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Living Without Pay [Comprehensive 2020 Study]

Living Without Pay [Comprehensive 2020 Study]

We're living in strange times. With the latest coronavirus outbreak, many are worried about the future. We asked over 1,000 Americans if they would be able to live without pay.

living without pay


Emergencies happen. From a medical issue requiring hundreds or even thousands of dollars out of pocket to being laid off, financial crises can seem to come out of nowhere and leave you struggling to determine what’s next. 


And while financial experts like Suze Orman recommend saving a minimum of three to six months’ worth of living expenses, padding your bank account to prepare for an unpredictable future may be easier said than done for a majority of Americans. 


No one ever expects to have to live without pay, but what would you do if it happened to you? To help answer that question, we surveyed over 1,000 working Americans about their emergency savings. Continue reading to see how long people expect they could live off their current savings, what makes up people’s monthly expenses, and the efforts some would go to get by without their regular income. 


Reality Check 


living without pay


No one ever said building substantial savings would be easy, but having the right strategy could be crucial for getting through a financial emergency. 


When asked if they had a backup plan in case they were to lose their job, more than 1 in 5 respondents admitted they hadn’t even thought about it. Many also acknowledged that their current savings wouldn’t be able to take them far, including 12% who could live less than a week with the money they had set aside. While 13% of people believed they could live for over a year on their savings, more than 1 in 3 wouldn’t make it more than a month. 


In determining how long they could live off the money they had put away, Americans of every age overestimated how much they needed to cover their expenses, in some cases by hundreds of dollars. Compared to millennials who had the best estimation of their living expenses and savings needs, Gen Xers overestimated how much they needed every month by $225, and baby boomers overestimated by $358. With an average of over $10,000 in savings, millennials could live for six months off their current nest egg and closer to seven months for Gen Xers and baby boomers. 


Where It All Goes 


living without pay


Establishing personal savings goes hand in hand with building an effective budget, and the first rule of budgeting is simple: Understand where all of your money is going. 


The biggest monthly expense for respondents was rent or a mortgage, accounting for $985, on average, followed by credit card payments ($410), car payments ($369), and groceries ($357). Student loan payments also averaged $316 a month, with $280 going toward utilities. Those surveyed also identified spending over $100 a month each on health and fitness, entertainment, and dining out or takeout. Men acknowledged spending 85% of their monthly pay, while women spent more than they earned at 113%, on average. 


Gen Xers were the most likely generation to outspend their earnings (103%) and also reported higher average rent or mortgage costs, in addition to higher utilities, groceries, student loan payments, and restaurant bills. Roughly 1 in 5 respondents admitted they were not very or not at all financially stable. 


The Cost of Getting By 


living without pay


With so many people living above their means, a financial emergency could put them in a crisis. Selling off personal items might not be most people’s first choice for getting through an unexpected break in income, but it could be a temporary solution when short on cash. 


Women were more likely than men to sell certain items for extra money, including their clothing and shoes (57%) and jewelry (41%). In contrast, men were slightly more willing to part with their laptop (21%), collectibles (36%), blood plasma (36%), car (23%), and sports equipment (22%). 


Millennials were the most likely to sell their clothing and personal items, while Gen Xers were the most likely to give up electronics and collectibles, and baby boomers were the most likely to sell their jewelry to make ends meet. 


Digging Deeper 


living without pay


Not having enough money to weather a financial storm can leave you wondering where to cut corners. 


Fewer than 1 in 3 Americans said they wouldn’t skip paying their bills if there was a gap in their income, but the first monthly expenses on the chopping block for everyone else were video streaming services (44%), music streaming services (36%), gym memberships (31%), and subscription boxes (30%)


Meanwhile, 15% of people indicated they would stop making monthly credit card payments, followed by nearly as many who would stop paying their student loans (13%) and cellphone bill (11%). Only a small population of people would go so far as to stop paying for their car (5%), electricity (4%), home (3%), and water (3%). 


In almost every scenario, millennials were more likely than older generations to avoid certain expenses, except cell phone bills (tied with Gen Xers), food delivery services (baby boomers), credit card payments (Gen Xers), and water bills (baby boomers). 


Finding a Better Solution


living without pay


When your savings dry up, you aren’t willing to sell your possessions, and you don’t want to fall even further behind by dodging bills, what’s left?


living without pay


Roughly 2 in 3 respondents would turn to a side hustle if their savings weren’t enough to carry them through a financial emergency, and around half would look to join the gig economy. Many also indicated they would attempt to live off unemployment, including 56% of Gen Xers and 50% of millennials. Roughly 1 in 3 would be able to live off their spouse’s or partner’s income, while others (including 28% of millennials and 18% of Gen Xers) would turn to family for support.

Nearly 70% of the people surveyed were extremely, very, or somewhat worried about a recession occurring. 


When forced to ask for help, 44% of people would turn to their parents, followed by state government resources (33%), federal government resources (32%), and a sibling, other family members, and friends (18%). Roughly 1 in 4 people indicated they wouldn’t ask anyone for help financially, including 40% of baby boomers and 35% of Gen Xers. While older generations were more inclined to turn to the government for assistance, millennials were more likely to turn to their parents or friends to get by. 


Staying Ahead of the Curve 


Just because everything seems fine today doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for a financial emergency. A majority of Americans didn’t have a firm grasp on how far their savings could carry them, and few could live off their current savings for an extended period. Instead, many indicated they would sell their possessions, skip bills, and turn to gig jobs or their family for support. 


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Methodology and Limitations

We surveyed 1,006 employed workers and freelancers for this study using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. When showing how much money respondents spend each month, have in their savings, their monthly spend estimates, and the average paycheck amounts, we excluded all outliers by only looking at the answers that fell within the fifth and 95th percentiles. When considering monthly pay, we asked respondents only to provide take-home pay after taxes. We had 479 women, 520 men, and seven people who did not identify as either participate in the study. Among our respondents, we had 100 baby boomers, 291 Gen Xers, and 595 millennials. The remaining respondents were either Gen Zers or part of the silent generation but were not sufficient enough to use within our breakdowns. The average respondent age was 37.63 with a standard deviation of 11.09. There are limitations within this data, including, but not limited to, self-reporting, which can lead to exaggeration, especially when it comes to salary and spending. In addition, our data are not weighted or a representative sample.


Fair Use Statement

Don’t let your readers get caught by surprise in a financial emergency. Share these savings insights for any noncommercial use. Just include a link back to this page in your story as credit to our team of contributors for compiling the findings and graphics in this report.

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Bart Turczynski
Editor-in-chief at Zety since 2016. His career advice and commentary has been published by the Financial Times, Hewlett-Packard, CareerBuilder, and Glassdoor, among others. With a strong passion for statistics and a background in psychology, Bart makes sure all the advice published on Zety is data-driven.
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