Executive Summary

This report describes the responses to the 2020 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED). 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 financial circumstances in the fourth quarter of 2020.

When the Federal Reserve Board created the SHED, the economy was still recovering from the Great Recession, and the survey helped monitor that recovery and identify possible risks to the financial stability of U.S. families. In 2020, the United States dealt with unprecedented challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. This annual survey, along with two supplemental surveys conducted earlier in the year, provides insights into the challenges that people were facing as a result, as well as the effects of efforts to alleviate these financial difficulties.2

The pandemic caused substantial disruptions to many people's finances, as well as to their daily lives, even while public policy responses appear to have muted many of the effects. An unprecedented share of adults experienced a layoff during the year, many of whom did not expect to return to their old jobs. Others dealt with disruptions to childcare and remote learning for their children. Consistent with the magnitude of these disruptions, the share of adults who said that they were worse off financially than they were a year earlier was the highest since the survey began asking this question in 2014. Additionally, as the country dealt with pandemic-related challenges, the share of adults who thought that their local economy was faring well declined sharply.

Financial hardships caused by the pandemic were counterbalanced by financial relief and stimulus measures, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). In July, shortly after the enactment of these programs, financial well-being ticked up, as did the share of adults who would pay a small emergency expense using cash on hand. Yet, by November 2020 financial well-being based on these measures had edged back down.

Even though many people said they were worse off financially than they were in 2019, most still said that despite these setbacks they were managing at least okay financially near the end of the year and, across several measures, appeared to have financial resources similar to those observed a year earlier. The share of adults who reported doing at least okay financially was unchanged from a year earlier, and the share of adults who would pay a $400 expense using cash or a cash equivalent was nearly unchanged. Similarly, rates of bank account ownership and preparedness for retirement were similar to those seen in late 2019.

A clear pattern from the survey is that financial challenges in 2020 were uneven, and frequently left those who entered the year with fewer resources further behind. Many laid-off workers had limited financial buffers before the pandemic and exhibited substantial declines in their financial well-being in the past year. Gaps in financial well-being by race and ethnicity persisted in 2020, and adults with less than a high school degree fell further behind those with higher levels of education.

The survey also highlights concerns about the academic progress of children and young adults as schools turned to online classes and distance learning. Many parents of primary and secondary school children taking online classes did not feel that their children were learning as much as they would through in-person classes. College students who were taking classes online expressed a similar sentiment about the quality and value of online education.

In addition to addressing disruptions related to the pandemic, the survey provides insights into how people viewed their longer-run financial circumstances, including returns to education, housing satisfaction, and retirement savings. The survey also continued to monitor emerging issues that may be important to the economy in the future, such as experiences working in the gig economy. Throughout this report, results are presented for both recent financial developments and impacts of the pandemic, as well as ongoing trends within various aspects of people's financial lives.

Key findings from the survey across the sections of this report include:

Overall Financial Well-Being

Overall financial well-being has fluctuated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but by the fourth quarter of 2020, the share of adults who were doing at least okay financially was unchanged relative to 2019. That said, not all groups have fared similarly, and persistent disparities in well-being across education and race remained. Moreover, economic distress from the pandemic was evident when looking at people's assessment of their own financial trajectories over the past year and their assessment of local economic conditions.

  • Nearly one-fourth of adults were worse off financially compared to 12 months earlier, up from 14 percent in 2019. This increase occurred broadly across the population, and likely reflects economic distress resulting from the pandemic.
  • Despite the increase in the share doing worse off financially, most still said they were at least doing okay overall. Seventy-five percent of adults were either doing okay or living comfortably financially in November, which was unchanged from 2019 after having fluctuated through the year.
  • Adults with at least a bachelor's degree were much more likely to report doing at least okay financially (89 percent) than those with less than a high school degree (45 percent). This gap increased from 34 percentage points in 2019 to 44 percentage points in 2020.
  • Less than two-thirds of Black and Hispanic adults were doing at least okay financially, compared with 80 percent of White adults and 84 percent of Asian adults. The gap in financial well-being between White adults and Black and Hispanic adults grew by 4 percentage points since 2017.
  • Forty-three percent of adults rated their local economic conditions as "good" or "excellent" in 2020, markedly lower than the 63 percent of adults who had a positive assessment of their local economic conditions in 2019.

Income

Most adults spent less than their income during the month before the survey, although the likelihood of doing so varied greatly by education. Consistent with the pattern of layoffs, income declines were greatest among those with less education. However, spending declines were most prevalent among those with at least a bachelor's degree.

  • Fourteen percent of adults received unemployment income in the prior year, up substantially from 2 percent in 2019.
  • Twenty-four percent of people saw their income increase in 2020, compared with 19 percent whose income declined. Those with higher levels of education were disproportionately likely to see income increases.
  • Six percent of adults with less than a high school degree said their usual bank account balances, after paying monthly bills, increased in the prior year. Twenty-five percent said their usual balances declined. Among adults with at least a bachelor's degree, this pattern is reversed.

Employment

Fewer people were working in 2020 than in 2019. Many were laid off and had not returned to their former jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic affected where people work, with large increases in people working from home, particularly among those with more education.

  • Fourteen percent of adults were laid off at some point in 2020. Less than one-fourth of those laid off had returned to their old jobs, despite more than 80 percent of laid-off workers saying in April 2020 that they expected to return.
  • Of adults ages 25 to 54 who were not working, roughly equal shares said their lack of employment was due to health limitations, childcare or family obligations, or because they could not find work. The share of people not working because they could not find work increased substantially in 2020.
  • People with more education were much more likely to work from home during the pandemic than those with less education. Forty-six percent of employees with bachelor's degrees worked completely from home or by telecommuting.
  • Four percentage points fewer adults earned money from gigs in 2020 compared with 2019. In 2020, people were less likely to perform service activities that often involve physical contact, including cleaning, yard work, dog walking, and ride sharing.

