few years.

The CFA found about a third of the banks it studied have balance minimums of $300 or more. Fall below that, and anyone with a checking account already knows the drill: You get hit with a monthly maintenance fee. Those fees aren’t as high as the ones on checking accounts — not yet, at least — but 35% still have fees of $5 or higher. The CFA also discovered other fees, sometimes poorly disclosed, for everything from account dormancy to taking too many withdrawals over a statement period.