Wage pressures argue for frugal lifestyle, increased savings rates

I've been traveling around the country talking about my new book, "The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More, and Live Better.'' One skeptical question that keeps coming up from people I talk with is this: "Won't we just go back to borrowing more and saving less once it's apparent that the economy is doing better and the job market improving?''

I don't think so, for a number of reasons. One important reason is that the pressure to save won't let up because of the poor outlook for wages. It's a safe bet that employers won't hand out big wage increases with an official unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

The wage story is even more disturbing than the devastating job losses of the severe recession. Fact is, a majority of workers haven't had much of a pay increase for the past several decades. However you measure it -- wages, earnings or total compensation -- the inflation-adjusted pay story is essentially the same for the bulk of workers: Inflation-adjusted pay is up a modest amount since the late 1970s, with the exception of a brief period, 1995-2000. Most of the gains over the past three decades or so have been captured by the top 10 percent to 15 percent of workers.

A number of factors account for anemic wage growth. Among those forces are intense competition unleashed by globalization, deregulation, and technological upheaval, which have conspired together to keep a tight lid on compensation. To keep labor costs down, companies now outsource many jobs to cheaper workers overseas and by using low-cost contractors at home. The upward spiral in health care costs has eroded wages.

Of course, we're a much wealthier society than we were in the 1970s. We can afford more. Fierce price competition and lower inflation rates have boosted the purchasing power of the money we make. But much of the gain in household wealth really comes from the rise of the two-income household. Yet with more than 70 percent of married women with children working outside the home, as well as Mom and Dad putting in more hours on the job, the money push from the growing ranks of two-income couples has leveled off.

The wage picture I'm projecting suggests it won't be easy to set money aside. The simplest, most effective way to pay yourself first is to "automate" savings. Anyone participating in an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k), 403(b) or 457 has the money automatically taken out of every paycheck.

The generation that lived through the Great Recession has learned that it's financially dangerous to carry too much debt, a lesson that will shape our finances for years. Savings allows for sensible risk-taking over a lifetime. It lets us pursue intriguing opportunities when they come along, to take risks that might lead to a more satisfying career, to embrace changes in our lives that could lead to greater happiness.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for American Public Media's "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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