How COVID-19 Has Impacted Americans Financially: September Update

By 

Dr. Francesca Ortegren

Updated 

September 24th, 2020

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After six months of the pandemic and recession, the U.S. labor force has regained many lost jobs, but the unemployment rate still remains near 8.4% (compared to 3.7% this time last year), and spending hasn’t quite recovered, suggesting that many Americans are still struggling financially.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people spent 10% (or nearly $1.5 billion) less during the second quarter of 2020 than they did during the first. Monthly spending has fluctuated dramatically since March and continues to be volatile as lockdowns, business closures, and joblessness wax and wane.

Earlier this year, we surveyed Americans to learn more about their financial wellbeing going into the pandemic at the end of March and one month later in April as part of our COVID-19 Financial Impact Series. We surveyed an additional 1,500 people on September 9, 2020, to see where people stand six months into the pandemic.

In March, when uncertainty was especially high, the stock market plummeted to record lows, toilet paper was hard to come by, and the government passed the CARES Act, people were very concerned about an impending recession. In fact, many believed the economic situation would be as bad, if not worse, than the Great Recession of 2008. Those concerns were coupled with dismal savings: 50% of respondents said their emergency savings had already run out or wouldn’t last them through the end of April. 

Americans weren’t financially prepared for record-breaking job losses. To help relieve the financial burden on American families, the federal government enacted the CARES Act that provided a one-time stimulus check of up to $1,200 and an extra $600 per week in unemployment assistance on top of state-funded benefits for anyone receiving unemployment insurance (UI).

At the end of April, we ran the second installment of our COVID-19 Financial Impact Series. At that point, 40% of respondents who had lost their job reported receiving UI, but half didn’t think it was enough to cover their expenses, which led to people accumulating even more debt in April.

The additional $600 per week was likely helpful for many Americans throughout its tenure, but most people can’t afford minimal living expenses like food, transportation, and rent for a two bedroom apartment on state UI benefits alone, which likely means that many will start accumulating even more debt now that they’re not receiving those extra benefits.  

What’s more, even people who were receiving income weren’t in a great position to begin with. In April, 63% of respondents reported that they were living paycheck to paycheck, making it impossible for them to save throughout the pandemic.

As Americans see the sixth month of a recession, we checked in to do a temperature check on their current financial situations as the third installment of our COVID-19 Financial Impact Series. 

We surveyed 1,500 Americans about their current finances, future spending habits, and concerns over the last six months. We were particularly interested in whether people’s finances were more stable now that joblessness has slowed and lockdown restrictions have been at least partially lifted in most major areas across the country. 

61% of Americans now say their emergency savings won’t last through the end of the year or that they have already run out of savings.

In general though, Americans are less worried about their financial future now than they were in April, and there might be a silver lining in that the pandemic might permanently change the way Americans spend and save their money.

Check out the sections below for more detail about what we found (note table of content links work best on Safari, Edge, or Firefox, they may not jump to the appropriate section on Chrome):

Debt and Savings Insights

  • 61% of Americans say their emergency savings won’t last through the end of the year or they’ve already run out of savings.

  • 37% of Americans have no emergency savings at all: 21% reported never having emergency savings to begin with, and 16% reported running out of their emergency savings earlier this year.

  • 74% of Americans reported seeking additional income, taking on credit card debt, digging into savings, or cutting spending during the COVID-19 pandemic to cover their living expenses.

  • 2.3x more people reported taking on additional credit card debt to cover expenses during the pandemic in September (18%) than in April (8%).

  • 1 in 4 Americans reported taking on more non-mortgage debt as a result of the pandemic, and 54% of those in debt borrowed an additional $2,000 or more.

  • 62% of Americans reported living paycheck to paycheck in September compared to 54% in April and 49% before the pandemic.

  • 42% of those with household incomes of more than $100,000 reported living paycheck to paycheck this month.

  • Almost half of Americans (48%) reported helping out friends or family members financially as a result of the pandemic; however, 45% of those who helped reported negative effects such as damaged relationships, lower credit scores, or financial problems of their own.

  • 33% of Americans intentionally cut their spending, 28% used savings or an emergency fund, 19% sold personal items, and 18% took out additional credit card debt to cover living expenses.

Consumer Spending Habits and Concerns Insights

  • 84% of Americans reported having sleepless nights since the beginning of the pandemic and lockdowns due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic (50%), the current state of the world (49%), their children/families (44%), not being able to pay bills (40%), losing income (37%), and running out of savings (34%).

