In a move that may be a bad sign for the economy, Americans are spending more, and raiding their savings, college and retirement accounts to do so even as they take on more credit card debt.
Reuters reported that Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans said Friday that the spike in credit card usage by households is worrisome. People, he was quoted saying, "have been spending recently in a way that did not seem in line with income growth. So somehow they've been doing that through perhaps additional credit card usage. If they saw future income and employment increasing strongly then that would be reasonable. But I don't see that. So I've been puzzled by this."
The rate of personal savings, after a few years of increased activity, has fallen back to its lowest since December 2007 at the beginning of the recession. In November, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures, it was 3.5%, down from 5.1% in November 2010. The concern is that many people finding it difficult to get by on inflation-reduced income are borrowing against their futures to meet everyday expenses.
Mark Vitner, managing director and senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, N.C., said in the report, "When the stock market and the housing market were booming, we saw that a lot of people would take on more debt and save less. They felt the saving was being done for them. Today, the saving rate is falling out of necessity. Food and energy prices have risen and folks don't have as much money to spend on the things that they would like."
According to an upcoming survey of 150,000 holders of 401(k)s by consulting firm Aon Hewitt, nearly a third of 401(k) plan participants have outstanding loans against their retirement accounts. Pam Hess, director of retirement research at the firm, was quoted saying, "People are at a loss, and they are struggling."
Retirement savings account loans rose by 20% in 2011 across all demographics, according to a survey to be published in March. Hess said that among lower earners the figure was 60%, with the great majority putting those loans toward bills, college tuition and car repairs.
The annual retirement confidence survey conducted by nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute also reached a new low in 2011, with 27% percent of respondees saying they're "not at all confident" they'll have enough for a comfortable retirement. Nearly 15% expect to work until they are at least 70; that is up from 11% in 2006.