February 16th, 2012
09:00 AM ET

Why America spends while the world saves

Editor's Note: The following is an edited transcript of my interview with Sheldon Garon, a professor of history and East Asian studies at Princeton University and author of the new book, Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves.

Why Americans don't save

Amar C. Bakshi:  U.S. household saving rates peaked in the 1980s at around 11 percent, and by 2005, they had plummeted to near zero. How did America go from a nation of savers to a nation of consumers?

Sheldon Garon:  Well, in fact, before World War II we weren’t a nation of great savers.  We were a nation of OK savers.   Those who did save, saved a lot.  But as late as 1910, most Americans didn’t have a savings account.  Unlike Europeans and Japanese, they lacked access to savings institutions that would accept very small deposits—such as savings banks and postal savings banks.

But then in the two World Wars, and particularly in World War II, the federal government intervened to encourage ordinary people to save in ways the Europeans and Japanese were doing at the time.

The U.S. government undertook two innovations.  First, it introduced U.S. savings bonds right before World War II, and they became very popular and very accessible during and after the war.  So that was one of the ways people saved and became good savers in America.

And the other way was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, introduced in 1934, which guaranteed the deposits of small savers in most American banks.  So during the Great Depression and after World War II for several decades, we saved at pretty good rates - between about 7 and 11 percent, from 1946 to the 1980s.

Then in the 1980s, Americans stopped being good savers - at first slowly and then very rapidly in the 1990s, particularly as housing and consumer credit became available to Americans in amounts unlike anything seen in the rest of the First World.

First, the credit card industry was deregulated as the result of a 1978 Supreme Court decision.  Now able to impose any interest rate they pleased on unpaid balances, credit card firms aggressively expanded their customer base beyond the affluent to target middle and lower income households.  By the 1990s, most Americans held not one but several credit cards, and more than half of those cardholders carried unpaid balances.

Second, home equity loans—which had heretofore scarcely existed—exploded.  This occurred after the 1986 tax reform made home equity loans one of the few types of credit in which interest remained tax-deductible.

From the 1990s to 2005, homeowners borrowed more and more against their equity as home prices skyrocketed.  Americans essentially stopped saving.  Why save when you could borrow so easily?

This reliance on easy money came to a crashing halt when housing prices collapsed in 2008.

Why the Great Recession didn't change American behavior

Amar C. Bakshi:  U.S. household savings increased after the shock of ’08, but then it dipped again.  If the financial crisis of ’08 didn’t get us to save more, what will?

Sheldon Garon:  Yes, that’s a very good question.  Initially after the 2008 financial crisis and housing meltdown, there were all sorts of media stories that said that Americans were returning to frugality or adopting a new frugality and that savings rates would go above 10 percent.

And, indeed, briefly, for a couple of years after the 2008 crisis, Americans actually increased their savings compared to where they’d been.  Personal savings rates went up to about 5 to 6 percent.

But in recent months, the savings rate has trended downward, falling below 4 percent (in December, it rose a bit to 4 percent). Those are not very impressive savings rates.

It is interesting that the crisis didn’t really get Americans - ordinary Americans - to start saving again, partly because so many Americans are now trapped in debt.  While more affluent Americans were able to increase their savings rate easily, those in the middle and lower income strata have made efforts to reduce debt, but they are so indebted and have so little savings that it’s been difficult for them to significantly increase saving.

The composition of U.S. household debt

Amar C. Bakshi: Let’s talk about household debt in the United States.  We hear a lot about government debt, but household debt is even bigger.  What is the composition of this debt?  Credit card, housing, education?  How does the composition of our debt compare with other countries?

Sheldon Garon:  Well, we tend to have very high debt levels relative to our disposable income.  The lion’s share of this is housing debt:  people’s mortgages, their first mortgages, but also their home equity loans—that is, their second mortgages.   So if you take both of these housing loans, they amount to by far the largest portion of American debt.  Then you throw in credit cards, etc.

Another big expenditure is what we have to spend on health, either by paying health insurance premiums or, for those people who don’t have good health insurance, what they pay out of pocket.  Health is a big component of our consumption.  But housing is the really big component of debt.

Amar C. Bakshi:  Now we hear politicians across the political spectrum sounding the alarm about America’s national debt.  To what extent does America’s low savings rate at the household level contribute to the problem of America’s national debt?  Are they separate phenomena or are they related?

Sheldon Garon:  They tend to be fairly separate. You can go country to country and find all sorts of different combinations.  Japan and Italy have very high levels of national debt as a percentage of their GDP, and yet both countries have very good situations when it comes to household saving.

