Why Don’t Americans Save More Money?

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BY DEREK THOMPSON

It is a myth that Americans cannot save. For decades, they did.

When personal-finance columnists explain America’s poor saving habits, they sometimes start with the aspects of the human mind that make it challenging to plan for the future. Behavioral psychology is a useful scapegoat for many foibles. But the decline in savings is recent, and the human brain hasn’t evolved since the Ford administration. The bottom 90 percent of households saved 10 percent of their income in the first Reagan administration. By 2006, their savings rate was nearly negative-10 percent.

Other writers suggest that the country’s low saving rate is purely a matter of American exceptionalism. But it is also a myth that the U.S. is alone in its turn against saving in the last three decades. The personal savings rate has fallen in Canada, Germany, and Japan, as well.

Still, there is something about the U.S.: Nearly half of Americans would not be able to come up with $400 in savings in an emergency, according to a Federal Reserve study cited in The Atlantic‘s cover story this month. America’s poor and its middle class live on the razor’s edge of financial security through their working years and are uniquely ill-prepared for retirement. The United States finished 19th for three consecutive years in a global analysis of retirement security, behind Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and 13 European countries.

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