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​The financial fragility of the American household

Here's a fact that illustrates why so many Americans feel the economic recovery has yet to kick in: Almost half can't pony up $400 to cover an emergency expense.

That's according to a new study from the Federal Reserve, which polled more than 5,800 Americans on the state of their finances in 2014. The results also offered some hopeful notes, given that almost one-third of Americans believed their income would increase in the following year, up from just one in five in 2013.

Despite the optimism that better days will soon arrive, many Americans appear to be living one big expense away from disaster.

Money worries are leading source of stress, survey finds 02:57

Forty-seven percent said they didn't have the cash to pay for a hypothetical $400 emergency expense or would be forced to sell something or borrow money to raise the funds, the survey found. Almost one-quarter of respondents said they or a family member living with them experienced recent financial hardship, such as losing a job or suffering a health emergency.

To top off the glum picture of Americans' financial health, one in five respondents said their spending was greater than their income.

While that might point to poor financial management skills, many Americans have struggled with stagnant wages while costs for everyday items such as gas and food have continued to creep upwards. The Consumer Price Index has increased 37 percent between 2000 to 2015. During the same time, median household income has declined 4 percent, according to Sentier Research.

"The findings in this survey highlight that economic challenges remain for a significant portion of the population," the Fed report noted. "These consumers remain vulnerable to economic hardship in the case of further financial disruption or are at risk of economic hardship in the future due to an inability to save for future needs such as retirement."

Workers protest for $15 minimum wage 01:21

It may come as no surprise that those who report the smallest rainy day funds and savings rates are those living in households with annual incomes of less than $40,000. About 27 percent of those households said their spending exceeded income, or almost twice the proportion of households with at least $100,000 in annual income, the study found.

Americans haven't been known for their discipline in setting aside money for an emergency, but on top of stagnant income, another issue is bedeviling workers: Many want to put in more hours, but may not be able to find full-time work.

The issue of "underemployment" is a serious issue for American workers, given that part-time work often means a lack of benefits -- such as health care coverage, which could stave off huge medical bills -- and lower income. About 36 percent of non-self-employed workers said they'd like to work more hours at their current wage, while among part-time workers, that jumped to almost half of respondents.

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That's driving many Americans to juggle multiple jobs. The survey found that 15 percent of respondents have at least two jobs. Working multiple jobs is more likely among lower-income workers, who may be scheduled to shift work by computer software that retailers and restaurants increasingly use. About 17 percent of the U.S. workforce is now coping with an unstable schedule, the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute reported last month.

Yet despite the difficulties reported by so many households, Americans have registered a "mild" improvement in how they view their economic well-being since the recession ended. About 40 percent said they were either "somewhat" or "much better" off than they were in 2009. About 9 percent said they were much worse off than in 2009.

A significant slice of the population relies on government aid each month to get by. The U.S. Census reported on Thursday that one out of five Americans relied on a means-tested assistance program each month in 2012. That's a jump from 18.6 percent in 2009.

The report reflected the idea the recovery is lifting only some boats. Almost half of college-educated respondents said they are better off than in 2009, compared with only 37 percent of those without bachelors' degrees.

Still, the sense of well-being might be fleeting. After all, Americans are lousy about preparing for retirement, which means their visions of enjoying their golden years could be dashed on the rocks of their empty retirement accounts. Almost one in five Americans has set nothing aside for retirement, and 39 percent of Americans say they have either given no thought or only a little to planning for retirement.

Of course, when so many Americans are living one big bill away from financial disaster, it's understandable that planning for retirement may seem like a pipe dream.

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