How Does the Bottom 5th of America Live?


(Photo credit: 401(K) 2012)

Could you live on an average of less than $10,000 a year? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor 24.4 million households do. But at what price? Statistics from the Consumer Expenditure Survey show the bottom 5th of America get by, but are often in debt spending double their yearly income.

Life happens. Maybe you are a retiree living on a fixed income and rapidly dwindling savings. Or, recently have become unemployed and again will get by, at least until your savings runs out. There are students in the bottom fifth using student loans to supplement expenses knowing the price tag will be high six months after graduation when its time to pay on the loans.

Where does help come from?

Sometimes the only way to get by is to take extreme measures you wouldn’t normally take.

  • Personal  loans from family and friends.  Make sure you and your lender agree that the loan is most likely a “gift”. Having loaned money to a friend almost two years ago I have written off the loan as a gift as not a penny has been paid back. Those struggling to this extent are likely not to have the means to pay the loan back for a long time. So be sure you are upfront about your situation when asking for help as not to destroy the relationship.
  • Credit  cards.  25% of those in the bottom 5th struggle with leveraged debt; using 40% of their limited income to keep up with debt payments, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
  • Payday loans.  You write a personal check payable to the lender for the amount you want to borrow, plus the fee for borrowing the money. The company gives you the amount of the check less the fee, and agrees to hold the check until your next payday. You are charged new fees every time the loan is  extended.  These types of loans are a recipie for disaster and often times do more harm than good.

Spending double your income, you have to be supplementing somehow. These are three ways many use to get by; but is there a better way?

Making the best of a tough situation

No one wants to live this way, but for some it is a reality that can’t be helped. In an effort to keep debt from spiraling out of control there are a few things you can do.

  • Have an Emergency Fund.  Saving is hard even when you do have the means. For those in the bottom 5th, saving is imperative. You may not have access to credit without high interest rates or predatory loans. And, you can’t afford fees associated with late payments. Having an emergency fund can be a lifeline when an unexpected expense comes up, like a co-pay for the doctor, new medicine, or a flat tire. Instead of taking on debt you can’t afford you can draw on the emergency fund to help you.
  • Make smart tax decisions.  Those in the bottom 5th qualify for the earned income tax credit as well as several others for those with significantly below average incomes. Be sure to take advantage of any tax breaks even if it means having to pay someone to help you.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Those struggling to stay a float are often victims of scams.  Preying on the poor businesses such as payday lenders make their money on those that rely on them to get by, by charging outrageous rates to borrow from them. Debt relief providers often tote what seams to be a miracle for those that can’t afford to pay on their unsecured debt.

Here is a list of what to look for in a debt relief provider:

  1. Solid record with the Better Business Bureau (BBB)
  2. In business long enough to have built a solid reputation
  3. Electronic payment processing to ensure consistency
  4. Existing relationships with most creditors and collection agencies
  5. Support network to connect with other community members and find out how they are handling the day-to-day challenges of being in debt
  6. Reasonable fee structure – ask the amount of fees and how they are paid (many settlement firms try to hide their excessive fees)
  7. Full disclosure of how settlement works, fees involved, likely impacts to credit profile, and the projected time to complete the program
  8. Robust educational resources to help you build your money management skills

Breaking free from the bottom 5th is not going to be easy. With the cards stacked against you it can be difficult to ever see yourself getting ahead financially. But, it can be done with hard work, changing your lifestyle, and asking for help when you need it.

Are you part of the bottom 5th? What are you doing to break free?