Vast number of Americans live paycheck to paycheck

Last Updated Aug 24, 2017 1:46 PM EDT

With unemployment in the U.S. at its lowest level in 16 years, experts are prone to talk about the economy as if it has fully recovered from the housing crash. But other measures of how Americans are doing reveal a darker picture.

Almost 8 out of 10 American workers say they live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet, according to a new survey from CareerBuilder. That can force people to take on debt or otherwise struggle when an unexpected bill arises. It also raises questions about the stability of the broader economy given that consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of activity. 

The survey highlights a troubling trend in household finances: More than eight years since the end of the recession, the share of Americans who are living on the financial edge is growing, said Mike Erwin, a spokesman for CareerBuilder. While some may want to blame Americans' spendthrift ways, Erwin pointed to two trends that continue to put financial stress on households: stagnant wages and the rising cost of everything from education to many consumer goods. 

"Living paycheck to paycheck is the new way of life for U.S. workers," he said. "It's not just one salary range. It's pretty much across the board, and it's trending in the wrong direction."

A year ago, about 75 percent of U.S. workers said they were living from payday to payday, a number that has grown to 78 percent this year. The study, conducted by Harris Poll, surveyed nearly 2,400 hiring and human resource managers and 3,500 adult employees who worked full-time in May and June. 

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting about 122 million full-time workers, the poll suggests 95 million of those adults could be living paycheck to paycheck. Through July, average hourly earnings were up 2.5 percent, according to labor data -- that's still below the 3 percent to 4 percent gains seen before the recession. 

Inflation stood at 1.7 percent last month. That means workers' "real" wages were running only slightly ahead of inflation, another obstacle to putting money away.  

Not only less affluent people are struggling. Almost one of 10 workers who earn more than six figures annually said they are living paycheck to paycheck, according to CareerBuilder. That may seem surprising, but families who live in regions with a high cost of living may feel almost as strapped as lower-income households. 

The findings add to research about the fragile state of household finances. When the Pew Charitable Trusts recently asked Americans whether they'd rather have more income or economic stability, 9 of 10 chose stability. 

Weak wage growth is partly to blame for the financial stress felt by many Americans. Median household income is still stuck in low gear, with the U.S. Census reporting only one year of income gains since 2007, the year the recession officially started

The end result: American households are still earning 2.4 percent below what they brought home at their income peaks in 1999. At the same time, expenses for food, fuel, education, housing and other costs have risen. 

"Jobs have come back, but we haven't seen salaries rebound," Erwin said. "Right now we are in a time when the cost of living is way outpacing the amount of money that people are getting through raises."

Meanwhle, the labor market is increasingly rewarding workers with higher levels of education and skills, which is borne out in CareerBuilder's survey and other recent research. 

About 40 percent of adults with a high school degree or less said they are scrambling to keep afloat, or more than twice the number of Americans with at least a college degree, according to the Federal Reserve. CareerBuilder found that about half of workers who earn less than $50,000 per year are always living paycheck-to-paycheck, compared with 28 percent of those earning between $50,000 to $100,000. 

Aside from the insecurity of living without a financial cushion, the phenomenon has another downside: It hampers Americans' ability to save for retirement, CareerBuilder noted. About 18 percent of workers said they cut back on their 401k contributions or personal savings in the last year, and more than one-third don't put away money for retirement, the survey found. 

"That should concern a lot of people," Erwin said. "If you don't put money away now, you will rely more on government programs" in retirement. 

Personal responsibility does play a role in Americans' financial problems, with the survey finding that only a third of workers stick to a budget. Asked what spending items they wouldn't give up, more than half said they'd never cut back on their internet connection or mobile devices. 

That might seem like an extravagance to some, yet the truth is many Americans can't work effectively without internet service at home or a smartphone, with employers increasingly expecting workers to check their email while they're out of the office or be available for a call. 

"We need all of those things," Erwin noted. Yet there are ways to pare spending on those essentials, such as renegotiating contracts with mobile carriers. 

He added, "Everything is negotiable."