1 in 4 Americans Have More Credit Card Debt Than Savings

February 23, 2016, 9:56 PM UTC
Close-up view of credit cards in silver, gold and platinum black
Photograph by Stefan Kunert — Getty Images/iStockphoto

Things aren’t looking good for America’s pocketbooks.

Just 52% of Americans have more savings than credit card debt, according to a new survey released by Bankrate.com. That’s down 6% from 2015, when 58% of Americans had more emergency savings. And almost one in four have more credit card debt than emergency savings, while 21% of Americans have no credit card debt but no emergency savings either.

This backs up an earlier Bankrate survey, which found only 38% of Americans have enough savings handy to cover an unexpected expense of $500 to $1,000.

Yet while the previous study found that millennials were least likely to be able to afford a surprise expense, the new survey notes that millennials are more likely than other age groups to set aside emergency savings at all, and less likely to rack up credit card debt: 20% of people ages 18 to 29 had higher credit card debt than savings, compared to 26% of people ages 30 to 49.

In other words, millennials really are trying to be financially savvy, but their wages just aren’t there yet. Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst, says the practice among young people to set aside emergency cash is a “testament to both the savings discipline and aversion to credit cards characteristics of millennials.”

Interestingly, lower income households were less likely to carry credit card debt than households with higher incomes, though richer households were doing better overall, with more emergency savings. One reason why lower-income people don’t have credit card debt, of course, is that they simply might not have credit cards.

Sound Like You? Here’s What You Can Do

So should you pay off your credit card debt or shore up your savings first? Considering credit cards have notoriously high interest rates, your bottom line will be better in the long run the sooner you pay off your card.

But experts also recommends having three to six months‘ worth of expenses on-hand for emergencies, so setting aside even a small amount is a good start. Try automating your savings to make building your rainy day account even easier. And as my colleague noted, stashing your savings in a bank that pays above average interest will make it grow even faster.

But if debt is more your problem than building up a savings account, an even better move is to pick a credit card with a low APR if you’re prone to carrying a balance. (Check out MONEY’s picks here.) Consider switching to a balance transfer credit card, which allows you to pay off debt for a set amount of time without paying additional interest.

The one silver lining? Fewer Americans have credit card debt than at any time since 2011, when Bankrate first started taking the survey.

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