Hadley Malcolm, USA TODAY
The effects of the recession continue to put Americans at battle with their own money, forcing compromises about how it's being spent and saved. One area where we're not improving: emergency savings.
More than a quarter of Americans have no emergency savings, according to an annual survey released Monday by Bankrate.com. Of those who do have savings, 67% have less than six months' worth of expenses, what Bankrate calls the recommended amount, and those with at least three months' of expenses declined from 45% in 2013 to 40%.
Unfortunately, the most surprising thing about the survey results is that they haven't changed in recent years, says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate. The percentage of respondents who have said they have no emergency savings has fluctuated between a low of 24% and a high of 28% since 2011, Bankrate data show.
Flat wage growth, high household expenses and, in the case of young adults, student loan debt, have all made it difficult for Americans to prioritize saving, McBride says. Average hourly earnings fell 0.1% in May from a year earlier, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"They don't have a whole lot of extra income to make meaningful progress even if they want to," McBride says.
The ability to save grows bleaker along demographic divides. African Americans, at 40%, were almost twice as likely to say they had no emergency savings as whites, at 21%. And just 10% of those with a college degree said they didn't have any savings, compared to 36% of those with a high-school education or less.
Meanwhile, people ages 30-49 are the most likely of any age group to have no emergency savings.
The consequence could mean more people turning to credit or alternative services with high fees in the event of an emergency.
"If you don't have emergency savings, what do you do when you have an unplanned expense or the money runs out before the bills do?" McBride says. "You're stuck. That means for some people (turning to) high-cost borrowing, check cashing, a payday lender."
Another obstacle blocking our road to financial security: Americans' proclivity for buying stuff, McBride says.
"I've had people stand in front of me with a $5 latte and a $500 iPad and say they couldn't possibly save more than they are now," McBride says.
It takes discipline, he says. And some are choosing to live more simply in order to stay ahead. Jeremy Roberts, 30, says he and his wife Charity decided to start living "off much less than we make," as they realized how slowly the economy was recovering.
"We started living in smaller places, driving older vehicles, and saving more money," says Roberts, of Chattanooga, Tenn. "It has resulted in both financial freedom and it makes our marriage better."
Younger Americans just starting out in the workforce are finding it difficult to juggle financial priorities. Sarah Ramirez, 23, says a $305 monthly student loan payment keeps her from being able to save regularly. She guesses she puts $100 in her account every other month, but sometimes has to draw on it to cover bills.
And while she's switching from a part-time to a full-time job this month in Philadelphia, a year after graduating, she says she's conflicted between building her savings and doubling her student loan payment.
Plus, she says, "I know that building up a new work wardrobe will be an upfront cost ... so it'll probably be a couple more months before I can really reevaluate my financial goals."