Say what you will about the Trump shutdown; while it revealed plenty about our “leaders” in Washington, it also revealed a good bit about us. Mainly, that many Americans are apparently much more financially vulnerable than anyone realized—or, at least, care to admit. In this case, government workers—who, on average, earn around 50 percent more than the private workforce—were the beneficiaries of both compassion and scrutiny during the shutdown.
On the compassion side, nationwide community-based efforts to support and assist those struggling emerged through the chaos in true American fashion. A perfect example took place Shepherdstown (WV)—as the Visitors Center, in collaboration with several other groups, took action during the shutdown, and took care of their own in a time of need.
On the scrutiny side, questions were two-fold: (a) How can people who average approximately $84,000/year (with more than 300,000 federal employees earning over $100K/year) find themselves living paycheck to paycheck? And (b), if these folks are barely above water, then what does that say about the rest of the country?
As per data that surfaced during the shutdown, we now know that around 70 million Americans are at least 30 days behind on their auto bills. Nearly 80 percent of American workers say they, too, are living paycheck to paycheck. Nearly half of all Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 to cover an emergency. And the average American has less than $4,000 in savings, while 57 percent of U.S. adults have less than $1,000 to their names.
That said, numbers such as the ones above provide some undeniable food for thought—perhaps even snapping people to attention about how they handle, or understand, their finances. But it should be noted: the day-to-day lives of Americans are complex and exclusive for each and every person. A single sick child, parent, or spouse—combined with a mountain of normal monthly bills and an uncooperative health insurance provider—represents just one scenario where a six-figure salary can struggle to pull its weight.
But the title of this piece does ask a legitimate question. Not that 600 words could dive too deep into it, but I will point to a piece that MarketWatch editor Catey Hill recently published—which serves as a snapshot of at least one poor habit affecting Americans’ finances: we’re making a major money mistake around food.
In her piece, Hill highlighted that a quarter of Americans admit they eat out too much. According to financial company Principal, 29 percent of Americans said it was their top expense last year (and it rises each year). Hill pointed to government data, which shows that: “… in 2017, Americans spent more than $3,300 a year on dining out—a 6.7 percent increase from 2016 … and Gallup data from 2018 shows that six in ten Americans ate dinner out at least once in the last week, with 16 percent saying they did it three or more times a week.”
Not only is eating out wreaking havoc on Americans’ savings, Hill emphasized, it’s also expanding waistlines—which isn’t exactly news. According to a study of more than 12,000 people by Public Health Nutrition, Americans typically eat at least 200 more calories per meal when dining out. With 75 percent of Americans either overweight or obese, according to the CDC, it’s a little hard to look away from this potential monthly line item, said Hill: “The medical cost for people who have obesity was $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.”
While we all certainly hope future shutdowns can be avoided, for many Americans, the bigger focus should probably lie in examining the oft-expensive crossroads where our lives and our “lifestyles” intersect—and how mis-navigating that route can leave us desperately in need of funds … when we undoubtedly need them most.