Dealing with Unexpected Expenses

The share of adults able to withstand small financial emergencies in November 2020 was similar to pre-pandemic levels. Nevertheless, financial challenges remained for people who were laid off in the past year—particularly for Black and Hispanic workers and workers with less education who were laid off.

  • More than one-fourth of adults were either unable to pay their monthly bills or were one $400 financial setback away from being unable to pay them in full.
  • Among workers who were laid off, 45 percent were unable to pay their November 2020 bills in full or would have been unable to do so if faced with an unexpected $400 expense. This share was substantially higher among Black and Hispanic workers who were laid off, and among laid-off workers with a high school degree or less.
  • Many adults went without some medical care. More than 4 in 10 adults went without medical care due to an inability to pay, delayed or went without care due to COVID-19 concerns, or both.

Banking and Credit

Most adults had a bank account at the end of 2020. However, substantial gaps in use of, and experiences with, banking and credit services existed—especially among lower-income families and among Black and Hispanic adults. Since 2019, credit card debt declined for adults overall, but increased for those who were laid off.

  • Five percent of adults did not have a bank account. Differences in bank account ownership were substantial by education and income. Additionally, Black (13 percent) and Hispanic (9 percent) adults were more likely not to have a bank account than were adults overall.
  • Twenty-nine percent of adults said they experienced a problem when using banking or credit services, such as unexpected fees, fraudulent transactions, or delays or problems with customer service. Those with income below $50,000, and Black and Hispanic adults, were disproportionately affected.
  • More credit card holders who were laid off increased their credit card debt (39 percent) than kept their credit card debt the same or lower.

Housing

Where people live and who they live with took on a particular significance in 2020 because of restrictions on being outside of the home. Those who moved in 2020 were more likely than in past years to move away from their usual workplace.

  • Employed adults who moved in 2020 were more likely to have moved away from their usual workplace than to have moved closer to it: 31 percent versus 26 percent.
  • Just under 4 in 10 people who changed who they lived with attributed it to COVID-19. For those with temporary changes in the composition of their household, half attributed the change to COVID-19.
  • One-fifth of all homeowners with a mortgage refinanced their mortgage within the prior year. Refinances were more common among mortgage holders with income over $100,000, among whom 26 percent refinanced.

Education

The pandemic has created significant challenges for students of all ages since widespread closures began in March 2020. Many parents of K–12 students taking classes online expressed concerns about the quality of that education. Additionally, disruptions to the education system made it more difficult for some parents to continue to work.

  • Nearly three-fourths of parents with children enrolled in primary or secondary school indicated their youngest school-age child was attending classes completely or partly online. Similarly, nearly 9 in 10 college students had at least some of their classes online in 2020.
  • Twenty-two percent of parents with children taking K–12 classes online said their child was learning as much as if attending classes in person, whereas 59 percent said they were not.
  • Eleven percent of mothers and 6 percent of fathers said they were not working due to disruptions in childcare or in-person schooling. This translates to nearly 2 percentage points fewer adults who were working overall.
  • When asked whether online learning is worth the cost, 40 percent of students enrolled in higher education said it was not, compared to 30 percent who said that it was.

Student Loans

Consistent with recent years, most student loan borrowers were current on their payments, although those who failed to complete a degree, and those who attended for-profit institutions, were more likely to have fallen behind on their payments. Many borrowers received reductions or delays in payment due dates for student loan bills since March 2020. Those who received relief reported faring slightly better financially than those who did not.

  • Among borrowers under age 40, those who went to a private for-profit institution were over twice as likely to be behind on their payments as those who went to a public or private not-for-profit institution.
  • Self-reported financial well-being of borrowers who currently had debt was lower than that for people with the same amount of education who never had debt or had completely repaid their education debt.

Retirement

The majority of retirees indicated that a desire to do other things, wanting to spend time with family, or reaching a regular retirement age played a role in the timing of their retirement. However, life events appear to have contributed to the timing of retirement for a substantial share—including some who retired in 2020 who said pandemic-related factors affected the timing of their retirement. Compared to non-retirees who did not experience a layoff, non-retirees who experienced a layoff were less likely to have retirement savings but more likely to have borrowed from or cashed out these accounts in the prior year.

  • Forty-five percent of retirees indicated that health problems, needing to care for family, or lack of work contributed to the timing of their retirement. Twenty-nine percent of adults who retired in the prior year said factors related to the pandemic contributed to when they retired.
  • Forty-two percent of non-retirees who experienced a layoff in the prior year did not have self-directed retirement savings at the time of the survey. This compares to 26 percent of non-retirees who did not experience a layoff.
  • Nine percent of non-retired adults tapped their retirement savings in the prior 12 months—a slight uptick from 2019. A higher 14 percent of non-retired adults who had experienced a layoff borrowed or cashed out funds from their retirement savings.

 

References

 

 1. The latest SHED interviewed a sample of over 11,000 individuals in November 2020. The anonymized data, as well as appendixes containing the complete SHED questionnaire and responses to all questions in the order asked, are also available at https://www.federalreserve.gov/consumerscommunities/shed.htmReturn to text

 2. Full results from the April 2020 survey are available in the Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2019, Featuring Supplemental Data from April 2020, and results from the July 2020 survey are available in the Update on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households: July 2020 Results. Each of these reports, as well as prior years' surveys, are available at https://www.federalreserve.gov/consumerscommunities/shed.htmReturn to text

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Last Update: May 25, 2021