Most Americans are barely scraping by, with little room to handle emergency expenses — and this situation appears to be worsening.
A 61% majority of U.S. consumers reported living paycheck to paycheck, according to a new PYMNTS.com survey performed in conjunction with peer-to-peer lending platform LendingClub. This result from the survey, conducted in December, marked a seven-percentage-point rise from May 2021.
Income and budget constraints
The term "paycheck to paycheck" describes a cycle of spending all of the income earned from a pay period before the next payday occurs. This can leave workers and their households unable to cover unexpected expenses or achieve important financial milestones.
Although those with the lowest incomes were most likely to fall into this group, financial strain also affects those earning more.
Specifically, the study found that:
- 77% who earn less than $50,000 per year say they live paycheck to paycheck
- 66% who earn between $50,000 and $100,000 live paycheck to paycheck
- 42% of U.S. consumers earning more than $100,000 live paycheck to paycheck
In terms of age, millennials (ages 24 to 39) had the highest incidence of living paycheck-to-paycheck, at almost 70%. However, baby boomers (ages 56 or older) were the fastest-growing segment, rising 14 points to 54% between May and December 2021.
Some save, some do not
Not all of those leading a paycheck-to-paycheck existence struggle equally. The survey further broke the results down to those who had difficulty paying their bills each month (39% of the total) and those who didn't (22%).
But what almost all of those in the paycheck-to-paycheck group had in common was the inability to save money. This gap is very wide: For example, the average savings of a millennial "living paycheck to paycheck with difficulty" was $3,731, while those not living paycheck to paycheck had a typical nestegg of $15,415.
Among millennials who were in the paycheck-to-paycheck category but could still meet their costs comfortably, their average savings was $6,841.
Previous studies have shown that many aim to be better savers — for example, an earlier CIT Bank survey showed that 77% of respondents wanted to save more money in 2022.
However, saving money can still be difficult, even with a reasonable income — especially without the right resources. According to a National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and Wells Fargo financial survey from December 2021, 56% reported having no budget, which could aid in increasing one’s savings.
This lack of savings leaves consumers exposed to surprise expenses, even small ones. For instance, the PYMNTS.com study found that among those in Generation Z (ages 23 or younger) living from paycheck to paycheck, a full 59% wouldn’t even be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense, while 51% of similarly positioned members of Generation X (ages 40 to 55) said the same.
These findings mirror data from other studies. For example, one survey by life insurance company Bestow, which focused on Black Americans, found that, if faced by an unexpected cost — such as the death of a loved one — the majority would either take on debt (30%) or seek funds from friends and community members (30%) rather than being able to access savings.
But even for those struggling to make ends meet, putting together an emergency savings fund isn’t necessarily out of the question. Experts say that having a plan with small, manageable goals is a great way to start.
Methodology: The Paycheck-To-Paycheck Report is based on a survey of 3,070 U.S. consumers conducted by PYMNTS and LendingClub from Dec. 2 to Dec. 14, 2021, as well as additional economic data.