  • In the light of the pandemic, the biggest regret among Americans is not having enough emergency savings (40%), followed closely by saving too little for retirement (32%).

  • The economic impact from the pandemic might have a long-term impact on saving and spending: 41% of Americans say they’ll put more into emergency funds and save for the future, while only 10% of Americans say their spending habits will return to normal after the pandemic.

  • Americans’ biggest financial concerns include job stability (40%), paying for unexpected expenses (40%), paying for everyday bills (37%), and running out of emergency funds (29%).

Homeowner vs. Renter Insights

  • Homeowners might not be able to pay back their deferred mortgage payments: 46% of homeowners who missed payments in 2020 reported being at least $2000 behind on their mortgage.

  • 33% of renters reported missing or deferring rent payments since March, compared to 19% of homeowners missing or deferring mortgage payments.

  • 72% of renters and 55% of homeowners are currently living paycheck to paycheck compared.

  • Renters (30%) are twice as likely as homeowners (15%) to report not having stable income.

  • 39% of renters are not saving for retirement, while homeowners are twice as likely to save for retirement (78%).

  • Renters were more likely to report taking money from retirement savings, selling personal items, working a gig job, moving, and borrowing from family or friends to help cover everyday expenses than were homeowners.

  • On the other hand, homeowners were more inclined to take on additional credit card debt or dip into emergency savings.

  • Homeowners were 25% more likely than renters to say they’ll put more toward retirement in the future.

Americans Have Dismal Savings and Many Live Paycheck to Paycheck

Americans 27% More Likely to Live Paycheck to Paycheck Now Than Before the Pandemic

Many Americans can’t afford to save any money during the pandemic, as most are living paycheck to paycheck. In fact, the proportion of people living paycheck to paycheck has increased from 49% before the pandemic to 54% in April to 62% in September, according to our current and previous COVID-19 Financial Impact Series surveys.

Considering many Americans lost jobs or income during the pandemic, it’s not surprising that more are living paycheck to paycheck — especially as many weren’t saving much prior to the pandemic. 

According to data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the proportion of income people saved has slowly decreased since the 1980s, when it was about 12%. 

Evidence suggests that people struggle to save at most income levels for a number of reasons. One obvious reason is continued inflation without increased wages. 

People spend a significantly higher portion of their income on housing, student loans, and healthcare costs than they did previously and, therefore, struggle to save. Rent, for instance, increased approximately 25% between April 2014 and April 2020, compared to a 19% increase in inflation-adjusted income between 2014 and 2019.

The graph above highlights the discrepancy between income and inflation growth since the 1970s. Current income in the graph represents the actual median income at the time, while real income is the inflation adjusted income (to 2019 dollars), or the “buying power” of median income each year. 

A typical American in 1981, for instance, earned $19,074 in 1981 dollars. After accounting for the cost of goods and services at the time, that income would be equivalent to earning $51,627 in 2019. 

Between 1981 and 2019, current median income increased 260% to $68,703, while purchasing power, or real median income, only increased about 33%. Therefore, the ability to save at the same income level has become exponentially more difficult over time as income levels remain relatively stagnant compared to inflation. 

Those earning more than six figures aren’t immune to the cost-of-living to income discrepancy, either: Even 42% of those with a household income of more than $100,000 reported living paycheck to paycheck in September

While initially counterintuitive, Americans tend to spend most of what they earn regardless of their income levels, and few do a good job of saving for the future. 

The proportion of six-figure earners living paycheck to paycheck was on the rise prior to the pandemic: Only about 10% were living paycheck to paycheck in 2017, according to a CareerBuilder study, but that number had nearly doubled to 18% by February of this year

By April, 27% of respondents in our COVID-19 Financial Impact Series Survey who earned more than $100,000 reported living paycheck to paycheck. Therefore, it’s not surprising that even more six-figure earners are struggling to make ends meet as the recession continues.

The Majority of Americans Will Run Out of Savings by the End of 2020

Americans are notoriously bad at saving for the future: Most people didn’t have enough in savings to cover an unexpected $400 expense before the pandemic, much less keep themselves afloat for 3-6 months, as experts suggest

Respondents in our study were no different: 61% will be out of savings by the end of the year, including 21% who never had any savings to begin with and 16% who ran out of emergency savings earlier this year. 