Sometimes it’s said that the Japanese can support a higher national debt because the ample savings of the Japanese people easily finance that debt.   So the cost of servicing national debt in Japan is actually quite low because of the high household savings rate.

In our country too the cost of servicing the national debt right now is fairly low, not because of our household savings, but because of savings coming from the rest of the world – especially from East Asia.  And the Europeans, to a lesser extent, are also financing our national debt and making it relatively cheap.  So there really isn’t that much correlation between household debt and national debt.

Why Asia saves

Amar C. Bakshi:  Turning to China and Asia, a lot of people explain high Asian savings rate in terms of cultural factors.  You don’t.  You disagree.  So what policies have Asian nations, particularly China and Japan, undertaken to spur personal savings?

Sheldon Garon:  It’s true that I don’t think culture is as important as we think it is, at least if we’re treating culture simplistically and saying there’s an Asian or a Confucian culture.

In Japan, historically, from the end of the 1800s, the Japanese actually emulated what Europeans were doing to promote saving.  They adopted various European policies such as savings campaigns and school savings programs. In particular, the Japanese introduced a British-style postal savings system, where you could bank at any post office that would take any deposit, no matter how small.

China is an interesting case, because under Chairman Mao, from 1949 to the 1970s, we would have never said that Chinese culturally save a lot.  First of all, there wasn’t much money, but also there was a very low savings rate of not more than 1 or 2 percent – well below American savings rates at the time.

And then, with a change of institutions after Mao’s death, the Chinese regime established various banks and a post office savings bank in the1980s.  All of a sudden, tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of Chinese gained access to savings institutions, and they began to save a lot.

So it really seems to be a story more about institutions than about “culture.”  We have thrifty Europeans, and we have thrifty East Asians.  They have very different cultures.  And yet they save in similar ways and with very similar institutions.

Why Europe saves

Amar C. Bakshi:  Let’s focus on the European case. European welfare states, in theory, should promote less savings, because people have a fallback option – the state.  You’d think in the United States, with a slightly weaker social safety net, people would save more.  So why is economic theory wrong here?

Sheldon Garon:  Well, economic theory, in this case, is more or less dead wrong.  Since the 1970s in American economics departments, it’s been gospel that if you have a Social Security system—what’s called a national pension system elsewhere - this will disincentivize people from saving, because they know they’re going to get their retirement savings and other social benefits from the government, so why should they bother to save?

It’s accepted, as I said, as the gospel in America.  Often economists invoke this theory to argue that Americans have low savings rates because we have a welfare state and a Social Security system.

The odd thing is that when you go over to the core economies of Europe, the Germans, the French, the Belgians, the Swedes, they all have had very high savings rates of over 10 percent for a long time, and yet they have super welfare states.

Although it’s not clear why welfare states actually correlate with high saving I think there are a couple explanations.  One, by keeping most people from falling into destitution, welfare states ensure that most households remain financially stable.  This automatically results in a higher national savings rate.  Whereas in our country, although stable households also save at pretty good rates, we have a significant portion of our population living in poverty.  They have to borrow to make ends meet, and so they go further into debt.  In other words, credit has become America’s welfare policy.

Also, I think welfare states increase saving by providing citizens with national healthcare and free or low-cost higher education.  Healthcare and education are big costs for the average American household. These expenditures, I think, further diminished our savings rate.

How to help the indebted

Amar C. Bakshi:  Indebtedness is a problem in the U.S. and around the world. Belgium has an unusual way of dealing with debt, with indebted people.  The government comes in and restructures the indebted person’s mortgages; it swoops in to provide social services to address underlying causes.  Is that what the United States needs - that level of intervention?

Sheldon Garon:  Well, that’s probably a bit much for most Americans.  It’s very paternalistic.  However, there is something that the Belgians and other Europeans do that I think we could learn from.  First of all, the Europeans are keenly sensitive to the problem of their households becoming overindebted.  “Overindebtedness” doesn’t even exist as a word in America, much less as a legal term.   So we don’t have policies that address the problem of people getting head over heels in debt.

There’s another thing we can learn from Europeans.   When people do experience debt problems in Europe, it is state institutions that run the credit counseling services that try and get people out of debt.

We have debt counseling services here, but rarely are they a public service.  Rarely are they part of the government.  They’re often managed by the finance companies themselves.  They’re often run for profit.  These debt-counseling services carry fees.  If you declare personal bankruptcy in this country, obviously you also have to pay lawyers’ fees.

