The American middle class has a spending problem, and that's leaving many living paycheck to paycheck.
About one-third of U.S. households earning at least $75,000 annually say they are living on the edge financially, according to a new survey from SunTrust (STI) that was conducted by Harris Poll. Even households earning at least $100,000 are finding themselves pinched, with 1 in 4 saying they sometimes live from pay period to pay period.
Although economists and public policy experts increasingly point to widening income inequality and stagnant wages as reasons why the middle class is feeling strapped, the survey participants pointed to another factor: overspending. About 4 out of 10 said splurging on lifestyle purchases, such as eating out and shopping, means they aren't saving as much as they should.
Millennial households appear to be even bigger spendthrifts, with 7 out of 10 households in that generation blaming spending on lifestyle choices.
Still, these higher-income households appear to be doing better than the average American. Seven of 10 Americans are strained by financial issues such as crushing debt loads or income that's too low to cover their expenses, The Pew Charitable Trusts found in a January study.
In recent decades, Americans have been failing to squirrel away emergency savings in case of a job loss or other financial crisis. The bottom quintile of American households only has about nine days of liquid savings on hand, while the country's top earners have about 52 days of liquid funds, Pew found. That's much less than the three to six months' worth of liquid savings financial experts say people should have on hand.
SunTrust's findings reinforce previous research about the often precarious finances of middle-class families. Two-thirds of U.S. households living "hand-to-mouth" are middle-class families who own homes and retirement assets, or a whopping 25 million middle-class households, a Brookings Institution study found last year.
American households earning at least $75,000 annually bring home about 42 percent more than the country's median household income of $53,046. So why can't they manage their money more responsibly? Aside from the fact that Americans' savings rates have been declining since the early 1980s, a combination of stagnant wages and rising costs have hit families with a double whammy.
Even though middle-class households told SunTrust they're spending too much, the fact is that American consumer spending has tightened in recent decades. The net increase in average annual household spending has increased only about 2 percent since 1990, compared with a rise of 16 percent in the 22 years before that, Pew found.
Although better off families certainly have more disposable income, that also creates more choices and, as a consequence, stress about making poor choices.
That's reflected in how higher-income households gauged their retirement readiness, according to SunTrust, which released the survey in conjunction with a new savings program. Four of 10 households earning more than $75,000 say they are either not saving enough to live comfortably in retirement or aren't even aware if they are on track.