Among the more striking economic numbers in recent months is the personal savings rate, at least among those still working. America’s personal savings rate — the percentage of income left after paying taxes and spending money — jumped to 32.2% in April. The savings rate came down in May to a still steep 23.2%. To put those numbers in perspective, the personal savings rate was at 7.7% in December 2019 and the highest it had been in recent years was 12% in 2012.
Economic optimists point to the high savings rate as a critical ingredient for a stronger than expected recovery. Savings will soon fuel a surge in consumer spending. Skeptics of the pent-up demand scenario argue much of the savings reflects financial caution.
I’m persuaded that the primary motivation is precautionary. The initial hope that the pandemic would be contained within a short period of time is giving way to the sober realization that combating the virus will take time. Governors in states where COVID-19 cases are increasing at an alarming pace recently reversed some business reopening decisions. Other governors and corporate leaders are reaching for the pause button. The same caution shows up with consumers.
The economic implications of the high savings rate may offer mixed messages, but the personal finance implications are clear: For those with an income now is an opportune time to shore up household finances and lower household risk.
Here are three risk reduction examples. Older adults have been taking on more debt in recent years. In 2001, about half of households headed by someone 60 years or older had some debt. By 2013 that figure had climbed to 61%. The extra savings could go toward paying down debts if you’re near the traditional retirement years.
For those in their late 30s to early 50s with little set aside for retirement, perhaps now is a good time to boost how much goes into the 401(k). Younger workers who struggle to set aside savings might focus on building a cash cushion. Of course, depending on your household circumstances, any of these suggestions could apply at any age.
Worries about money in normal times are widespread, let alone during a pandemic recession. For those with an income, hard times offer an opportunity to take stock of household finances and focus on how better to align your money with your values.
Financial freedom is a low overhead that lets you live the life you want to lead.
Chris Farrell is a senior economics contributor for “Marketplace” and Minnesota Public Radio.