If we made debt counseling much more of a social service from the government, we might do a better job of preventing people from becoming overindebted.

How to get Americans to save more

Amar C. Bakshi:  In your book, you write about cultural figures like Benjamin Franklin who encouraged thrift in America and around the world.  Does America need a cultural shift today?  And how can that be brought about?

Sheldon Garon:  Well, cultural shifts are very difficult to bring about, but there are some things I think we can do.  At the very least, I would say institutionally we need to universalize financial education courses in our schools.  Financial education has replaced the older idea of school savings programs.

Financial education prepares students for the real world. They would learn all sorts of things, not only about saving but also about investment—as well as the dangers and the opportunities in credit cards, mortgages, and student loans.

But presently we don’t do a very good job in this country of disseminating financial education.  Some states and some school boards require financial education courses, but most do not.  We really need comprehensive financial education because that, more than anything else, will begin to reshape our culture.  It won’t be a culture where people are misers and just save everything, but rather one where Americans become financially literate and understand the risks of credit.

Amar C. Bakshi: Finally, what needs to be done to get Americans, on average, to save more?

Sheldon Garon:  It depends on which Americans?  If you’re talking about lower income Americans, we have to increase their access to the banks.  This is a big problem among lower income people - some 25 percent are what’s called “unbanked.”  They have no savings or checking account in any bank.

This is rarely their fault.  It has to do with our banks charging high fees and assessing high minimum balances in ways that make it very difficult for small savers to start and maintain accounts.

Most other First World countries have policies of “financial inclusion,” where banks and post offices are mandated to take very small deposits and to create small savers’ accounts for lower income and young people.  So I think this is one of the main ways that we can promote saving.

We don’t necessarily need to roll back consumer and housing credit, but we do need to protect Americans from predatory lending, which went on far too long in the 1990s and early 2000s, either in the form of subprime loans or credit cards that came with 30-page contracts nobody could understand and that assessed high interest rates on unsuspecting people who carried unpaid balances.

Both to decrease debt and increase savings, we need to curb predatory lending and increase financial access for small savers.

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Topics: Economy • Global

soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    Americans are spoiled. They have to be fulfilled by materialism. The rest of the world gets it.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  2. KM

    Generally, Americans don't save because it's not in their culture to save. There are sub-groups in America that do save at a greater rate than the mainstream, but they make up a small portion of the whole. Americans have generally, also been seduced by the concept of instant gratification. Why put off until tomorrow what you can have today? For the US to have a hope of surviving what appears to be an impending calamity with a devastated dollar and a possible Eurozone collapse, Americans will have to become more savings minded, but it will likely be a tough pill to swallow. Americans are nothing if not creatures of habit–they like to spend

    February 19, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  3. netdawg

    Just increase the interest rate. Restore the gold standard. Stop taxing interest and investments. That is how get the savings go back up. Ask yourself: savings for what? Americans are saving nothing because they know fiat money is essentially worthless in the long-term.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:10 am | Reply
  4. roy

    Saving accounts are almost free accounts to the banks so why bother letting them use your money practically free of charge? This is another problem that needs fixing in America along with the federal tax loop holes to the rich.

    February 20, 2012 at 8:50 am | Reply
  5. iceload9

    When is the last time you heard someone say "We can't afford that." That's loser talk, only a loser can't afford a Mercedes, only a loser can't afford the bigger house, newest clothes. We have lost the courage to be savers. It takes courage to say "Lets buy the Ford and bank the rest." And in reality, after two months no one notices your Mercedes but you will be making bigger payments for years. We need to have the self confidence to say "What do I need that for?"

    February 20, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply
  6. Michael

    II used to save a lot. Then I got married.

    Seriously, though, why save when the interest rates are so low and the government taxes it? We need more consumption taxes and less income taxes.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  7. Cara

    Really timely. It has been really interesting to consult these articles during the financial environmental adjustment. I've learned a great deal about investing. Thanks for the article.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
  8. WASP

    We need to get out of the WTO, end these free trade deals, and get back to economic nationalism... fire all the current politicians.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:12 am | Reply
  9. Ron Davison

    So removing the mortgage deduction that drives up home prices could lower average debt? Curiously plausible.
    I wonder that he makes no mention of education loans. Interest rates are so ridiculously high for kids that it seems burdensome.
    Interesting facts throughout, though.(I had no idea that 25% of households were "unbanked" for instance. Ridiculous.) Thanks.

