Americans' Spending, Savings, and Debt in 2020

By 

Dr. Francesca Ortegren

Updated 

November 19th, 2020

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Household debt has been on the rise for the past seven years, reaching record highs in 2020.[1] As of the end of Q2 2020, American households held more than $4.1 trillion in non-mortgage debt in the form of student loans (35% of non-mortgage debt), auto loans (29%), credit cards (19%), and other types of loans (20%).[1][2]

The ongoing debt crisis put many Americans in a tough spot, as thousands lost jobs earlier this year, while the majority had little to nothing in savings as a safety net. 

In fact, 50% of Americans were worried they’d run out of savings after one month, according to a March 2020 Clever Research survey. Now, nearly nine months into a recession, many have dug themselves into a much deeper financial hole.[3]

We surveyed 1,000 Americans to get a pulse on how their spending habits, credit card use, and debt have changed since 2019 and over the course of the pandemic. We found that Americans — particularly millennials — are struggling financially. 

In fact, Americans have increased their debt by more than $7,500 this year, and 52% carry a balance on their credit card month over month.

Key Insights

The average American reported having $41,559 in non-mortgage debt and having taken on an additional $7,512 in debt since this time last year.

52% of Americans carry a balance on their credit card, and 79% of them carry more than $1,000 in credit card debt month-over-month.

Nearly one-quarter of respondents said they have dipped into their savings to help cover expenses during the pandemic, and 30% have spent more than $5,000 of those savings.

81% of Americans agree a second stimulus check of similar value as the first ($1,200) would be a huge help, and 46% of Americans would use a stimulus check to simply pay their bills.

Millennials are more likely to struggle financially in 2020 than baby boomers: They’re 3x as likely to miss or defer a credit card payment, 2x as likely to miss or defer a mortgage payment, and 2x as likely to miss or defer a medical bill.

The Average American Has More Than $41,000 in Non-Mortgage Debt, up $7,500 From Last Year

It’s no surprise that many Americans are in debt, considering that people spend the large majority of their income: In 2019, the typical household earned about $68,703 and spent $62,438 on goods and services. The majority of those expenses were spent on necessities such as[4][5] :

  • Housing ($20,506)

  • Transportation ($10,410)

  • Food and beverage ($8,500)

  • Insurance and pensions ($7,354)

  • Healthcare ($5,049) 

Despite changes in spending during the pandemic due to business closures and social distancing measures, the overall amount of money people spend hasn’t changed drastically.[6] As a result, the respondents in our survey have taken on an additional $7,512 in debt, on average, in the last year, increasing their total non-mortgage debt to $41,559

The surge in debt is problematic for a variety of reasons, but most notably, 54% of Americans said they’ve missed or deferred at least one payment in 2020 compared to the 29% who were worried about missing a payment in January.[7]

Those who missed a payment reported missing:

  • Student loan payments (45%)

  • TV, internet, or phone bills (34%)

  • Credit card bills (30%)

  • Medical bills (30%)

  • Electric, water, or other utility payment (27%)

  • Rent (21%)

  • Mortgage (21%)

Three in 10 Americans said they would likely miss at least one payment in 2020 because they wouldn’t have enough money to cover it.[8] Their predictions weren’t far off: Those who did miss a payment this year did so because they couldn’t cover necessary expenses and their bills.

The top reasons for missing a payment included:

  • Paying for food or groceries instead (37%)

  • Prioritizing other debts (33%)

  • Lost income (28%)

  • Covering an unexpected emergency (25%)

  • Prioritizing rent or mortgage (24%)

  • Paying utilities (22%)

  • Forgetting to pay (18%)

  • Spending too much on nonessentials (15%)

Missing a payment can be costly, regardless of the reason. U.S. households spend nearly $17 billion on costs associated with late bill payments annually, averaging out to about $234 per affected household.[9]

52% of Americans Carry a Balance on Their Credit Card

The majority of Americans (92%) have at least one credit card, and the typical adult has three. We often buy with credit cards due to convenience, security, and rewards, but Americans have increasingly relied on credit cards during the pandemic.

