Making smart spending and saving decisions is crucial to emerging from economic downturn

Michelle Singletary
Columnist June 16, 2012

I was elated when one of the participants in the financial ministry that I direct jumped for joy after finally landing a job. It had been two years since she was last employed.

In an e-mail, the woman wrote: “I HAVE A JOB!!!!!! Woot woot!!!”

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

I received another e-mail from my friend a month later. She wanted to quit. It wasn’t the work that was the problem. It was the stress of getting to work.

When she lost her job, she couldn’t keep up with her car payments and pay her rent. The car was repossessed.

“The closest bus stop is a mile away, and I don’t have steady or reliable transportation to and from work,” she wrote.

When I read the recent report from the Federal Reserve that the median net worth of families — the difference between gross assets and liabilities — dropped 39 percent from 2007 to 2010, I saw my friend’s face and the many others I’ve encountered trying to rebuild their financial lives.

Looking at just income, the Fed’s survey of consumer finances found that over the same period, the median value of real (inflation-adjusted) family income before taxes fell 7.7 percent. Others have experienced a much greater loss in income. My friend went from earning $52,000 as a senior executive assistant for a trade association to her current salary of $38,000 working for a nonprofit.

She and others like her are the faces behind the facts. I talk to people who once had positive net worth but now only see the red of their liabilities. I console people who have gone through their savings or depleted their retirement savings to pay for basic necessities after being laid off. I counsel them. I cry with them.

Families saw their net worth drop from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010. There has been an awful lot of wealth lost and not all of it because people were recklessly irresponsible.

Many families did spend too much, accumulating too much debt, mostly in real estate. The Fed said because the net equity in homes has been smaller than the asset value of the house itself, the collapse in housing prices amplified the proportional effect on net worth declines.

But the Fed also attributes the losses to unrealized capital gains from real estate, businesses, stocks and mutual funds — the share of total assets fell 11.6 percentage points, to 24.5 percent in 2010.

People have been trying to correct bad habits. The percentage of families using credit cards for borrowing dropped. Overall, the median balance for those carrying a credit card balance fell 16.1 percent to $2,600. Over the three-year period, the median balance fell for most demographic groups. The number of credit cards held by families also decreased.

It’s also hard to plan when you aren’t sure what you’re going to earn. Over the 2007-10 period, the U.S. economy experienced its most substantial downturn since the Great Depression, the Fed says. In 2010, 35.1 percent of families reported that they didn’t have a good idea of what their income would be for the next year, and 29 percent reported that they don’t usually have a good idea of their next year’s income.

“Families’ finances are affected by both their own decisions and the state of the broader economy,” the Fed said.

So what can we learn from this report? Because if we don’t ask the question, what’s the point of capturing the statistics?

One, don’t replace old financial bad habits with new ones. While debt is down in some areas, it’s increasing in another.

School loans rose 11.9 percentage points as a share of installment borrowing over the recent three-year period, the Fed reported. In 2010, 45.1 percent of such borrowing was related to education, 39.3 percent was related to the purchase of a vehicle. In past surveys, the balances on vehicle loans always accounted for more than half of all installment debt.

People still are not saving enough. Overall, from 2007 to 2010, the proportion of families who reported that they had saved in the preceding year fell from 56.4 percent to 52 percent. The Fed said the decrease pushed the fraction of families reporting savings to the lowest level since it began collecting such information in 1992.

When the economy is rebooted and thriving again, it might be easy to fall back into old habits. But don’t forget the hardships.

“I’m learning to control my spending, have a plan, have a budget and save save save,” my friend said. “I wasn’t prepared at all for what happened.”

Now you know.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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