Nearly 30% of respondents reported dipping into their emergency savings to help cover expenses during the recession, with 19% having spent more than $5,000 of their savings.

Recessions can impact how much people save, perhaps permanently. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, for example, people saved about 3.5% of their disposable income (December 2007). By June 2009, that had nearly doubled to 6.7%. That trend toward saving more continued until it peaked at 10.2% in 2012, and — while it dropped off afterwards — savings didn’t reach pre-recession lows until 2020. 

Early on in the current recession, which officially began in February, people were putting nearly 34% of their disposable income into savings. As people have become slightly more confident in the economy and 42% of lost jobs have resurfaced, savings has sharply declined to only 17.8% as of August.

People in our survey did report having less in savings now than before the pandemic, but they’re attempting to spend less, too. In fact, one-third of respondents said they’ve intentionally cut spending since March

Americans Are Racking Up Debt During the Pandemic

1 in 4 Americans Have Taken on More Debt Since March

All types of non-mortgage debt have increased since the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, Americans held more debt toward student loans (+113%), auto loans (+81%), and personal loans (+29%) in 2019 than they did in 2009, according to Experian’s Consumer Debt Report

By December 2019, the typical U.S. household had more than $80,000 in non-mortgage debt. And they’ve borrowed even more since: 25% of respondents said they’d taken on additional debt as a result of the pandemic, over half of whom have accumulated at least $2,000 more.

Widespread job losses across the country since March have driven people to pay for expenses using credit cards. In fact, 2.3x more respondents reported racking up additional credit card debt in September (18%) than in April (8%)

50% of Americans Have Helped a Friend of Family Member Financially During the Pandemic — And Nearly Half Were Negatively Impacted by It

People strapped for cash might not be able to secure personal loans or credit cards during the pandemic, as banks tend to tighten their standards during economic downturns. 

The net percentage of domestic banks reporting tightened standards on consumer loans and credit cards was 13.6% in the first quarter of 2020 and jumped to 71% by Q3, meaning fewer people qualify. And credit card companies aren’t as eager to open new accounts: According to the New York Times, credit card companies mailed out 80% fewer offers in June this year than they did last year. 

To help cover expenses when getting a loan or line of credit is more difficult, people have turned to friends and family. In fact, about 1 in 10 Americans have borrowed money from family or friends to help cover expenses since March

And, despite the fact that the majority of respondents reported that they’re currently living paycheck to paycheck or will run out of emergency funds soon, 48% said they’ve helped out an adult friend or family member financially during the pandemic.

Of those who have helped someone else:

  • 45% simply gifted the money without expectation of repayment

  • 35% loaned money with the expectation of repayment

  • 13% cosigned on a personal loan

  • 10% cosigned on a lease

Mixing finances with family and friends can be financially and personally risky as many loans go unpaid and relationships become strained. Unsurprisingly, 45% of those who helped family or friends reported being negatively impacted by that financial assistance, including: 

  • Financial problems of their own (24%)

  • Lower credit scores (20%)

  • Damaged relationships (16%)

Spending Habits Have Changed During the Pandemic and Might Look Different After the Recession

People Regret Their Past Financial Choices

Prior to the pandemic, the economy was in a historically long expansion, and people’s spending habits followed suit. Americans were spending more and saving less with little consequence.

But the sudden fall into an economic recession was a wake-up call for many Americans who were not financially prepared to deal with unemployment. Americans’ biggest financial regret is not having enough in savings going into the pandemic. 

The pandemic shed light on people’s lack of emergency savings but also caused people to reconsider their investments. Respondents reported regret when it came to:

  • Not having enough emergency savings at the beginning of the pandemic (40%)

  • How little they put into retirement (32%) 

  • How little they put into investments (22%)

  • Having an unstable source of income (22%)

  • Living outside their means prior to the pandemic (19%)

Confidence in the Economy Continues to Dwindle, and People Plan to Spend Accordingly

A sudden economic downturn combined with a lack of financial preparedness caused regret in spending and saving habits for many Americans, which could lead to long-term changes: 41% of Americans say they’ll put more into emergency funds and save for the future, while only 10% said their spending habits will return to normal after the pandemic.

In addition, 21% Americans plan to put more money toward retirement, and 6% will invest in less-volatile markets.