More than three-quarters of respondents opened a new credit card account in 2020 for the following reasons:

  • Sign-up bonuses, points, or rewards (41%)

  • Build credit score (41%)

  • Have credit in case of an emergency (34%)

  • Balance transfers (25%)

  • Help covering expenses due to the pandemic / economy (23%)

  • Help covering expenses not due to the pandemic / economy (20%)

  • Fraud protection (17%)

  • Brand name of the card (16%)

More half of respondents (53%) said they carry a balance month-to-month on their credit cards, up from 47% last year. And those who do carry a balance are carrying more on their cards: 79% said they hold at least $1,000 on their cards this year, compared 72% last year. In addition, 46% hold at least $5,000 on their credit cards in 2020.

Carrying a balance leaves people paying more for their purchases due to notoriously high interest rates on credit cards. The average APR hovers around 24.43% for those with bad credit and nearly 16% across all cards, as of November 4, 2020.[10] Americans end up spending an average of $890 per year just in credit card interest.[11]

Many aren’t just paying extra in interest; they’re incurring late fees, too: 30% of Americans said they’ve missed a credit card payment this year

Those snowballing effects of carrying balances and missing payments can lead to serious delinquency. The percent of accounts severely delinquent (90+ days) was 8% higher at the end of Q2 2020 than it was the same time last year, suggesting people are struggling more to catch up on their missed payments.[12]

As a result, people are prioritizing credit card debt over other forms of debt: 33% plan to pay off their credit card debt in the next year, compared to 20% who have a goal to pay off other forms of debt.

Nearly One-Quarter of Americans Have Dipped Into Emergency Savings to Cover Expenses

Experts suggest that people should have enough in savings to cover about 3-6 months of expenses in case of an emergency.[13] Despite the fact that the percent of disposable income people save was steady or increasing for years before the pandemic, the typical American still isn’t financially prepared for an emergency, much less 3-6 months’ worth of expenses.[14]

In fact, 39% of people couldn’t cover a $400 expense with cash or its equivalent, according to a Federal Reserve study last year — and that was before the pandemic.[15]

More recently, only 31% reported having enough savings to last at least the recommended 3 months, according to the Clever Real Estate COVID-19 Financial Impact Survey.

The pandemic and related recession have caused nearly one-quarter of Americans to dip into the little savings they do have to cover expenses. And 31% of people who have dipped into their savings have spent more than $5,000 of their emergency funds.

One good thing to come out of the pandemic is that many are rethinking their saving habits. This year, people started saving more than ever.[14] In the next year, about one-third of respondents said that building an emergency fund is a major financial goal. 

81% of Americans Say Another Stimulus Check Would Be a Huge Help Financially

From skipping monthly bill payments to dipping into emergency savings, Americans have experienced extreme financial stress in 2020. Earlier this year, the CARES Act provisions included a one-time payment of up to $1,200 plus $500 per dependent to American households. At the time, most Americans agreed or strongly agreed that the check would be a huge help

The need is even stronger for the second proposed stimulus payment: 81% of Americans reported that another check through the Heroes Act would be a huge financial help, an 29% increase from April.  

Although the additional stimulus check would not necessarily put more money into the economy as intended, it could significantly decrease the financial burden many are experiencing during the recession, as more than 6 in 10 could cover one or more month’s worth of expenses with the stimulus cash.[16] Respondents in our survey said they’d use the stimulus money on: 

  • Paying for bills (47%)

  • Paying off debt (45%)

  • Covering necessities such as groceries (32%)

  • Savings (31%)

Millennials Are More Likely to Struggle Financially in 2020 Than Baby Boomers

Millennials only had about 2% more family wealth than families the same age in the early 1980s (after adjusting for inflation), while baby boomers had 135% more wealth than families their age 30 years prior.[17] The current recession is likely to exacerbate the large financial gap between boomers and millennials, as it appears to have more negatively impacted millennials. 

