Financial Health of the US Households: 31% of American Adults Are Struggling or Just Getting By

The financial and economic health of the country is an important prerequisite for future growth and development. Hence, it's crucial to measure the state of the financial health of the population to extinguish matters requiring attention. In May, The Federal Reserve released data on the economic well-being of US households and consumers, looking at the state of financial health of the population over the past year.

The third annual study by The Federal Reserve revealed important information about how individuals and their families are faring in the economy. Probably one of the most disturbing data points emphasized in the study is that 31%, or approximately 76 million adults in the country, are either struggling to get by or are just getting by. The rest of the population reports to be either living comfortably or doing okay, which is 4% higher than in 2014 signifying that overall well-being of American adults is improving.

Work & income

Given that almost a third of the population is in a difficult financial situation, it is no surprise that 22% of working population are either working multiple jobs, doing informal work for pay in addition to their main job, or both.

Probably as a result of having multiple jobs and performing informal work, there is a certain instability in month to month income as almost a third of American working adults (32%) report that their income varies to some degree from month to month. As for expenses, 43% report that their monthly expenses vary to some degree as well.

Volatile income and expenses create financial instability in households, which is reflected in the data gathered. About 42% of those with volatile incomes or expenses reported to be struggling to pay their bills at times because of this volatility.

Economic preparedness

Impressively, the study found that nearly half of adults are ill-prepared for a financial disruption and would struggle to cover emergency expenses should they arise. Moreover, 46% reported that they either could not cover a 400-dollar emergency expense, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

Health maintenance appeared to be a particularly painful matter. About 22% of adults experienced a major unexpected medical expense that they had to pay out of pocket in the prior year, and 46% of those who say they had a major medical expense reported to be owing a debt from that expense.

Banking & credit

It’s interesting that although the majority believes that in case they apply for credit, it will be available to them (three-quarters are confident in their ability to obtain a credit card); in reality, a sizeable minority of those who actually recently expressed a desire for credit reported some difficulty in getting approved. In fact, data suggests that 40% of those who desired credit, faced a difficulty in accessing it (real or perceived).

Student loans

Educational loans are quite a sizable industry in the US. In fact, over half of adults under age 30 who attended college took on at least some debt (student loans, credit card debt, and other forms of borrowing) while pursuing their education.

In addition to any student loans, 21% with debt from their own education have education-related credit card debt. Among respondents who report that they currently owe student loan debt for their own education, the mean level of this debt is $30,156 and the median is $12,000. However, the median outstanding education-related credit card debt is reported to be $3,000.

Quite a sizable part of American adults’ population (21%) who borrowed to attend a for-profit institution are behind on their loan payments. However, among those who borrowed to attend a public or not-for-profit institution, only 7% and 5% are behind on their payments, respectively.


Retirement savings are a crucial part of the financial health and sustainability in the long term. Unfortunately, 31% of non-retired respondents reported that they have no retirement savings or pension at all, including 27% of non-retired respondents age 60+.

Moreover, almost half (49%) of adults with self-directed retirement accounts are either not confident or only slightly confident in their ability to make the right investment decisions. Sadly, 52% of adults that do not even seek out for advice on investing their funds don’t do it just because they either cannot afford it or would like help but do not know where to get it.


The study suggests that overall, the financial well-being of Americans seems to have improved relative to previous years. Nonetheless, there is still some concern over the part of the population that experience significant financial stress and who are at risk for financial disruption in the case of further economic hardships.

While the study doesn't explain the growing uncertainty and financial stress, it does emphasize the importance of paying attention to disadvantaged groups of population and the extent to which they are, or are not, fully benefiting from broader economic growth.