Letters to the Editor • Opinion
Is the pandemic under control? Yes. Over? No.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are already in a savings crisis. The coronavirus could make it even worse.

Consumers are stockpiling toilet paper, nonperishable foods, hand sanitizer and face masks in fear that the coronavirus will hit their communities and sequester them in their homes.

But being forced to stay home due to illness could result in layoffs or unpaid furloughs for many workers who are already living paycheck to paycheck. These folks may need cash more than canned goods.

Coronavirus live updates

A distressing number of Americans have insufficient emergency savings, and many of the nation’s largest banks aren’t doing enough to encourage people to automatically put money away in a savings account, according to a report from the Consumer Federation of America.

Only 31 percent of households in the lowest income quintile (less than $23,290 annually) and 45 percent of those in the second income quintile (between $23,291 and $41,315 annually) have a savings account or money market deposit account, according to the CFA’s analysis of the data from the Federal Reserve Board 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances.

The CFA’s report comes at a crucial time. Automated savings is critical for low- to moderate-income families. If a $500 car repair can crash people’s budgets, just imagine the financial disruption faced by households impacted by the coronavirus either because they are too sick to work and run out of sick leave, or their income is reduced because people aren’t eating out or shopping.

The CFA set out to determine whether the banks provide affordable access to lower-income savers, including the long-term poor and many college students and other young adults.

The organization looked at the accounts for small savers and measured accessibility (could savings deposits and withdrawals be made through tellers without a fee?), affordability (do savers have to pay a monthly fee, and, if not, how do they avoid it?), and the promotion of automated savings (are the banks doing a good enough job encouraging checking-account holders to save through automated deposits?).

Overall, savings accounts at the banks they surveyed aren’t as accessible or reasonably priced as they need to be for lower-income families, said Stephen Brobeck, a senior fellow at the CFA and author of the report.

Only one-quarter of the 101 largest banks offer consumer-friendly accounts for small savers, the CFA report argues.

Even if financial institutions have affordable and accessible savings accounts, many of them fail to aggressively promote automated savings, Brobeck said in an interview.

“Potential pandemics and increasing natural disasters make it even more important for Americans to build an emergency fund that can cushion income loss and unexpected expenses,” Brobeck said.

Big banks’ solution to coronavirus: Deregulation

The key is to remove barriers to low- and moderate-income savers. A lower-cost savings account is often tied to having a checking account. As the CFA points out, the typical monthly checking fee at large banks is $10 to $12. This monthly fee is generally waived if a customer maintains a certain balance and has a regular direct deposit, such as a payroll check. In the survey, most of the largest 30 banks set the minimum at either $300 or $500. Smaller banks and credit unions usually set these minimums at $250 or less, according to the report.

Just 10 of the banks in the study offer savings accounts with no monthly fees that can be opened and maintained at their branches. Six of those 10 don’t require a minimum amount savers have to deposit to open an account. For example, Capital One’s “360 Performance Savings” account has no minimum deposit requirement.

To keep costs down for savers, several banks offer free online accounts that can only be opened online. Twenty-four banks offer low-cost savings accounts at branches to customers who agree to make monthly deposits of at least $25.

If you’re looking for an affordable savings account, you should check out the CFA report (consumerfedusa.org/banking), especially if you want to help your child or a young adult get into the habit of saving. Eighty of the 101 institutions don’t charge monthly fees on savings accounts held by people under 18.

As Brobeck pointed out, if Americans are afraid to leave home or curtail their travel — just as summer vacation season is about to begin — some workers such as restaurant servers might see an immediate decline in their incomes. As the coronavirus spreads, many who are infected are likely to incur additional health costs, such as co-pays for doctor visits and medications.

The easiest way to build a cash reserve is to have your bank or credit union transfer funds regularly and automatically into a savings account.

I understand how hard it is for many families to save. But recent events are just another reminder of how vital it is to have an emergency fund.

Have a question about retirement or personal finance? Join Michelle for an online Q&A every Thursday at 12 p.m. ET. Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.

Loading...