A recent survey of Americans’ spending habits shows people have again begun to pile up large amounts of credit card debt, while a separate study shows nearly a third of people over age 55 have put away zero savings for retirement. The numbers suggest the lessons of the 2008 financial crash were either short-lived or not learned at all.
A study by the website CardHub.com shows that the average household carries credit card debt of more than $7,000, which is close to a record level after a brief period during which credit card use dropped off. A separate study by the Government Accounting Office validates data from other studies that show people nearing retirement age are woefully unprepared to meet future financial needs.
Many economists who study consumer habits hoped the 2008 crash would serve as a wake-up call when it comes to personal finances, but savings and spending data imply most people slept through the alarm. It is interesting to note, however, that people are not entirely unaware of the problem. The credit card survey shows that the rate of paying down credit debt is much higher in the first three months of every year, which the study attributes to people acting on New Year’s resolutions to put their finances in order. But by the end of the year, best intentions are worn down by the temptation to spend what is earned and then some.
Financial responsibility is an individual discipline, so there is no looking to government for a solution. However, the choice of many people to ignore the future for the sake of the present will come with a public reckoning. There will be an avalanche of social change tied to the need to care for large numbers of people unable to manage for themselves. The pressures on entitlement programs will be just part of it.
Many baby boomers will be forced to stay in the workforce longer, crowding out jobs for younger workers. They may end up having to rely on their children for financial support even though the millennial generation is the most debt-steeped in history, largely due to large student loan balances.
The issue is getting some political traction as it careens toward the point of crisis. Several states have adopted or are considering government-sponsored retirement fund programs as fewer companies are offering 401(k) plans to their employees. It’s estimated that 78 million workers, about half the labor force, do not have access to such a savings program.
There are other examples of measures aimed at facilitating a higher rate of personal savings. “We have seen the level of legislation around retirement security increasing among state legislatures year after year," said Luke Martel, a program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the end, however, whether or not to spend wisely and save for the future is a personal choice. The wrong choice will have unpleasant consequences. That may be easy to overlook during times of general economic prosperity, but economies move in cycles, and even though a lot of people felt pain during the last crash, too few are taking measures to prepare for the next one.