While a crisis isn’t an ideal time to push the savings message, the economic fallout from the coronavirus emphasizes how having an emergency fund can make a difference, says George Barany, director of America Saves.
“We’re certainly not tone deaf to that situation by any means, but it seems like this is an opportunity to support those people who really need to establish emergency savings,” Barany said.
Overall, 1 in 4 adults have had trouble paying their bills since the pandemic outbreak, according to a September survey by the Pew Research Center. One-third of Americans have dipped into savings or retirement accounts to make ends meet, and about 1 in 6 have borrowed money from friends or family or gotten groceries from a food bank, the report said. “These types of experiences continue to be more common among adults with lower incomes, those without a college degree and Black and Hispanic Americans,” Pew said.
Black households have been especially hard hit by the covid economic fallout.
“The outsized challenges that Black Americans are facing are a reflection of the generally diminished economic position and health status that they faced before this crisis,” wrote Bradley Hardy, a nonresident senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, and Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University, in a recent policy paper. “Several pre-covid-19 economic conditions — including lower levels of income and wealth, higher unemployment, and greater levels of food and housing insecurity — leave Black families with fewer buffers to absorb economic shocks.”
In a report scheduled for release next week, the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America (CFA) analyzed the finances and savings of Black households before and during the pandemic. The report not surprisingly found that Black households had less net worth and savings compared with White households. America Saves is a campaign coordinated by CFA to advocate for fee-free savings accounts and automatic savings initiatives by financial institutions and employers.
Here’s something noteworthy in the CFA report: Between 2010 and 2019, the percentage of Black households that saved rose from 39 percent to 47 percent, an increase of 21 percent, according to the Federal Reserve’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances.
CFA notes that the Fed data found many Black households negatively impacted by the Great Recession had begun to make a slow but steady recovery. Although only 35 percent of Black households had retirement accounts, the median assets in those accounts increased 67 percent to $35,000 in 2019 from $20,900 in 2013.
“Black households were better prepared than years earlier to cope with an accompanying recession in which many were fired, furloughed, or had work hours cut,” write Barany and Stephen Brobeck, a senior fellow at CFA.
With Congress stalled on another stimulus package, people are left to figure out how to meet their expenses without additional government support in an economy still struggling for a comeback.
Having some savings — even a small amount — can help in a crisis. You may not have enough to pay the rent, but you can buy a bag of groceries perhaps. The problem is that only 42 percent of Blacks have a traditional savings account and/or a money market deposit account.
“It’s not easy for people with lower incomes to save, but the current crisis demonstrates how important it is to make it a top priority,” Brobeck said.
America Saves has partnered with the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education (AFCPE), utilizing the Yellow Ribbon Network. This online platform normally serves veterans, active military and their families but has expanded to connect anyone impacted by the pandemic with certified financial counselors and coaches at no cost. To sign up for a virtual session, go to yellowribbonnetwork.org/afcpecovid19.
The best way to save is to do it automatically. Set up direct deposits to a savings account when you get paid. Keep your savings away from your regular household account. I don’t carry the debit card connected to my emergency fund.
“We encourage people, even if it’s $5 per paycheck or $10 per paycheck, to set up an automatic system, because it’s the system that’s key,” Barany said.
Maybe you truly don’t have the ability to save now, and there’s no shame in that. But for those who can, do it now. The pandemic is a harsh reminder for all Americans — but especially Black households — that having an emergency fund is critical in a financial crisis.
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