Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

How Many People Have Money Saved for a Rainy Day?

Many people do not have $1,000 saved for an emergency.

A few years ago I read a story in CNN Money (Most Americans can't afford a $1,000 emergency expense) that reported over 60% of Americans did not have enough money in their savings or checking accounts to pay for a $1,000 emergency. I was shocked. Is it possible that only 36% of US adults have $1,000 in a savings account saved up for a rainy day? Well, maybe not.

The study CNN Money cited was a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and there was something problematic with their study--the results were based on the NFCC's July 2011 Financial Literacy Opinion Index which was collected on their homepage (www.DebtAdvice.org). So the only people included in the survey were individuals who would actively seek out "debt advice" and opt-in to complete a survey. Now, the results were starting to seem reasonable: of those people who would go to a debt advice website, and complete a financial literacy survey, only 36% of these individuals have $1,000 saved up for a rainy day.

Well, I have always been bothered by the fact we actually do not know how many US adults have $1,000 saved up for a rainy day. So, I added the same question the NFCC asked in one of our nationally representative surveys. We asked over 700 US adults "If you needed $1,000 for an unplanned expense, what would you do to obtain the money?" Here is what we found out from our representative US sample.

As the graph below shows only 60.7% of people have $1,000 saved for an emergency. That number is the exact opposite of what the NFCC found (which reported that 64% of "US adults" did not have have $1,000 saved for an emergency). Though, this still demonstrates that maybe as many as 40% of US adults would need to obtain the $1,000 through less than desirable methods (borrowing the money from friends or family, taking out a loan, getting a cash advance, selling or pawning some assets, or disregarding some other month expense).

Most Americans can't afford a $1,000 emergency expense
If you needed $1,000 for an unplanned expense, what would you do to obtain the money?
So, even though the NFCC had a skewed sample, I do agree with Gail Cunningham, the spokesperson for the NFCC at the time of the survey, who said in their press release "without adequate savings, consumers have poor resolution choices when an emergency arises. People often say they can't afford to save, but the truth is that they can't afford not to."

Beyond The Purchase is a website dedicated to understanding the psychology behind spending decisions and the relationship between money and happiness. We study how factors like your values and personality interact with spending decisions to affect your happiness. At Beyond The Purchase you can take quizzes that help you understand what motivates your spending decisions, and you’ll get personalized feedback and tips. For example:

How do you score on the five fundamental dimensions of personality? Take our Big Five personality test and find out.

How do you feel about your past, present, and future? Take the Time Attitudes Survey and learn about your relation with time.

How happy are your Facebook updates? We can analyze your last 25 Facebook status updates and determine how happy you have been.

How happy is your subconscious? Take our Happiness IAT and find out.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. To read more about the connection between money and happiness, go to the Beyond the Purchase blog.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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