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How Americans’ Personal Finances Did in 2016

Consumers are feeling great about their financial prospects. But is that optimism warranted?

Last year we decided to look at how Americans’ personal finances changed over the past year, and this year, we’re doing it again!

Even though all these indices are based on numbers, this is still an art, not a science. But some really interesting patterns emerge.

Income: The Same

Income growth has been flat since last year. When we posted last year in February 2016, median household income was at $56,000. Now it’s $58,714. Which does sound like a raise… except when you consider inflation. Real median income, which takes that into account, has only grown by 0.2% in one year, and is 1.1% lower than in 2008 before the recession hit. Where’s that full economic recovery again?

Savings: Better

According to Bankrate’s most recent survey in January, 41% of Americans say they would pay for an unexpected cost from savings, which is 4% higher than last year. That’s a good thing; it means they have emergency savings they can tap into. It’s not like financial emergencies are rare – three in five Americans had a major unexpected expense in 2016.

Credit Card Debt: Worse

Estimates of Americans’ average credit card balance varies, but according to Experian, average credit card balances climbed from $4,404 in 2015 to $5,551in 2016. But that only includes balances that are paid off each month. If you look at just households that carry debt from month to month, that number shoots up to $16,748. With income not rising alongside, WalletHub takes a dim view of how Americans are doing, ominously comparing the speed at which we’re collectively racking up debt to pre-Recession numbers. Outstanding credit card debt, at $978.9 billion ($59 billion more than last year), is at the highest point since the end of 2008.

Mortgages: Slightly Better

The percentage of homeowners with negative equity, a.k.a. being “underwater” on their mortgages and owing more than their house could be sold for, fell from 13.4% to 10.5% at the end of 2016. That’s a good thing, of course, because once homeowners have positive equity, they can sell their home. But the rate at which homeowners emerge from being underwater has been slowing: 2.9 percentage points last year, 3.8 percentage points the year before, and 8.1 points between 2012 and 2013. And one in ten homeowners are still in a position of either paying their bank to sell their home, or being trapped financially.

Student Loans: A Mix

The Class of 2016 again broke the record for being the most indebted class of college graduates, with an average of $37,173. For earlier graduates, 11.2% of aggregate student loan debt was 90 or more days delinquent or in default at the end of 2016. That’s an improvement from last year, and about equal to the end of 2014. But because these numbers don’t include loans in deferment or grace periods, the percentage of student debt holders not able to pay back their student loans is probably twice as high.

Credit Score: Slightly Better (With a Caveat)

The Vantage credit score climbed four points last year from 669 to 673. How is this possible when credit card debt is going up and income is flat? This article said it climbed because of the economic recovery, but also mentioned that credit lines are increasing, which is keeping utilization rates under the magic number of 30%. This calls into question how indicative of real financial health credit scores are if the upward trend primarily reflects a willingness from banks to lend more money to credit card holders.

Consumer Confidence: Better

Consumer confidence rose to 111.8 in January 2017, from 98.1 in January of 2016. That shows a more positive outlook on the future from Americans on business, jobs, and personal income. Is that warranted? Not based on current figures (see: credit card and student loan debt), but then again, this is the consumers looking into their crystal ball and seeing something they like. Only time will tell if they’re correct.

Investments: Better

The Dow Jones Industrial average hit 20,000 for the first time in January, up from 16,000 a year before. As the stock market continues to pump up, investors are feeling pretty great. In fact, they haven’t felt this good about the market since November 2000, during the Dot Com boom. Um…wasn’t that right before a crash? Remember, past performance is not an indication of future performance.

All these indicators tell a story about consumers having overconfident gut feelings about their economic prospects, despite hard numbers – especially credit card debt – contradicting them. Given this discrepancy, it’s a smart move for anyone to get a professional to look over your finances. A financial advisor can give you advice on how you’re doing and what moves you can make to shore up your finances no matter if we’re in a bubble or on the cusp of an economic boom. And GuideVine can help you find that advisor for your general personal finances, investments, retirement, and more.

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