Our Financial Failings

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Meet the typical American family.

It has about $3,800 in the bank. No one has a retirement account, and the neighbors who do only have about $35,000 in theirs. Mutual funds? Stocks? Bonds? Nope. The house is worth $160,000, but the family owes $95,000 on it to the bank. The breadwinners make more than $43,000 a year but can't manage to pay off a $2,200 credit card balance.

That is the portrait of the median American household as painted by the Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances. The survey, which does not distinguish between sizes of families, nevertheless offers the most detailed look available of the balance sheet of U.S. households.

The Post asked a half-dozen financial planners to review the Fed data about what different groups of Americans own and what they owe. We asked them what advice they would give someone confronting the financial situation faced by the average American, using median numbers, or the midpoint at which half of the population is above and half is below each indicator.

They don't like what they see.

"This is awfully sobering," said Peter Speros, managing director of Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros & Blayney Inc., a wealth-management firm in McLean. "These numbers are just so much worse than I would have thought. It's a real eye-opener."

Specifically, Speros and the other planners said, if the average family walked into their offices, they would sit them down and give them some tough talk. Time to pare back expenses, the financial advisers would say, in order to build a cash reserve big enough to get everyone through a layoff or other unforeseen adversity. And the family would get an earful about saving more aggressively for retirement, so members could have some hope of retiring at a reasonable age and maintaining the standard of living they and their family are accustomed to. Only 49.7 percent of American families even had a retirement account in 2004.

Those at the median are not the only Americans who need help. The planners had advice for the typical family headed by someone who is young, middle-aged, retired, and for the affluent and poor. The bad news: Each of these groups need to do some things differently. The good news: Their financial problems are not hopeless.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company