Most American adults don't have enough savings to pay an emergency $1,000 expense (2024)

While nobody really wants to tap into their emergency savings, most Americans couldn’t even afford to do so if they had to.

A stunning new Bankrate survey of 1,030 individuals finds that more than half of American adults (56%) lack sufficient savings to shoulder an unexpected $1,000 expense. Of that number, 21% said they would go into debt by financing the spending with a credit card, while 16% would steeply cut back on other spending to bridge the gap. Another 10% would borrow from family and friends, 4% would take out a personal loan, and 5% said they would do “something else.”

Bankrate senior economic analyst Mark Hamrick tells Fortune that this survey is “disappointing because it is an indication that so many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.” He said this is sadly consistent with earlier Bankrate research that found individuals’ two major financial regrets are the failure to save for emergencies and the failure to save for retirement.

Without requisite savings, 35% of respondents said they’d borrow the money, either from friends and family, a personal loan, or putting it on a credit card. The findings show an unsurprising generational gap, with about three out of five baby boomers saying they’d pay an emergency expense from their savings, while fewer than one-third of Gen Zers would do the same.

“It is understandable, to some degree, that those who are more established in their lives and personal finances might have that capability,” Hamrick says. “It also might reflect that more senior individuals have had sufficient experience with their finances that they understand that savings needs to be a priority.”

The reason most respondents cited for their lack of parachute? Inflation—followed close behind by rising interest rates and a recent change in employment status—is dissuading them from putting money aside. “Inflation’s once-in-a-generation surge has left its mark on American savings habits,” Hamrick wrote in the report. “There is a glimmer of hope, however; 19% of Americans cite rising interest rates as the reason they’ve saved more.”

People tend to save more when they expect a prolonged economic downturn. That’s “the ‘precautionary’ motive for saving,” economist Guillaume Vandenbroucke wrote for the St. Louis Fed in 2021. “If the downturn is not expected to last, people are likely to use their savings to maintain their consumption; that is, they will keep paying their rent, mortgage, and utility bills.”

But despite the larger pressures, they’re not satisfied with their situation; 57% of respondents said the current state of their savings is stressing them out. Nearly one in four (22%) of U.S. adults have no emergency savings at all, Bankrate found—the second-lowest percentage in 13 years of polling. That’s especially bad news given that most Americans would need at least six months of emergency savings to feel comfortable day-to-day.

Even in economically uncertain times, paying down debt quickly—and contributing to emergency funds—must be a top priority, Bankrate advises, lest a loss of income throw a wrench in your plans. And it’s possible to multitask; just over a third of the study’s respondents said they’re currently prioritizing paying down debt and saving money in equal measure.

“For those wisely focused on managing and building their emergency savings, this is an opportune time to benefit from the increase in interest rates,” Hamrick wrote. “Emergency savings, by definition, need to be liquid or easily accessible. A high-yield savings account dedicated to this purpose amounts to a self-insurance policy guarding against unplanned expenses.”

The takeaway, Hamrick adds to Fortune, is that people at all life stages—and at all incomes—recognize the importance of avoiding “the pitfalls of insufficient savings.”

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Most American adults don't have enough savings to pay an emergency $1,000 expense (2024)
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