40 Percent of Americans Can’t Afford a $400 Surprise Expense

By Reshma Kapadia July 27, 2019, Barron’s

It is the kind of statistic that garners headlines and it is easy to see why: If roughly 40% of Americans would struggle covering $400 in unexpected expenses, how can they possibly save for retirement?

Dipping into a retirement account to cover unexpected expenses—like a $400 car repair or medical payment—is a common way households make ends meet. Along with not having or not contributing to a workplace retirement plan, it is also among the top ways to derail retirement security.

A closer look at the data behind the statistic, however, offers a less dire view of retirement security—and possibly a more effective way to boost it.

At issue is how the media interpreted the responses to a question in the Federal Reserve’s annual Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking, released in May, that asked how people would pay for a $400 emergency expense. Anyone who responded by saying they needed to borrow, sell something, stop paying other bills or simply couldn’t pay were put into the group unable to cover the expense. A large share of lower-income households fell into the group, but so did 17% of households making more than $100,000.

When looking at actual household resources through the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances, Chen says 21% of American households didn’t have that full amount in their checking and savings accounts. The majority of these households had incomes of under $40,000 and tended to not have work-based retirement plans, Chen says. An additional 17% of households had $400, but wouldn’t if unpaid credit-card debt was accounted for.

Looking at education levels, financial literacy and types of debt, Chen concluded that those who felt they couldn’t cover a surprise $400 expense typically had either recently lost a job, had lower incomes, didn’t have a college degree, or were loaded down with debt. Those with heavy debt tended to be middle- to higher-income earners, she says, suggesting that they had the resources but the money was allocated to other expenses, like mortgages, student loans or credit-card payments.

What does this mean for retirement security?

For many of the lower-income households that don’t have the funds to cover a $400 surprise expense, not much will change, Chen says. Most lack work-based retirement plans, she says, and Social Security will cover a majority of their retirement income.

But for the group with $400 in the bank and other claims on the money, a rainy day or “side car” account could help, Chen says. Such funds have been discussed and are parts of legislation floating around Congress, though not in the retirement bill that passed the House and is waiting for Senate approval.

These accounts could be funded through work-based plans, allowing for the first $1,000 in contributions, for example, to go into a stable-value mutual fund that could be tapped without penalty for emergencies in lieu of dipping into a 401(k) or other retirement-savings vehicles and incurring a penalty, Chen says.

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Retirement security is likely to get more attention as the 2020 presidential race takes shape, not just because of the aging electorate but also because of the broader discussion about income and wealth inequality. Many of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have talked about wanting to shore up or even expand Social Security.

Among these Democratic candidates, the $400 statistic has been cited at least twice on the campaign trail. California Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted and mentioned it in May, noting that she had a plan to reverse the Republican tax cut to corporations and the wealthy and use it instead for a middle-class tax cut. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren cited the statistic to underscore the financial strain many Americans face.

And in June, staffers from several senators joined with retirement experts to discuss the need for a universal retirement income at an event put on by the Economic Policy Institute and the New School’s Retirement Equity Lab in Washington, D.C. Among the buzzwords at the session: Portability to minimize the gaps that come in retirement savings when people switch jobs; greater access to work-based plans; and getting cash-strapped Americans ways to contribute something for retirement—including rainy-day funds.

Write to Reshma Kapadia at reshma.kapadia@barrons.com

OPEC and Allies Agree to Restore Oil Production Through 2022

By Janet H. ChoUpdated July 18, 2021 6:30 pm ET / Original July 18, 2021 2:32 pm ET

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Oil pipes stand near the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, developed by Saudi Aramco, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019.Photograph by Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg

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