More Americans are letting cash pile up at the bank


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Americans are holding more cash in their bank accounts than they have at any other point over the last two decades, a new study found. The average checking account balance reached $4,436 at the end of last year, nearly double the average balance of $2,100 seen over the last 25 years, according to a new report from Moebs Services, an economic research firm. Prior to 2003, checking account balances pretty much hovered around $2,000, according to the report. Why the change? The growing cash piles show Americans may not feel any better about their finances six years after the market crash despite the fact that stocks are soaring and the unemployment rate is down, says Mike Moebs, economist and chief executive of the firm. If people were feeling better about the economy and confident in their jobs, they would be spending that cash, Moebs says. That's what happened during the boom years leading up to the last recession, when the average checking account balance bottomed out at $778 in 2007. "The consumer says times are good, the next paycheck is just around the corner" and they spend more money, Moebs says. "It’s just human nature." Instead, many consumers without jobs have stopped looking for work. Those who are working may be thinking about how they probably won't get a big raise any time soon. In the meantime, they cut back on shopping, going out to eat and traveling so that they can afford their groceries, gas and utility bills, which are getting more expensive. As Moebs wrote in the report:

If the economy is doing well as measured by low unemployment and moderate to low inflation and prices, then the average balance in the consumer’s checking account falls to about $1,400. If the economy really heats up, then, in 2007 for example, the balance can fall below $1,000 since household revenue is doing well and need for liquidity is just a paycheck or two away.

For some consumers, the tactic of holding more cash may be a way for them to ward off overdraft fees, a major source of revenue for many big banks. Others may be holding more cash to avoid fees and meet minimum balance requirements some banks are instituting for checking accounts, says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com. But many people are probably building an emergency fund so that they can cover their bills if they fall on hard times, Moebs says. "They’re saying 'let’s be cautious, let’s not use all of that money,'" he says. Of course, some advisers argue it may not be smart to hold too much cash in a checking account, where the money is likely to earn barely any interest. But, as Moebs points out, consumers who are counting on using the money soon may not want to risk sticking the cash in the stock market, and probably aren't impressed with today's low bond yields.

Jonnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal.
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