People’s optimism about their future spending and saving habits might be biased though, as past behaviors, which are often the best predictors of future behaviors, suggest people’s consumption bounces back quickly after a recession. Moreover, people’s expectations about the future economy often impact behavior (and vice versa), according to economists’ theory of rational expectations

For example, while consumer consumption tends to rebound quickly after recessions, spending came back slower than expected after the Great Recession and didn’t reach pre-recession levels until June 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), nearly an entire year after the end of the recession. 

Researchers from Stanford University found that the driving factor behind the slow recovery was consumer confidence in the economy: Consumers didn’t have very high confidence in the future of the economy, and their behavior followed suit. 

Current consumer confidence is relatively low compared to pre-COVID-19 levels but never reached the same lows it had during the Great Recession and has already started to turn around. It’s possible, then, that people’s spending habits will rebound more quickly than they expect. 

Even with Great Recession rebound speeds, we should expect spending to reach pre-recession levels approximately one year after the recession ends.

Despite Financial Struggles, Americans Are Currently Less Concerned About Their Financial Futures Compared to April

A whopping 84% of respondents reported having sleepless nights since March, which were due to financial worries such: 

  • Inability to pay bills (34%)

  • The possibility of losing income (32%)

  • Running out of savings (29%)

Other major causes of sleeplessness were more broadly related to the mental strain of the pandemic, including worries about:

  • The pandemic in general (43%)

  • The current state of the world (42%)

  • Respondent’s children / family (38%)

  • Maintaining relationships with family and friends (24%)

Considering more 60% of respondents reported living paycheck to paycheck and 61% believe they’ll run out of savings by the end of the year (or already have), those sleepless nights aren’t unwarranted. 

Similarly, people’s biggest financial concerns include: 

  • Job security (40%)

  • Paying for an unexpected expense (40%)

  • Paying for everyday bills (37%)

  • Running out of emergency funds (29%)

Despite these worries, Americans are generally less worried about their finances now than they were in April. 

Compared to April, people in September are:

  • 72% less concerned about the potential for going into bankruptcy

  • 59% less concerned about the value of their investments 

  • 55% less concerned about running out of emergency funds / savings

  • 51% less concerned about being able to feed their family

  • 43% less concerned about paying for unexpected costs

  • 38% less concerned about paying every day bills

  • 33% less concerned about job stability

Americans might be less worried about their finances because the initial shock to the economy has leveled out. Put differently, the U.S. job market lost more than 30 million jobs between mid-March and the end of April, with unprecedented numbers week over week. Since then, nearly half of those jobs have been recovered and, with employment continuing to climb, people are likely less worried that they’ll lose their jobs in the near future as a result of the pandemic.

The economy overall seems to be doing better, too, as indicated by stock markets and people’s confidence in the markets. The Dow Jones, for instance, dropped 37% between February 12 and March 23, 2020. People were uncertain about how quickly the stock market would turn around and believed at the time that the pandemic would lead to a recession as bad or worse than the 2008 Financial Crisis. 

As of September 18, though, the Dow has made a substantial recovery and was only about 6.8% lower than it was on February 12. That quick recovery of the stock market has seemed to put many people’s fears at ease. 

Many Americans Are Struggling Financially, but Renters Fall Further Behind

In our previous COVID-19 Financial Impact Series reports, we evaluated financial stability differences among homeowners and renters in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, homeowners were generally better off financially than renters. That held true in September, as well, but continued financial struggles have impacted both homeowners and renters. 

Renters Are 31% More Likely to Live Paycheck to Paycheck Than Homeowners

Renters (30%) are twice as likely as homeowners (15%) to report not having stable income, leaving many renters more likely to lose income or experience stress related to the uncertainty of their jobs. Moreover, renters don’t just have less stable jobs; they also struggle to save: 72% of renters reported living paycheck to paycheck compared to 55% of homeowners

This isn’t new to the recession, though. Renters tended to struggle more financially than homeowners long before the pandemic. According to a study by the Urban Institute, for instance, renters have more hardships than homeowners across several metrics on average. Renters are 1.45x more likely to have trouble paying rent, 1.5x more likely to struggle to pay utilities, and 1.54x more likely to experience food insecurity than homeowners over the year leading up to the study. 

Overall, 74% of renters and 50% of homeowners report they will run out of emergency savings in 2020. In addition, 27% of renters and 14% of homeowners reported never having emergency savings to begin with — even before the pandemic.

