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Americans are Still Struggling Paycheck to Paycheck

by Howard Hook, CFP®, CPA

As quoted on MSN.com in the Main St. column, February 27, 2015

Living paycheck to paycheck was nothing new for Aja McClanahan.

For eight years her husband and she did just that — paying off school loans, car notes and credit card debt.

“It was like all our money was being eaten up by bills and interest,” the 35-year-old Chicago resident said.

Many Americans can relate well to McClanahan’s story, according to a new study from the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust, “Precarious State of Family Balance Sheets.” The report reveals 55% of American households are “savings-limited,” meaning they can replace less than one-month of their income through their savings. The study also says even pooling all of a family’s resources — such as retirement accounts and investments — the typical middle-income household can replace only about four months of lost income.

“Our analysis finds that many American families, even those with relatively high incomes, are walking a financial tightrope,” said Erin Currier, director of Pew’s financial security and mobility project. “Many have little if any cushion to absorb an unexpected financial setback. It’s a precarious state that threatens not just financial security, but upward mobility.”

While the study paints a bleak picture of Americans’ financial plight, their savings and their budgeting, many financial experts agree the solution is simple — although perhaps difficult at the start.

“Most people have not saved enough to replace their income if they lost their job,” said Howard Hook, a CPA and Certified Financial Planner with EKS Associates in Princeton, N.J. “That is why it is crucially important that everyone’s first savings goal be an emergency fund of at least six months to provide means of support if they lose their job.”

Hook said it is possible for nearly everyone to reduce their spending by at least 5%. He suggests keeping track of your monthly spending, being aware of lower cost options and sticking to budgets as ways to cut spending.

“For most people this is not an easy task, but unfortunately there is no other magic bullet,” Hook said.

Brian Plain, a CFP in Oak Park Ill., said a key to savings is to treat your savings like a bill that must be paid each month. Automate it, and pay it first, he said.

“You’ll never find enough to save if it’s the last bill you attempt to pay each month,” Plain said. He adds consumers should also increase their savings as their income increases. That prevents them from feeling the effects of a lifestyle change if they have to reduce spending.

That’s exactly the strategy McClanahan employed. Her husband and she started living below their means, and just saving “here and there.” It was especially hard with a still-developing and not-yet profitable small business, but the couple eventually was able to start building off their $1,000 starter emergency fund by gradually cutting costs like cable TV and eating out. They scrambled and eventually paid $3,000 monthly off their debt.

“With a paired down lifestyle, no debt and the commitment to never take on debt again, we are well-positioned to save at least one of our salaries,” she said. “It is attainable with a goal and a plan to execute it. The key is being willing to sacrifice some of the luxuries of middle class life for a greater goal of generational wealth building.”

Bruce McClary vice president of public relations at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, said it’s the starting of the saving process that is usually the most difficult for so many.

“Motivation is hard to find when looking into an empty savings account, but the way forward is often started with a jolt of harsh reality,” McClary said. “People should use that reality check to create a savings goal and establish a plan to reach it with regular deposits.”