Spending and investing are part of the modern consumer culture, reinforced by Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and, yes, even Uncle Sam. Truth be told, our government doesn’t always encourage us to save, even though we’re saving less in real terms than we did at the start of the 1990s. During the bear market, the Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates a dozen times in an effort to boost consumer and business spending to jumpstart the flagging economy. This cost savers billions of dollars in potential interest income as yields on government bonds, CDs, and even passbook savings accounts tumbled to multidecade lows.
For their part, the White House and Congress rebated tax checks to working families in hopes that we would spend it on cars, clothes, entertainment, and travel, thereby propping up the sluggish economy. We did. In fact, we purchased more new cars during the recent economic downturn—about 17 million new cars and trucks annually between 2000 and 2002—as unemployment rates rose and stock portfolios fell, than at the end of the 1990s, when we were flush with cash. Is it any wonder, then, that we are a nation of spenders, investors, and debtors, but not savers? There’s another factor at work. Put simply: We don’t get the “rush” from saving money that we do from spending it—or doubling it, either in Vegas or the Nasdaq. Spending money sends us through a euphoric roller-coaster ride of exhilarating, fast-paced emotions. Our heart rates literally jump when we hear the ka-ching of cash registers. Saving money, on the other hand, is about as much fun as running a marathon on a hot and muggy summer’s day. Victory can’t be spotted for miles ahead.
Meanwhile, we feel pain all along the way. Our Depression-era parents and grandparents gladly endured this pain to send their kids to school and give them a better life. But back then, instantaneous gratification wasn’t in vogue as it is today. Now, many of us simply choose not to save because it’s too hard, it’s not fun, or it takes too long. As a result, too few households set aside too little money each week, each month, and with each paycheck to take care of basic financial needs, like establishing a rainy day fund, paying down debt, and funding longer-term goals such as college or retirement Studies show that one of every four workers in America has saved less than $10,000 toward their retirement. This explains why less than a quarter of Americans are “very confident” that they will be able to live comfortably after leaving the workforce.
The rest of us should be worried. At our current rate of savings, only 44 percent of working families will accumulate enough assets to adequately fund their retirement. This means there’s a good chance that our kids will have to help take care of us in our not-so-golden years. Yet every dollar they spend on us is a dollar that they can’t spend on themselves and their children, which sets in motion a terrible economic domino effect throughout the generations. And speaking of future generations, two out of five parents haven’t saved a dime for their kids’ college tuition. It’s not surprising, then, that a growing percentage of families don’t expect—or encourage— their kids to go to college. It’s a sad consequence of our attitudes toward savings.