After living through the Great Depression and World War II, members of the Greatest Generation knew the importance of minimizing their debt and saving for a rainy day.
It seems that lesson hasn’t been passed down very well to subsequent generations of Americans.
An Associated Press story published in Sunday’s Journal-World reported on how much harder it is to be unemployed in 2009 than it was in 1982 when the nation’s jobless rate last climbed above 10 percent. Not only are unemployed Americans spending longer between jobs, but their financial situation when they lose their jobs makes it much harder for them to weather that storm.
According to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Federal Reserve, Americans now carry an average of about $46,000 in debt, including mortgages, credit card balances, auto loans and other debt. That’s more than three times as much as the average $14,000 (adjusted to today’s dollars) owed by each American in 1982.
When you lose your job, you can adjust your lifestyle but it’s too late to adjust your debt. You may be able to negotiate some leeway on your payments, but that debt is still waiting there to be paid, with interest piling up in the meantime.
Unfortunately, most Americans also can’t dip into their savings to help them get by temporarily without a salary. On average, Americans are saving 2.7 percent of their after-tax income, compared to a savings rate of 10.9 percent in 1982. So much for saving for a rainy day.
It all makes our financially conservative parents and grandparents look a little smarter. Having watched people lose everything in the Great Depression, they were leery of going into debt. They operated without credit cards and paid cash for their cars. They probably had a mortgage on their home, but it was an amount they were pretty sure they could handle.
They knew how to save. Instead of buying on credit, they saved their money to buy the things they wanted. If things got rough, the money they had saved might be used to pay a medical bill or fix the furnace instead of buying some “luxury” like a new television or furniture. It was too bad, but it was better than going into debt.
Facing a foreclosure or bankruptcy was a huge embarrassment, a sign that you didn’t know how to handle your money or live within your means. Things have changed. The foreclosure rate today is seven times greater than in 1982, and three times as many Americans are going bankrupt.
Sometimes we don’t appreciate the wisdom of generations that have gone before us, but there probably are plenty of unemployed Americans today who wish they owed a little less and had saved a little more.