Most American don't budget, and nearly half of them owe more on their credit cards than they have in savings. In other words, the concept of representative government works well.
A pair of public opinion surveys in recent weeks brought these figures to light. Gallup released its annual Economy and Personal Finance poll, which found that only 32 percent of Americans prepare detailed monthly household budgets, either on paper or on a computer. Only 30 percent have a long-term financial plan that outlines their savings and investment goals. This lack of financial planning varied little with demographics, although those with a college education tended to budget and plan more than those without, as did those with higher incomes.
Bankrate.com, meanwhile, recently found that only 55 percent of Americans surveyed had more in savings than in credit card debt. That was little changed over the last two years. While the personal savings rate is higher than during the recession, the nation still is on a long downward trend away from personal savings.
Some of this may be due to incentives reflected in the national economy. The Federal Reserve has held interest rates so low that banks are unable to offer savers much in the way of returns. But returns are only one aspect of savings. Other aspects have to do with accumulating wealth and preparing for emergencies. These are their own rewards, and too many Americans appear to have forgotten that lesson.
Surveys such as these put an ironic twist on public disgust with Congress and the president over their inability to agree on either an annual budget or long-term spending priorities. Congress has not passed a budget in years. And despite the self-imposed threat of automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, Congress and the president were unable to agree on a long-term plan to reduce spending earlier this year. Then, despite warnings from the White House that sequestration would bring about ruin and send the nation back into recession, politicians have remained hopelessly deadlocked over whether to give priority to cuts and reforms or tax increases. Despite continual warnings from many quarters, sequestration so far has produced little public outcry, and positive economic signs have erased much of the worry.
Fortunately, most households do not face a similar deadlock. Experts say the biggest obstacle for average Americans often is emotion. Too many people associate money with self-worth. Tracking it becomes as emotionally difficult as tracking weight.
And yet, household budgeting is one simple way to take control of one's life and plan intelligently for a secure future. It's something virtually everyone can do, and it doesn't take an act of Congress.
However, if the entire nation were in the habit of budgeting and spending below income levels, many of the economy's larger problems — including the need for so much entitlement spending — would be mitigated.