2019 Is in the Books: How Did the Median US Consumer Do?

By Lindsay Frankel
Inside Subprime: Feb 7, 2020

U.S. consumers fared well financially in 2019 based on several measures. High credit scores for the year indicate that Americans are making responsible choices and keeping up with their payments, even as collective debt soared in the past year. And dropping unemployment rates along with high average wages provide hope for consumers who are trying to build wealth while paying down debt.

Furthermore, consumer advocates and legislators stepped up to make 2019 a year of robust financial literacy efforts. While the U.S. ranks behind other countries in terms of financial literacy, new requirements for financial education swept the nation in 2019, suggesting that improvements may be on the way.

How much did Americans earn in 2019?

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage in December of 2019 hit an all-time high of $28.32. That represents a 0.6 percent increase in real hourly earnings over the course of a year. However, there was also a 0.6 percent decrease in the average workweek, meaning that average weekly earnings remained flat.

The average hourly wage is above the living wage for two working adults or for a single adult with no children in most areas. But in some locations, a single adult with children would need more than $28.32 per hour to live on, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.

Poverty rates are dropping as well. The poverty rate in 2018 was 11.8 percent, down 0.5 percentage points from the previous year. It’s also the fourth year in a row that poverty rates have dropped.

Even so, many Americans still struggle to make ends meet. A recent survey found that 59 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, meaning that they aren’t saving money for unexpected expenses. This leaves most American susceptible to financial hardship when emergencies arise.

How much debt did Americans have in 2019?

In the second quarter of 2019, Americans were holding a collective $13.9 trillion in debt. In dollar amount, that’s the highest it’s ever been, and it’s been climbing for ten quarters in a row. Mortgage debt alone peaked at $9.4 trillion, surpassing total mortgage debt during the Great Recession.

In nominal terms, this may seem like cause for concern that another recession is upon us. However, analysis from the St. Louis Fed found that, when adjusted for inflation, real mortgage debt sits well below its last peak in 2008. Inflation-adjusted mortgage debt is about $1.4 trillion less now than it was during the Great Recession.

And when the figures are adjusted for the number of potential borrowers, the amount of real mortgage debt per consumer has declined even more. So while collective debt continues to increase, Americans have nowhere near as much real debt as they did during the housing bubble once the numbers are adjusted.

How the U.S. stepped up financial literacy efforts in 2019

Financial literacy efforts are aimed at improving consumers’ understanding and management of their finances. With the right education, consumers can set realistic budgets, avoid risky methods of borrowing, and get on track with their retirement savings. And while Americans’ financial literacy scores aren’t up to par with other countries, 2019 brought movement in the right direction, as 40 states and the District of Columbia had financial literacy legislation pending in 2019.

The focus of many states was on upgrading the requirements for financial literacy instruction for K-12 students. States that passed legislation to add course requirements included Arizona, Iowa, and New Jersey. Other states have introduced legislation or have required that schools add a financial literacy course as an elective.

Several states also designated a week or month devoted to financial literacy, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Michigan, and Tennessee. Some states also established a task force or commission to oversee local financial literacy efforts.

Colorado set up a college kickstarter account program, which puts $100 in an account for every child born in the state in an attempt to encourage parents to set aside money for college with ongoing contributions. The program may also include free financial education for students and parents, if funding allows.

Conclusion

Americans are growing wise to the importance of financial literacy and money management. Not only are states making earnest progress towards increasing financial literacy scores, but consumers are also utilizing financial resources to make better decisions about spending, borrowing, and saving. There’s no doubt that debt is a problem for U.S. consumers, but improving credit scores provide hope that Americans will be able to manage their debt and build wealth for their futures.

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