$75k income not enough to keep a third of US households from living paycheck-to-paycheck

Reuters / Jessica Rinaldi
A third of higher income Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, even when they earn $75,000 a year because they would rather spend money on eating out and experiences than save money for retirement, according to a new survey.

In a poll of 519 households earning $75,000 or more, nearly a third of them live paycheck-to-paycheck, at least some of the time, SunTrust Bank found. Almost half (44 percent) of participants said that spending on lifestyle purchases – like dining out and entertainment – causes them to save less than they should each month.

Eating out was the biggest reason people said they are not saving enough, with 68 percent of respondents giving it as their main excuse. But one third of participants said a lack of financial discipline at least sometimes holds them back from achieving their goals.

Millennials fared even worse when it came to saving: 71 percent blamed lifestyle purchases for living paycheck-to-paycheck, with 70 percent giving dining out as the main reason.

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People who are two to three decades away from retirement were the most confident that they would be able to live off their savings in their later years, with 53 percent of those aged 35 to 44 believing they are saving enough to live comfortably in retirement. Among those ages 45 to 54, however, the number drops to 37 percent.

The survey results could be a sign that people let their spending grow at a faster rate than their paychecks over the years, Beverly Ladley, an executive with SunTrust, told the Washington Post.

People’s spending habits often increase when they get a promotion or a raise, Ladley said.

“It can sound like a lot of money,” she said, “but when they really understand what their expenses are, what they have left over is not very much.”

But the survey only asked about lifestyle spending, and did not go into other reasons that people might struggle to save.

Pamela Sandy, CEO and founder of financial advisory firm Confiance, told CNBC her clients are contending with such things as student loans, the cost of child care and the need to help family members.

"Do I think people are just out there being frivolous? It is damn expensive to live in the country today, and it's damn expensive to raise kids, and that's just the bottom line," she said.

Part of the problem is that wages have remained stagnant over the past few years, while the cost of health care, child care, college tuition and other living expenses have gone up.

Ladley advises people to get a better handle on where their money is going by creating savings accounts ‒ or “buckets” within a savings account ‒ for each of their financial goals. People are better at saving if they have a specific goal in mind like buying a house, planning a vacation or preparing for a baby, she said.

She also recommends breaking up larger goals into several smaller steps.

“Once [people] achieve one goal, it actually motivates them to do more,” Ladley said.

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Brad Dinsmore, consumer banking and private wealth management executive at SunTrust Bank, agreed, suggesting consumers establish healthy savings routines by focusing on positive goals.

"It's easier to stay motivated when you're saving for goals that are connected to your values and bring you happiness," Dinsmore said in a statement on the survey, noting the company’s new Live for a Sunny Day program. "We are providing tangible resources and inspiration to help people put more money aside for their most important moments, whether that's an upcoming wedding, dream vacation, opening a new business or starting a family."

Americans also need to be more savvy when it comes to their retirement savings, according to a comprehensive national survey conducted by Guardian Life Insurance of those who participate in its 401(k) retirement plans. That poll revealed that, while plan participants are satisfied with their 401(k)s, a lack of understanding of basic investment concepts likely contributes to lower plan engagement and less successful retirement outcomes.

That survey also found that 401(k)s remain underutilized. The average 401(k) participant under 50 contributes $8,700 per year to his or her account; for those 50 or over the average is $9,100. In both cases this averages out at a savings rate of 9 percent of personal income, which is less than most financial professionals recommend to build a secure retirement income. On top of not investing enough, the study showed that most individuals are unprepared to make decisions or take action to optimize their 401(k) plans and are leaving tax-efficiency on the table, Guardian Life said.

Harris Poll conducted the online survey for SunTrust Bank at the end of March. Brightwork Partners conducted the Guardian Life online survey of 2,000 active 401(k) participants in November 2014.