The car brakes go on the fritz. The refrigerator stops refrigerating. The dog gets his paws on a batch of chocolate chip cookies and earns himself a trip to the vet ER.
These are just three of any number of things that could go wrong during the course of the year. Recovering from any one will set you back about $500, which means these scenarios fall closer to the “undesirable inconvenience” category than they do the “massive calamity” one. And yet, nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have enough money in savings to cover the cost of a single one of these unplanned expenses.
According to a brand new survey from Bankrate.com, just 37% of Americans have enough savings to pay for a $500 or $1,000 emergency. The other 63% would have to resort to measures like cutting back spending in other areas (23%), charging to a credit card (15%) or borrowing funds from friends and family (15%) in order to meet the cost of the unexpected event.
It’s not news that Americans are terrible savers. In November, Pew Charitable Trusts reported that one in three American families have no savings at all. In December, Magnify Money released the results of a study that found that 56.3% of people have less than $1,000 in their checking and savings accounts combined. Sensing a trend? You should: America’s saving struggle has been a problem year after year after year.
But this latest survey is particularly striking because of the implications it carries.
“Five-hundred dollars is enough money that it could be catastrophic if you’re really living on the edge and don’t have enough money” to cover that unplanned cost, Bankrate senior investing analyst Sheyna Steiner said in a phone interview. ”I did wonder what would happen if it was $10,000, what would the answer have been then?”
A $10,000 emergency is a somewhat rare occurrence for families of moderate income — but it’s hardly unheard of. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts analysis, the median size of a family’s most expensive financial “shock” (as they call it) in a year is $2,000. But Pew also found that the cost of emergencies actually varies by income: for households with an income of $25,000 or less, the median cost of the most expensive financial shock is $1,000, a figure that equates to 31 days’ worth of income. As you move up the income spectrum, the median cost of unplanned expenses goes up, but the days’ worth of income necessary to pay for that expense goes down. So for families making between $50,000 and $85,000, for instance, the median financial shock was $2,500 — or 13 days’ worth of income. Families who reported $85,000 or more in household income were the ones most likely to see that $10,000 emergency, 26 days’ worth of income:
But that’s the median size of a household’s most expensive financial emergency. (How’s that for a brain twister? Not the median cost of a financial emergency, but the median size of the most expensive financial emergency in a year.) Zooming out and looking at the most typical types of unplanned expenses that a family can experience throughout a year, Pew found that the most common was a car repair — which puts us back in the $500 to $1,000 realm that Bankrate used in its queries. The one that just 37% of people said they’d pay for using savings.
If all of the above sounds like doom and gloom, there is a bit of a silver lining here: 23% of Bankrate respondents said they’d pay for a $500 or $1,000 emergency by cutting back on non-essential spending, like eating out at restaurants and buying coffee from a coffee shop rather than home brewing. This indicates that there’s a bit of elasticity in people’s budgets.
Steiner also noted that it is encouraging that people appear more likely to scrimp on other spending before resorting to the use of a credit card in the face of an unplanned event.
“It was striking that so few people would just immediately put it on their credit card,” she said. “But if you’ve got a little wiggle room, maybe [a $500 unplanned expense] is just low enough that you could maybe lower your spending.”