Tackling the Little Things
Getting debt under control and improving savings habits are two big steps to a better financial life, but those actions only are possible if Americans have more specific aspects of their financial lives under control.
While the economy recovers, job stability remains a vast and very valid concern. Without income, saving stops and debt can spiral. Even if they still have a job, Americans need to assess their marketability and increase their professional value by networking and upgrading job skills.
If someone experiences a job loss, it’s important to be proactive. They should negotiate severance pay, file for unemployment benefits and look into alternative insurance plans, because living unprotected will risk their family’s security. Individuals who have lost their jobs also should immediately start looking for work. Most states allow people to work a certain number of hours, and earn up to half their previous income, and still retain unemployment benefits.
Those who are struggling financially also might find it difficult to pay their mortgage. If individuals have missed a payment, they should immediately search through financial records or identify spending habits to find out what caused the missed payment. They also should contact their lender, who is required to examine their client’s financial life before taking any drastic action against the client’s home.
Even without a job loss or mortgage trouble, it’s time for Americans to involve their entire family in assessing the household budget. Tracking spending for a month will reveal some easy places to cut back without causing any significant lifestyle changes. Turning off lights and appliances, cutting down on weekend trips and dinners out and eliminating habits such as smoking all will help reduce household spending. And, it will give the family a head start on saving in case of emergencies.
For Americans to recover, maintain or rebuild their financial lives after this recession, they need to make permanent changes so they’re prepared for any future trouble in the economy. Identifying areas in which they are struggling, scrutinizing bills and spending habits and prioritizing aspects of their financial lives will help individuals create a proactive financial plan to last the whole year, and beyond.
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Changing the Way We Save
Although pre-recession Americans spent or consumed much of what they earned, the recession did provide a teachable moment.
In the 1980’s, Americans averaged saving 10 percent to 11 percent of their disposable income. By 2007 the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that figure dropped to a low of 1.7 percent. Only in 2009, in the midst of a recession that had Americans worrying about their jobs and futures, did the savings rate increase, but only to 5 percent.
It’s a start, but that rate is still less than half of what it was a quarter century ago. And it’s leaving a majority of Americans unprepared for retirement and emergencies.
“Americans are significantly ‘under saved’ as they near their retirement years,” Neiser says. “They’ll need at least 50 percent to70 percent of their pre-retirement income to live comfortably in retirement, and most aren’t even close to having the financial cushion to do that.”
In 2009, only 13 percent of workers questioned in the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s (EBRI) annual Retirement Confidence Survey said they felt very confident about having enough money for a comfortable retirement. That’s the lowest percentage since EBRI first asked the question in 1993 and a 50 percent decline in confidence since 2007.
The recession also taught us the need for having an emergency savings for our financial and psychological well-being. Having a cash nest egg can help consumers better weather the recession, and in the future, it will enable them to avoid accruing debt when unexpected expenses occur. According to the Consumer Federation of America, those with an emergency savings of more than $500 are less likely to worry, lose sleep, suffer poor health and decrease productivity at work than those who have saved less.
“It is the perfect time for individuals to take a hard look at their finances, spending a little less and saving more,” says Beck.
Up Next: Tackling the Little Things