This report describes the responses to the 2019 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED) as well as responses to a follow-up survey conducted in April 2020. The Federal Reserve Board has fielded this survey each fall since 2013 to understand the wide range of financial challenges and opportunities facing families in the United States.1
The findings in this report primarily reflect the financial circumstances of families in the United States in late 2019, prior to the onset of COVID-19 and the associated financial disruptions.2 At that time, overall financial well-being was similar to that seen in 2018 for most measures in the survey. Consistent with economic improvements over the prior six years, families were faring substantially better than they were when the survey began in 2013. Even so, the results highlight areas of persistent challenges and economic disparities across financial measures, even before the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. In particular, the substantial disparities in overall well-being by race and ethnicity remained in 2019, and the disparity by education widened in recent years.
Yet, while most adults were faring reasonably well financially, results also show that a substantial minority of adults were financially vulnerable at the time of the survey and either could not pay their current month's bills in full or would have struggled to do so if faced with an emergency expense as small as $400. Even fewer had three months of emergency savings to cover expenses in the event of a job loss. This highlights the precarious financial situation that some families were in prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The survey also explored long-run financial circumstances, including returns to education, housing satisfaction, and retirement savings. It included several new topics that have not been asked in previous years of the survey. In 2019, these new topics included self-perceptions of discrimination, differences in work locations by education level, and the repercussions of outstanding legal expenses and court costs. Additionally, the survey continued to monitor emerging issues that may be important to the economy in the future, such as experiences working in the gig economy. Each of these topics is described in this report.
Although the survey results reflect the financial situation at the end of 2019, many families have had their financial lives disrupted in 2020 due to COVID-19 and measures implemented to limit its spread. To understand the extent of these disruptions, the Federal Reserve Board also implemented a smaller follow-up survey in the first week of April 2020 with some of the same questions that were asked in the fall as well as several new questions focused on recent events. This supplemental survey demonstrated the substantial number of people experiencing layoffs or reductions in hours worked and the extent to which some families dealing with layoffs have struggled to pay their monthly bills. Yet, it also indicated that those not experiencing employment disruptions generally were still faring relatively well financially as of early April.
Key findings from the survey across the sections of this report include:
Overall Economic Well-Being in 2019
As of the end of 2019, overall economic well-being had improved substantially relative to when the survey began in 2013. However, differences in financial well-being remained—or had widened slightly—across education levels and across racial and ethnic groups.
- Seventy-five percent of adults were either doing okay or living comfortably financially. This result was unchanged from 2018 and was 13 percentage points higher than in 2013.
- Adults with a bachelor's degree or more were significantly more likely to be doing at least okay financially (88 percent) than those with a high school degree or less (63 percent). This gap in economic well-being by education widened by 6 percentage points since 2017 and, in 2019, was similar to that seen in the first year of the survey in 2013.
- Nearly 8 in 10 white adults and two-thirds of black and Hispanic adults were at least doing okay financially in 2019. The gaps in economic well-being by race and ethnicity remained at least as large as they were in 2013, even as the economy has strengthened and overall well-being improved.
- Sixty-three percent of respondents rated their local economic conditions as "good" or "excellent" in 2019, with the rest rating conditions as "poor" or "only fair." This was nearly unchanged from 2018.
Changes in family income from month to month remained a source of financial strain for some individuals. Financial support from family or friends, and especially parents, is one way that some people covered expenses.
- Three in 10 adults had family income that varied from month to month, with higher rates of volatility among workers in the construction or leisure and hospitality industries.
- One in 10 adults struggled to pay their bills because of monthly changes in income. Those with less confidence in their access to credit were more likely to report financial hardship due to income volatility.
- Ten percent of adults received financial assistance from someone living outside their home. Occasionally, people both gave and received support, as 2 in 10 people who received financial support also provided financial support to someone else.
Although most adults were working as much as they wanted to, many people were not working full time and wanted more work. Many adults also performed gig activities in the month before the survey, although few who participated in the gig economy were doing so as a primary source of income.
- Eighteen percent of adults—including 25 percent of black and Hispanic adults—were not working full time and wanted more work in late 2019.
- Among women ages 25 to 54 who were not working, 46 percent said that childcare or other family obligations contributed to their employment decision. Among similarly aged men who were not working, a smaller 23 percent cited childcare or other family obligations.
- Three in 10 adults engaged in at least one gig activity, or informal work, in the month before the survey, although many of those people spent a relatively small amount of time doing so. One in 10 adults spent 20 hours or more per month on gigs.
- Technology did not drive most of the gig work captured in the survey. Thirteen percent of all people who engaged in gig activities used an app or online platform to find customers and receive payments. The rest found customers or received payments some other way.
Dealing with Unexpected Expenses
The survey continued to observe improvements in preparedness for small financial setbacks, although some adults were unable to pay all of their bills in full or would have been unable to do so if a modest emergency arose. Medical expenses continued to be a concern for some families in 2019, as many adults skipped medical care or had outstanding bills from medical treatments.
- Sixteen percent of adults were not able to pay all of their current month's bills in full at the time of the survey. Another 12 percent of adults said they would be unable to pay all of their current month's bills if they had an unexpected $400 expense that they had to pay.
- If faced with an unexpected expense of $400, 63 percent of adults said they would cover it completely using cash or a credit card paid off at the end of the month—an improvement from half who would have paid this way in 2013.
