January 24, 2007

We Try Hard. We Fall Short. Americans Assess Their Saving Habits

II. Saving, Spending, Splurging

FigureAmerica’s best-known aphorism about thrift advises that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” but if its author, Ben Franklin, were somehow able to review the findings of this survey, he’d probably find them bittersweet.

On the one hand, large majorities of Americans describe themselves as savers by instinct, temperament and inclination. On the other hand, most Americans also acknowledge they usually fail to live up to this self-image.

The survey posed three questions about people’s saving and spending habits: How closely do you watch the amount of money you spend? Are you the kind of person who always looks for ways to save money? Are you the kind of person who is always aware of how much money you’re spending?

Lopsided majorities give what amounts to the “thrifty” response to each of these questions. Nearly nine in ten say they watch their spending either “very closely” (47%) or “fairly closely” (41%). Nearly eight in ten (77%) say they always look for ways to save money. And two-thirds (67%) say they are always aware of how much money they’re spending.

Yet when respondents were asked whether they are saving and investing as much as they should, nearly two-thirds (63%) said they aren’t.

Figure

Moreover, this gap between self-image and behavior deepens when one looks at the demographic profiles of the respondents to each of the questions. The survey finds that the kinds of people most likely to describe themselves as savers (across a three-item index) are not the same as the kinds of people most likely to say they save enough.

Figure

The people who describe themselves as savers (on a three-item index) tend to have lower incomes, and to say they’ve had a problem with debt. In short, these self-described savers are the people with the greatest need to save. Also, women are more likely than men to say they are savers.

Meanwhile, those who say they actually do save enough tend to have higher incomes and college educations, and they’re likely to be older than the rest of the population. In short, they save more because they have more. But, perhaps because they feel less pressure than others to watch every penny, they’re a bit less inclined to describe themselves as savers.