With more stable incomes and a higher likelihood of living comfortably between paychecks, homeowners were 2x more likely to report their savings would last 6 months or more than renters, and renters were 1.74x more likely to have no savings (because they’ve never had any emergency savings or they’ve already spent it) than homeowners.

Interestingly though, homeowners have spent a larger amount of money from their savings: 54% of homeowners have spent at least $1,000 from their emergency funds compared to only 36% of renters

Differences in how much renters and homeowners have taken from their savings to pay for costs is likely due to a number of factors, including differences in housing costs. The median gross rent (which includes utilities and other housing costs) in the U.S. is about $1,023 per month, while homeowners with a mortgage spend about $1,600, according to data from the Census.

Moreover, homeowners were less likely to have missed housing payments than renters (more on that below), meaning they’re more likely to be dipping into savings to pay for their housing than renters on average.

Homeowners might also be taking on additional projects around the house that cost extra money: Home remodeling projects were up nearly 60% this summer compared to last year. According to a study by ValuePenguin, 38% of homeowners who have taken on home projects during the pandemic helped cover the cost by dipping into their savings.

Homeowners Less Likely to Miss Payments Than Renters but Owe More on Deferred Payments

The CARES Act allowed both homeowners and renters to defer payments on their residences without penalty in some cases. Although many took advantage of the opportunity to push off payments in order to pay for other expenses or provide a cushion in the case of a job loss, deferred payments still have to be paid back after some time. 

Not surprisingly, homeowners and renters differed in terms of how likely they were to defer payments and in how much they currently owe on top of their normal payments. 

In total, 24% of homeowners and renters have missed or deferred a mortgage or rent payment during the pandemic.

1 in 5 homeowners with a mortgage said they’ve missed or deferred at least one payment since March. Of those, 46% have missed three or more payments, and 18% are still more than $5,000 behind on payments.

Moreover, homeowners who reported living paycheck to paycheck were 3.7x more likely to have missed at least one mortgage payment than those who are saving money. 

Renters were more likely to miss or defer rent payments than homeowners, but they tended to owe less when they did. More specifically, 1 in 3 renters reported missing payments (compared to 19% of homeowners), but only 25% owe more than $2,000 (compared to 46% of homeowners).

Like homeowners, renters who live paycheck to paycheck are more likely (2.7x) to have missed or deferred payments than those who don’t.

Just 16% of homeowners and 15% of renters have paid back their missed payments.

Pushing those payments off might put renters and homeowners in a tough spot when they do have to repay, as it’s possible all delayed payments will be owed at the same time or in a shorter amount of time than is financially feasible. 

Renters are at a larger disadvantage when it comes to repaying deferred housing costs. According to Freddie Mac, homeowners who put their mortgages into forbearance under the CARES Act have until the end of their loan to repay missed payments. Their minimum monthly payment isn’t affected by the deferral, so homeowners can choose to go back to paying the same amount once their forbearance is lifted.

Renters, on the other hand, are at the mercy of their landlords (who have their own finances to consider). Under the CARES Act, renters whose landlords put their mortgage into forbearance were protected from eviction, late fees and, in some cases, couldn’t be required to pay any missed rent payments as a lump sum payment. Many of those protections are no longer guaranteed, though.

The CDC has issued an extended moratorium on evictions through the end of the year, but the order doesn’t preclude penalties related to missing or late payments — landlords can still charge late fees and interest and are not obligated to provide any relief when it comes to repayment plans or deferring payments in most circumstances.

Therefore, barring local ordinances, landlords can require all missed rent payments to be paid at once and can legally evict renters who can’t pay the lump sum in January.

Summary

  • A staggering number of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and have little in savings to help cover everyday expenses or unexpected costs. This has held true for many years but is especially unsettling during a recession.

  • Americans are still struggling financially but aren’t nearly as worried about their finances as they were in April due to large economic and job recovery.

  • Renters are struggling more than homeowners now and are much more vulnerable to future financial hardships due to the pandemic. 

Methodology

The data in this report were gathered from an online survey on September 9, 2020. The only restriction for participation was that respondents were 18 or older, lived in the United States, and were either paying rent or a mortgage on the home in which they lived. 

We collected data from 1,500 respondents, who each answered up to 21 questions (some were dependent on answers to other questions, so not all respondents answered all of the questions).

You can view the results of the survey here.