    February 21, 2012 at 2:27 am | Reply
  10. TSB8C

    Who says we don't save? Just because many people don;t trust banks or the government with their money (or other savings like gold, etc) doesn't mean we aren't saving. With most banks ripping you off through crazy fees and the government intrusion and access to your accounts, my savings are elsewhere. Go to your bank and withdraw $10K or more and they will force you to fill out a government form to get your own money. Screw that.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  11. Jimbo

    It's hard to convince someone to save when a savings account earns less than 1/2 of a percent interest!!

    February 21, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  12. meathead rulz

    i save bullets...only real currency left.

    February 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  13. BenB

    For lower income people to be able to save, they have to make money. The minimum wage has to be increased to around $10. Secondly, we must educate our young people about the financial world. There should be a mandatory course in each high school that will educate the students about finances in the real world. Another suggestion is to allow interest deductions to be tax free up a limit of $200 a year. Of course in today's savings world they wouldn't have to worry about that but hopefully that will change and give them a little more incentive to save. Tighten credit requirements on credit cards, mortgages, autos etc. Lastly, do away with Equity loans. Originally they were home improvement loans but seldom used for that. Look at the mess they helped get us in.

    February 21, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  14. Cal Elson

    "To what extent does America’s low savings rate at the household level contribute to the problem of America’s national debt? "

    It's the other way around! Americans save little because government at all levels takes huge chunks of our incomes with runaway spending. On top of that, the artificially low interest rates caused by government over-borrowing and Federal Reserve policies makes saving rates unattractive. Why save when you can only get 0.1% on a money market, or 0.85% on a two-year CD?

    February 21, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  15. rondonaz

    It is tied directly to Americans lack of personal responsibility. If you feel responsible for your family's financial welfare, you will save to over emergencies. If the government has convinced you that it is their role to cover emergencies, why get out there and spend every dime you have. Don't try to blame this on banks, or solar flares, or phases of the moon. We have let ourselves become pathetic.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  16. johnny

    Because Americans were so easily led by the nose by real estate agents and hundreds of Maddoff – to believe that money grow on trees. And the sad ending if it is 99% gullibles remain broke while 1% became even richer.

    Americans at large always think they are smarter then the rest of the wrld – its true they are smart, but only the top 1% multi millionaires (who dont pay taxes – OMG! how can this be happening in mighty U S A ) :D

    February 22, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  17. Art

    As gas prices rise, you see savings, I have a theory about the USA economy, Americans tend to save as things get more expensive, but as prices drop, they shop. We're not as stupid as some make us out to be, we don't do business with banks for the exact reason he said, high fees, but also its much easier not to. Why have a bank account when there's nothing in there? Go to peoples houses and you'll find people hiding money in socks in their drawers before they go to the bank.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  18. Sken

    Maybe cultures can tell us more about this issue than economic theory.
    I'm French and I estimate my personal saving rate at 30 to 40% of a salary of 40 000 euros a year.
    At least in my very personal case, this relates mostly to my education : I've been raised on the idea that you shouldn't buy what you don't really need, and that, if something is not broken, there is no need to buy a new shiny replacement. If I buy something new and realize afterward that I actually didn't really need it, I feel guilt, just like forgetting to switch off the light when leaving a room makes me feel bad. Paying too much for something can haunt me for a long time. I heard many times as a child that "we just don't need that fancy new toy".
    That could be called stinginess, but not quite. The point is to try to find a sweet spot where you buy quality stuff -thus expensive- that last and don't need replacement before a long time, so it saves you money in the end. My mother is proud that most of her household "stuff" (TV, fridge, oven...) are all well below the ten years mark, and functional. Of course, if it eventually breaks down, there is money in the bank to buy a reliable replacement for the next 10+ years or more.
    All in all, that's quite the opposite of the all-American behaviour I've generally witnessed, where available money is mostly waiting to be spent.
    By the way, my girlfriend is Asian and she's even worse, to the point of accepting discomfort to save money...

    March 4, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Reply
    • Sken

      I forgot to state the obvious : in the US and Canada, bank fees and what you pay extra to simply use their service (ATM fee...) are highway robbery, which is not the case in Europe.

      March 4, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
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  20. vistarian2011

    Fantastic , yet simple solution for America.

    So, it's time to start saving folks, because its going to get worst from here. The days of eating and spending like there is no tomorrow is over cowboys.

    May 4, 2012 at 12:24 am | Reply
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    May 5, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply
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