Living on the Financial Edge

At Paragon Financial Advisors, we recommend our clients have a 3-6 month cash “ready reserve” to meet unexpected expenditures. For most Americans, accumulating that amount appears to be much easier said than done. In the May, 2016 The Atlantic magazine, Neal Gabler wrote an article entitled “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans.” Some of the items he mentioned (and the sources he quoted) are shown below.

Unexpected Expenses

A Federal Reserve Board survey designed “to monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers” found that 47% would not be able to cover a $400 unexpected expense unless they borrowed, sold something, or could not cover it at all. David Johnson (University of Michigan) surmised that Americans usually smooth consumption over their lifetime: borrowing in bad years and saving in good years. People are now spending any unexpected income (bonuses, tax refunds, etc.) instead of saving it.

A 2014 Bankrate survey found that only 38% of Americans had enough in savings to cover a $1000 emergency room visit or a $500 car repair. Nearly one-half of college graduates could not cover the expense through savings. In 2015, A Pew Charitable Trust study found that 55% of households didn’t have enough liquid savings to cover one month’s living expenses.

Another study by Annamaria Lusardi, Peter Tufano, and Daniel Schneider asked whether a household could raise $2000 within 30 days for an unexpected event. More than 25% could not; another 19% would have to pawn something or use a payday loan to raise the money. Nearly a quarter of households with an income of $100-$150,000 per year could not raise the $2000 in one month.

Liquidity or Net Worth

Is this situation only a liquidity problem or is net worth (the net sum of all assets including retirement accounts and home equity) also at risk? Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University, reported that net worth has declined significantly in the last generation. Net worth declined 85.3% from 1983 to 2013 for the bottom income quintile, decreased 63.5% for the second lowest quintile, and decreased 25.8% for the middle quintile. He looked at the number of months a household could fund its current consumption by liquidating assets if the household lost all current income. In 2013, the bottom two quintiles had no net worth; hence, they couldn’t spend anything. The middle quintile (with an average income of approximately $50,000 per year) could continue spending for 6 days. A family in the second highest quintile could maintain current spending for a little over 5 months.

Research funded by the Russell Sage Foundation found that the inflation adjusted net worth of the median point of the wealth distribution was $87,992 in 2003. In 2013, it had declined to $54,500—a decline of 38%.


Value Penguin did an analysis of Federal Reserve and Transmission data pertaining to credit card debt. In 2015, credit card debt per household was $5700. Thirty eight percent of households carried some debt; the average debt of those households was greater than $15,000. Apparently the rise of easy credit availability has supplanted the need for personal savings. The personal savings rate peaked around 13% in 1971, fell to 2.6% in 2005, and has risen only to 5.1% now. These debt levels reflect only personal debt; no serious attention is being paid to our $19 trillion government debt.

What’s Going On?

Financial products are becoming more sophisticated, both in quantity and complexity. Such additional products should provide a better way to manage personal financial “hiccups.” Lusardi and her associates (in a 2011 study) found that the more complex a country’s financial and credit market became, the worse the problem of financial insecurity becomes for its citizens. That study measured the knowledge of basic financial principles (compound interest, risk diversification, the effects of inflation, etc.) among Americans ages 25 to 65. Sixty five percent were basically financially illiterate.

Why are we at a financial advisory firm writing about this situation? The United States finds itself in the midst of a most unusual political situation. Some candidates for President of the United States are espousing theories or programs outside the normal capitalistic structure. Are conditions such as the ones described above partially to blame?

A crucial part of managing investment portfolios is attempting to monitor the economic, political, and social conditions that might affect the investing environment in the future. What will that environment look like and how will it affect the selection of assets going forward? We at Paragon Financial Advisors don’t have a crystal ball for the future, but we do try to help our clients invest for the long term. Paragon Financial Advisors is a fee-only registered investment advisory company located in College Station, Texas.  We offer financial planning and investment management services to our clients. 

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