Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households
- Written by Steel Rose
Despite persistent concerns that people expressed about the national economy, the survey highlights the positive effects of the recovery on the individual financial circumstances of U.S. families. In 2021, perceptions about the national economy declined slightly. Yet self-reported financial well-being increased to the highest rate since the survey began in 2013. The share of prime-age adults not working because they could not find work had returned to pre-pandemic levels. More adults were able to pay all their monthly bills in full than in either 2019 or 2020. Additionally, the share of adults who would cover a $400 emergency expense completely using cash or its equivalent increased, reaching a new high since the survey began in 2013.
Parents with children at home, who had been disproportionally affected by the pandemic in 2020, exhibited notable improvements in their financial well-being in 2021. After declining in 2020, parents' assessments of their financial circumstances rebounded in 2021. This improvement is consistent both with reduced childcare burdens as schools returned to in-person classes, as well as additional financial resources provided to parents such as the enhanced child tax credit (CTC). Most parents also said that their child was doing better academically, socially, and emotionally in 2021 than they were a year earlier.
The report also highlights several new topics added to the survey in 2021, such as disruptions from natural disasters, rental debt, and employer vaccine mandates. These new questions provide additional context on the experiences of U.S. adults in handling unexpected expenses, paying for housing, and navigating ongoing changes in the labor market.
To better understand consumer experiences with emerging products, cryptocurrencies and "Buy Now, Pay Later" (BNPL) products were included on the survey for the first time. While most adults did not use cryptocurrencies in the prior year, cryptocurrency use as an investment was far more common than use for transactions or purchases. However, while transactional use of cryptocurrencies was low, those using cryptocurrencies for purchases rather than as investments frequently lacked traditional bank and credit card accounts.
The report also provides insights into long-standing issues related to individuals' personal financial circumstances, including returns to education, housing situations, and retirement savings. In many cases, the report finds that disparities by education, race and ethnicity, and income persisted in 2021.
Key findings from the survey include the following:
Overall Financial Well-Being
In the fourth quarter of 2021, the share of adults who were doing at least okay financially increased relative to 2020. With these improvements, overall financial well-being reached its highest level since the survey began in 2013.
- Seventy-eight percent of adults were either doing okay or living comfortably financially, the highest share with this level of financial well-being since the survey began in 2013.
- Parents experienced particularly large gains in financial well-being over the prior year. In 2021, three-fourths of parents said they were doing at least okay financially, up 8 percentage points from 2020.
- Forty-eight percent of adults rated their local economy as "good" or "excellent" in 2021. This share was up from 43 percent in 2020 but well below the 63 percent of adults who rated their local economy as "good" or "excellent" in 2019, before the pandemic.
The majority of parents received additional income in 2021 through the monthly CTC. Most higher-income parents primarily saved this money, while most lower-income parents primarily spent it on housing, items for their children, or food.
- Three in 10 CTC recipients with income less than $50,000 used the largest portion of their credit on housing expenses, just over 2 in 10 spent the largest portion on their child, and 15 percent spent the largest portion on food.
- Fifteen percent of adults with income less than $50,000 struggled to pay their bills because of varying monthly income. This challenge was even more acute among people who were parents in this income range, of whom 27 percent struggled to pay their bills because of income variability.
Many people switched jobs in 2021, and those who did generally said that their new job was better than their old one. Most employees also said that their employer was taking about the right amount of COVID-19 precautions, although some people not working indicated that concerns about the virus contributed to the choice not to work.
- Fifteen percent of workers said they were in a different job than 12 months earlier. Just over 6 in 10 people who changed jobs said their new job was better overall, compared with 1 in 10 who said that it was worse.
- Seventy-seven percent of employees said their employers were taking the right amount of precautions against COVID-19. Those who did not were almost evenly split between thinking their employers were taking too many and too few precautions.
- Seven percent of all prime-age adults said that they were not working and that concerns about getting COVID-19 contributed at least in part to their decision not to work.
- Among those working from home, the share of employees who would look for another job if their employer required they work in person was similar to the share who would look after a pay freeze.
Dealing with Unexpected Expenses
The overall share of adults who would cover a small emergency expense using cash or its equivalent increased to the highest level since 2013, when the survey began. Financial preparedness is an important buffer for those who encounter unexpected events, such as medical expenses or disruptions from natural disasters.
- Sixty-eight percent of adults said they would cover a $400 emergency expense exclusively using cash or its equivalent, up from 50 percent who would pay this way when the survey began in 2013.
- Twenty percent of adults had major, unexpected medical expenses in the prior 12 months, with the median amount between $1,000 and $1,999.
- Sixteen percent of adults experienced a financial disruption or hardship from a natural disaster or severe weather event in the prior year.
Banking and Credit
Most adults had a bank account and were able to obtain credit from mainstream sources in 2021, but notable gaps in access to basic financial services still exist among Black and Hispanic adults and those with low income.
- Six percent of adults did not have a bank account. Black (13 percent) and Hispanic (11 percent) adults were more likely not to have a bank account than adults overall.
- Eleven percent of adults with a bank account paid an overdraft fee in the previous 12 months, with higher shares of low-income adults having overdrafted over this period.
- Three percent of adults used cryptocurrency for purchases or money transfers. Among these transactional users of cryptocurrencies, 13 percent did not have a bank account.
Low mortgage rates resulted in a continuation of the wave of refinancing in 2021, although high-income borrowers were primarily the beneficiaries of this opportunity to reduce monthly housing costs. The share of renters who had been behind on their rent in the prior 12 months was higher than before the pandemic, and many still owed back rent at the time of the survey.
- Nearly one-fourth of all homeowners with a mortgage refinanced their mortgage in 2021. This includes nearly 3 in 10 mortgage holders with an income of at least $100,000, but a lower 16 percent of those with income under $50,000.
- Seventeen percent of renters were behind on their rent at some point in 2021, including 8 percent who were behind at the time of the survey in late 2021. Among those still behind in late 2021, the total outstanding back rent was between $9.3 billion and $10.9 billion.
At the time of the survey, most parents of primary or secondary school students reported that their children were attending classes completely in person. Most parents also said that their child was doing better academically compared with a year earlier. In contrast to the experience of K-12 students, online education remained prevalent at higher education institutions in the fall of 2021.
- Ninety-three percent of parents with a child in public or private school said their youngest child who was enrolled in K-12 education was attending classes completely in person, compared with 27 percent attending completely in person in 2020.
- Fifty-six percent of parents with a child in public or private school said that their child's academic performance improved in 2021, compared with 7 percent who said it declined.
- Seventy-six percent of higher education students in 2021 said they prefer online or hybrid education, given the situation with the pandemic.
The share of student loan borrowers who were behind on their payments in the fall of 2021 declined relative to before the pandemic. These borrowers also saw increases in their financial well-being compared with prior years.
- Twelve percent of borrowers were behind on their payments in 2021, a significant decline from the 17 percent who were behind in the fall of 2019.
- Seventy-three percent of those who went to college and have student loans for their own education were doing at least okay financially in 2021, up from 65 percent before the pandemic.
Retirement and Investments
Among non-retirees, a higher share reported they felt like their retirement savings were on track than in either 2020 or 2019. However, a sizeable share of recent retirees said COVID-related factors affected the timing of their retirement decision.
- Forty percent of non-retirees thought their retirement saving was on track, up from 36 percent in 2020 and 37 percent in 2019.
- Twenty-five percent of adults who retired in the prior 12 months, and 15 percent of those who retired one to two years ago, said factors related to COVID-19 contributed to when they retired. To read the full report click here.