Families in the US are financially different – and so do they save. But across the board, save more today than ever before, be it for emergencies or for retirement.

The Federal Reserve Board’s recently released 2019 Consumer Finance Survey takes a 30-year look back at family finances to see how savings practices have changed. The data shows that Americans have better access to financial assets like bank and investment accounts, but it also shows that there are huge differences in who owns those assets and how much they are worth. While the data period doesn’t cover the current recession, it can provide clues as to where the saving habits could lead when looking back at the coronavirus pandemic and the economic ramifications it brings.

Why American families save

From 1989 to 2019, retirement and liquidity – with cash – were, in turn, the main reason American families saved up, according to the consumer finance survey. Liquidity has been the main driver since 2010.

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When unexpected bills, unemployment, or a pandemic strikes, having access to cash makes coping easier and keeps things safe. A common guide is to build up over time and eventually have three to six months of expenses rolled into one Emergency fund. And while only 63% of Americans could cover an unexpected $ 400 bill, according to the Federal Reserve Board, the fact that it exceeds the reasons for saving suggests that the lack of emergency money isn’t due to a lack of trying.

Take action

Savings that you can have quick access to in an emergency (cash) and money to live on in retirement are both very important, and they are two financial goals that can grow with you.

First, set aside cash for emergencies, whether it’s a month’s cost of living or a few hundred dollars if that’s more realistic given your income and expenses. Once you have an emergency fund in place, turn to your retirement savings and start or increase contributions as much as possible. If that looks good, turn back to liquidity and stash extra funds. In this way, you can gradually increase your financial security on both fronts over time.

Access to financial assets is growing, but unevenly

Over the past 30 years, the percentage of American families with financial assets – including checking and savings accounts, CDs, stocks and bonds, retirement accounts, cash-value life insurance, and more – has increased significantly from 89% to 99%.

The growth in the proportion of people in possession of these assets has been most significant among groups often left behind due to poverty and / or systemic racism, which resulted in, for example, wealth accumulation and income.

For example, the proportion of black families with financial assets rose from 64% to 98% over this 30-year period and from 69% to 96% of Latin American families. Even single parents have seen improved access to assets since 1989 – from 72% to 99%.

This growth is remarkable, but it doesn’t tell the full story. How much these families have in their bank accounts and pension funds is still far behind their white colleagues. In fact, the median 2019 median financial assets for white families is $ 49,500, compared to $ 5,500 for black families and $ 3,000 for Latin American families. The typical value of wealth for a single parent regardless of race is $ 4,000.

Take action

Saving and accumulating financial assets can be difficult when your income is low, debt is high, you do not have the same access to financial instruments and resources as others, or when you log out of the traditional banking system. Saving even a little can make a world of difference, however – a savings account balance of just over $ 100 is related to keeping utilities on and avoiding high-interest borrowing. This is based on research by SaverLife, a non-profit organization that helps families save. So put what you can on every paycheck, even if it looks like a drop in the ocean. If you set yourself small goals like $ 200 or $ 500, you can go ahead and rest assured you have a pillow to hand.

Pension funds hold most of the assets

The majority of American families’ financial assets – an average of 36% of them – are held in retirement accounts. Thirty years ago, only 21% of financial assets were in such accounts, just slightly more than transactional accounts such as checking and savings accounts.

Only 37% of American families had a retirement account in 1989, compared with 50% in 2019. This growth coincides with the growth in employer-sponsored pension funds like 401 (k) accounts and the replacement of pensions with 401 (k). s and privately held retirement accounts such as IRAs.

But not everyone has equal access to such accounts. For example, only 34% of single parents, 35% of black families, and 26% of Latin American families have a retirement account. That is compared to 57% of white families.

More:: 401 (k) and IRA balances have risen modestly, a key survey shows

In addition, the median value of the pension accounts for 2019 differs significantly depending on the population. Couples without children typically have $ 104,000 in their retirement accounts, compared to $ 67,500 in couples with children. Single parents with retirement accounts typically have $ 30,000.

The median balance of white families with such accounts ($ 80,000) is more than double that of black ($ 35,000) or Latin American ($ 31,000) families.

Take action

Once you have an emergency fund in place, it’s time to start saving for retirement. Do what you can as you can. And if your financial situation allows, do more.

If your employer offers 401 (k) matching, you are doing enough to take advantage of all of the free money. If this is not the case, you will have to set up and finance a retirement account yourself. Start somewhere: Putting a small portion of every paycheck into an IRA can build on it for years.

Regardless of your goals, saving is a lifelong journey. Your ability to accumulate financial assets, such as cash and retirement savings, depends on factors that you can immediately control, such as: Budgeting, and factors you may have less to say about, such as: B. How your neighborhood, education and race affect your economic mobility. Even your ability to control your budget depends on whether you even have enough money to manage it, and at a time of persistently high unemployment, many Americans struggle with it stretch every dollar. In such situations, even the smallest steps are progress and can form the basis for more economic security both when the next invoice is due and in the future.

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Elizabeth Renter writes for NerdWallet. Email: elizabeth@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @elizabethrenter.