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Half of consumers are in fragile financial condition, study finds

Fifty-one percent would face hardship after missing one paycheck

Photo (c) AndreyPopov - Getty Images
The economy is humming, unemployment is near record lows, but the American consumer is in fragile financial condition, according to the latest research.

A University of Chicago study found 51 percent of working adults could not miss more than one paycheck and still cover basic necessities. Another 15 percent would experience hardship after two missed paychecks.

The smaller those paychecks are, the more they would be missed, researchers found. Two-thirds of households earning less than $30,000 a year would not be able to purchase necessities if they missed a paycheck.

“Even short disruptions in pay can cause significant hardship, as most Americans appear to be living paycheck-to-paycheck,” said Angela Fontes, director of the Behavioral and Economic Analysis and Decision-making (BEAD) program at NORC at the University of Chicago. “The issue is particularly salient for Hispanic and for low-income households, where the vast majority of these households would need to begin depleting savings, if they have any, sooner.”

Resorting to expensive loans

When households miss a paycheck, they often turn to expensive, and even dangerous forms of financing. Nearly half said they would put expenses on a credit card. Even more alarming to researchers, 17 percent said they would turn to a payday or car title loan.

With interest rates in the 400 to 800 percent range, the researchers warn that turning to these short-term loans as a substitute for regular income can be costly.

The study appears to confirm previous research that suggests American consumers are not well positioned to deal with even a short interruption in income. A year ago, the Federal Reserve reported that four in 10 consumers don’t have enough money in savings to cover an unexpected $400 car repair bill.

Based on answers to a series of questions, two in five adults faced what the Federal Reserve called “a high likelihood of material hardship,” meaning they would have trouble paying for food, rent, and utilities.

Earlier this week a report from brokerage firm Charles Schwab found 62 percent of millennials believed they were living paycheck-to-paycheck and only 38 percent felt “financially stable.”

Even so, this generation also admitted to spending an average of $478 a month on “nonessential” purchases, more than all other age groups.

The study showed millennials cited social media platforms as the biggest “bad influence” in how they manage money. According to the survey, three in five Americans pay more attention to how their friends spend compared to how they save.

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