The Scary Number of Americans Living a Week Away From Ruin (and Other Freaky Financial Figures)

Jonathan Pryce in Pirates of the Caribbean and Jonathan Pryce in Game of Thrones
This meme has become a symbol for unwise paycheck-to-paycheck spending. | Left: Jonathan Pryce in Pirates of the Caribbean/Disney, Right: Jonathan Pryce in Game of Thrones/HBO

For far too many Americans, life on the ropes — the financial ropes — is a reality. It’s almost counterintuitive, seeing as how rich and prosperous the United States is relative to many other parts of the world. But the stark reality is the gains are largely captured by those at the top. Everyone else is left to fight over the scraps, though the scraps typically are enough to cover the rent and put food on the table.
But when you really dig into the data, troubling patterns emerge. For example, most Americans haven’t seen any real effective raise in their household earnings for decades. Millions of people are jobless, despite the fact that there is a large number of job openings. Americans are losing economic power and at the same time accruing more debt and having more trouble covering the bills they already have.
In short, America is struggling.
A new report from CareerBuilder confirms it. The report details the findings of a national survey conducted earlier in 2017 and puts the very real and very ugly reality of America’s money troubles into a new light. “The national survey, which was conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from┬áMay 24 to June 16, 2017, included representative samples of 2,369 full-time employers and 3,462 full-time U.S. workers across industries and company sizes in the private sector,” the report said.
The big headline figure from the report is how many people are living paycheck to paycheck — that is, they have little savings and can’t afford to miss a paycheck. This obviously becomes a big problem when someone loses a job or gets hurt and is unable to work. Suffice it to say, a lot of people are living on the edge of financial ruin.
We’ll get into that and more. First, though, is the alarming number of people who are living paycheck to paycheck.

Living paycheck to paycheck

Broken piggy bank with coins & hammer
A huge percentage of Americans aren’t far from ruin. |
  • According to the survey, 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

This is the real headline figure from the CareerBuilder report. More than three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, effectively meaning they’re one missed paycheck away from financial ruin. Also, this is a percentage that appears to be on the rise. Compared to a year ago, this percentage has increased 3%. You’ll want to keep in mind, too, that these are the numbers during a time in which economic conditions are relatively favorable. If a recession strikes (and it will at some point), things could get ugly.
You’d be surprised to learn just how much high earners are struggling, too.

High earners aren’t exempt

Sad man looking at his wallet
The money could be disappearing as quickly as it comes in. |
  • Nearly 10% of people earning more than $100,000 live paycheck to paycheck.

This is probably the most striking finding from the CareerBuilder report. About 9% of individuals who earn six figures are still living paycheck to paycheck. For those earning significantly lower than that $100,000 mark, this is likely quite surprising. There can be a number of reasons for this though. Some earning high salaries might still be paying back student loans, for example. Or they fall victim to the “keeping up with the Joneses” trap: lifestyle inflation. In other words, the more you make the more you spend.
Next are the differences between men and women when it comes to money.

Women are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck than men

Stressed woman having headache
Women are more likely to be struggling financially. | SIphotography/iStock/Getty Images
  • 81% of women are living on the financial edge compared to 75% of men.

Flying by the seat of one’s financial pants is also more common among female workers than male. According to the data, 81% of women live paycheck to paycheck, and 75% of men do. Like those earning six figures and still having trouble making ends meet, there are numerous potential explanations. One of the most obvious is the wage gap — which, in itself, is a rather complicated subject. Women also tend to go into less-lucrative fields.
So how many people are simply failing to make ends meet? A considerable amount.

A lot of people aren’t making ends meet

A quarter of American workers have missed a bill. |
  • 1 in 4 American workers failed to meet their financial obligations in the past year.

People are struggling across the board. That’s the key takeaway from this report. But another alarming finding is just how many people are failing to make ends meet. “A quarter of workers (25 percent) have not been able to make ends meet every month in the last year, and 20 percent have missed a payment on some smaller bills,” the report said.
This takes us to the next element in the report, having to do with borrowing. That’s right, it’s debt: another huge problem for most American households.

Debt is a big problem, too

woman choose one credit card from many
Debt is rising, despite a more stable economy. |
  • 71% of American workers are in debt — an increase of 3% from a year before.

More than 70% of Americans are in debt. That, too, is an increase over the numbers from the previous year. In 2016, 68% of Americans reported being in debt, for comparison. There’s more, too: “While 46 percent say their debt is manageable, more than half of those in debt (56 percent) say they feel they will always be in debt.” This clearly plays a role in whether people can cover their bills, and for those living paycheck to paycheck this is a problem.
What about budgeting and saving? Are Americans doing enough?

Budgeting and saving woes

Budgeting can avoid potential financial strife. | G-stockstudio/iStock/Getty Images Plus
  • Only around a third of Americans stick to a budget.

Budgeting and financial planning are tricky. A lot of people try and subsequently give up. It’s easier to fly by the seat of your pants. This is another element that can lead into living a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle. And budgeting is only a part of the equation. Most people budget to save more. Saving more money is what helps people ultimately break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.
Here is the breakdown, from the report, regarding how much people are saving:

  • None: 26%
  • Less than $50: 15%
  • $51 to $100: 16%
  • $101 to $250: 14%
  • $251 to $500: 11%
  • $501 to $750: 5%
  • $751 to $1,000: 4%
  • More than $1,000: 10%

We’ll finish up with the purchases people simply won’t give up, even if they’re taking a big bite out of their paychecks.

What we won’t give up

business person using a laptop
People are still obsessed with their devices. | Thinkstock
  • For proof that we can’t give up our networks and devices, look no further.

There are certain things we won’t give up. For Charlton Heston, it was his guns. For the rest of us, however, it’s mostly technology. The report found the following were the products, services, etc. that Americans say they won’t give up no matter the cost. Some are understandable (pets and the internet) while others have some clear wiggle room.
Here are the things Americans can’t or won’t pry themselves away from:

  • Internet connection: 54%
  • Mobile device (smartphone, tablet, etc.): 53%
  • Driving: 48%
  • Pets: 37%
  • Cable: 21%
  • Going out to eat: 19%
  • Traveling: 17%
  • Education: 13%
  • Buying gifts for people: 13%
  • Alcohol: 11%