- Twenty-five percent of adults skipped medical care, such as a visit to a doctor or dentist, in 2019 because they were unable to afford the cost, and 22 percent incurred a major unexpected medical expense during the year.
- Eighteen percent of adults had unpaid debt from their own medical care or from medical care for a family member.
Banking and Credit
Most adults had a bank account and were able to obtain credit from mainstream sources at the end of 2019. However, substantial gaps in banking and credit services existed—especially among racial and ethnic minorities.
- Six percent of adults did not have a bank account, including 14 percent of black adults, 10 percent of Hispanic adults, and 3 percent of white adults.
- Six in 10 adults were very confident that they would be approved for a new credit card if they applied. However, 4 in 10 black adults had this level of confidence in their ability to obtain a new credit card.
- Expectations for adverse credit outcomes can be a barrier to credit access. More than 1 in 10 adults chose not to apply for credit they wanted because they expected the application to be denied.
Most adults were satisfied with their housing and most own their own homes. However, younger adults, as well as those who are black or Hispanic, were less likely to own their own homes and to say that they were satisfied with their housing than the overall average. Renters faced varying degrees of housing strain, including some who report moving due to a threat of eviction.
- Nine in 10 adults overall were satisfied with their neighborhood, and nearly that many were generally satisfied with their own housing. Eight in 10 black and Hispanic adults were satisfied with their housing.
- Renters often said that they did not own because of difficulty getting a mortgage. Sixty-four percent of renters said that an inability to qualify for a mortgage or to come up with a down payment contributed to their decision to rent.
- Three percent of non-homeowners (about 3 million adults) said that their most recent move in the past two years was due to an eviction or the threat of an eviction. Moves resulting from an eviction or the threat of an eviction were twice as likely among non-homeowners without a child as they were among other non-homeowners.
Economic well-being generally rises with education, and most of those holding at least an associate degree said that attending college paid off. However, the likelihood of pursuing and completing higher education varied by race, ethnicity, and family background—in part due to additional barriers faced when pursuing such education.
- Among people with at least a bachelor's degree, 7 in 10 felt that their educational investment paid off financially, whereas 3 in 10 of those who started college but did not complete at least an associate degree shared this view.
- Many attendees of for-profit institutions would have chosen a different school if given the chance to make their decision again. Fifty-four percent of those who attended a for-profit institution would like to have attended a different school, versus one-fourth of those attending a private not-for-profit or public institution.
- More than 6 in 10 black and Hispanic young adults who left or did not begin college did so, at least in part, to support their families financially. Needing to work to provide financial support was a reason for not starting or not completing a certificate or a degree for 4 in 10 white young adults.
Student Loans and Other Education Debt
Over half of young adults under age 30 who went to college took on some debt to pay for their education. Most borrowers were current on their payments or had successfully paid off their loans. However, those who failed to complete a degree, and those who attended for-profit institutions, were more likely to have fallen behind on their payments.
- Among adults who had outstanding debt for their own education in 2019, the typical amount of debt reported in the survey was between $20,000 and $24,999.
- Although most education debt is in the form of student loans, this is not always the case. Twenty-three percent of people with outstanding debt from their education indicated that at least part of this debt was on a credit card.
- Among borrowers under age 40, those who were first-generation college students were more than twice as likely to be behind on their payments as those with a parent who completed a bachelor's degree.
While preferences play a role in the timing of retirement for the majority of retirees, unanticipated life events contributed to the timing of retirement for a substantial share. Although most people save for their retirement and manage these savings on their own, at the end of 2019 many non-retirees were struggling to save, and those who did so frequently expressed discomfort in making investment decisions.
- Collectively, health problems, caring for family, and forced retirements contributed to the timing of retirement for 47 percent of retirees.
- One-fourth of non-retirees indicated that they have no retirement savings, and fewer than 4 in 10 non-retirees felt that their retirement savings are on track.
- Nearly 6 in 10 non-retirees with self-directed retirement savings expressed low levels of comfort about making retirement decisions.
Financial Repercussions from COVID-19
The Federal Reserve fielded a supplemental survey in April 2020 to obtain an updated perspective on financial conditions. This survey was conducted after the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but before most benefits were received. This supplemental survey found that nearly one-fifth of adults experienced either a job loss or a reduction in their hours in March 2020 as the spread of COVID-19 intensified in the United States. Over one-third of those who experienced a job loss or reduction in hours expect to have difficulty with their monthly bills.
- Thirteen percent of adults indicated that they lost a job in March 2020, and an additional 6 percent said that they had their hours reduced or took unpaid leave.
- Among those who lost a job in March 2020, 91 percent anticipated that they would return to work for the same employer or indicated that they had already returned to work.
- Eighteen percent of adults did not expect to be able to pay all of their April bills in full. Among those who lost a job or had their hours reduced, 35 percent did not expect to be able to pay all bills in full.
1. The latest SHED interviewed a sample of over 12,000 individuals with an online survey in October 2019. The anonymized data, as well as a supplement containing the complete SHED questionnaire and responses to all questions in the order asked, are also available at https://www.federalreserve.gov/consumerscommunities/shed.htm. Return to text
2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first reported community spread of COVID-19 in the United States on February 26, 2020 (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/s0226-Covid-19-spread.html) and first reported a death from COVID-19 in the United States on February 29, 2020 (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/s0229-COVID-19-first-death.html). Return to text