While millennials (25%) and boomers (22%) were equally likely to dip into their savings as a result of the pandemic, boomers spent significantly more money than did millennials. 

The lack of emergency savings caused millennials to look elsewhere for funds. In fact, they were 29% more likely than boomers to rely on credit and other forms of debt to cover expenses this year. 

In fact, those younger than 40 increased their debt by 2% between Q1 and Q2 of 2020, while those over 40 actually decreased theirs by 1%.[18]

Those financial struggles have impacted millennials’ ability to act responsibly when it comes to credit cards and spending: Millennials were more likely than boomers to pay off their credit card balance each month last year. But this year, millennials are 32% more likely to carry a balance month-to-month on their credit cards than they were last year, catching up to boomers. 

Millennials are 3x as likely to miss credit card payments.[8] In January, 29% of millennials reported they expect to miss at least one credit card bill in 2020 (31% actually did). Boomers were more optimistic: Only 5% said they’d miss a payment, but 17% have actually missed one so far.

Millennials were more likely to miss other forms of bills, as well: 55% of millennials missed at least one payment this year, compared to only 33% of boomers

Millennials missed bills related to:

  • Student loans (52%)

  • TV, internet, or phone service (33%)

  • Credit cards (31%)

  • Medical bills (29%)

  • Electric, water, or another utility (28%)

  • Rent (22%)

  • Mortgage (20%)

  • Other debts (11%)

Millennials' reasons for missing payments was often related to a lack of funds, but it wasn’t always due to responsible spending, as millennials were 100% more likely than baby boomers to have missed any payment due to spending too much money on non-essentials.  

Other reasons millennials missed payments included:

  • Needing to cover food or groceries instead (38%)

  • Prioritizing other forms of debt (36%)

  • No longer having income to cover the bill (31%)

  • Paying for an unexpected emergency (25%)

  • Having to pay rent/mortgage (27%)

  • Forgetting to make the payment (17%)

  • Spending too much on non-essentials (14%)

Key Takeaways 

Americans were woefully unprepared for the financial crisis the coronavirus brought on, and many — especially younger and lower-income earners — have been hit hard as a result. 

People have had to spend some or all of their emergency funds even after receiving help via the economic stimulus money earlier this year and are beginning to rely more heavily on credit cards to help cover basic living expenses. Those shifts could have long-term, dire financial consequences by increasing people’s debt through interest charges and late fees — a snowball effect that can cause Americans to feel hopeless about their financial situation. 

Overall, Americans’ spending and saving behaviors have changed substantially over the course of the pandemic, and many will likely continue to struggle until joblessness drops to pre-pandemic levels and the economy evens out.  

Methodology

Respondents were 1,000 Americans who answered up to 20 questions about their finances on October 30, 2020.

ARTICLE SOURCES
[1]

New York Federal Reserve. "Household Debt and Credit." 

[2]

New York Federal Reserve. "Household Debt and Credit Quarterly Report." Page(s) 3.

[3]

National Bureau of Economic Research. "Business Cycle Dating Committee Announcement." 

[4]

Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Composition of U.S. Household Spending 2019." Page(s) 1-9.

[7]

WalletHub. "Late Payments Survey." 

[8]

CNBC. "Hidden Costs of Late Bill Payments." Page(s) 1, 5.

[9]

Creditcards.com. "Average Credit and Interest Rates." Updated November 4, 2020.

[11]

New York Federal Reserve. "Household Debt and Credit Quarterly Report." Page(s) 12.

[13]

St. Louis Federal Reserve. "Personal Savings Rate." 

[15]

Data for Progress. "Staggering Economic Impact of Coronavirus." Page(s) 4.

[16]

New York Federal Reserve. "Household Debt and Credit Quarterly Report." Page(s) 20.