The good news is this: America's household debt is dropping. In fact, over the past four years, it has fallen by $833 billion. And, while that was only about 6 percent of the country's total consumer debt, it was still a big drop from our debt high watermark of $13.6 trillion, which the nation hit in 2008.
Unfortunately, there's bad news to balance out the good. That decline in overall household debt does not mean we're doing a better job of saving.
As The Atlantic recently reported, a lot of that debt didn't get removed from the books by families conscientiously cutting expenses, paying down credit cards and loans, and increasing savings. Instead, far too many families saw large portions of their debt burdens evaporate on a painful technicality when their homes went into foreclosure.
So, no: Americans still aren't back on the path to economic security. Real wages fell sharply after 2008, and still haven't returned to their pre-recession levels. And, with unemployment still high, it doesn't look like our paychecks are going to rebound anytime soon.
With this in mind, it's hardly surprising that economic security is at its lowest point in decades. As I noted late last year, the median household wealth in America is at a 43-year low. This is partly due to the great mass of recession foreclosures, but also because a huge segment of the population is simply not earning enough money to save -- and saving is the first step on the road to economic security.
You Need a Cash Cushion. We Have Some Ideas.
There's a general rule of thumb that says a household should have enough of a cash cushion to survive for three months without slipping below the poverty line if its sources of income dry up. Recently, a study by the Corporation for Enterprise Development found that almost 44 percent of U.S. households don't meet this standard. In Alabama, the state that fared worst in the study, almost 64 percent of the population didn't have a big enough a cushion. The state where people were best prepared for a job loss, by the way, was Minnesota, where only 23.6 percent of the people didn't have a sufficient cushion against poverty.
The national march toward financial security is going to take a long time, especially if the current trend toward cutting social programs continues. Meanwhile, for the average family, falling real wages and that disappearing safety net are making it harder to save money.
We want to help.
We've been collecting suggestions about techniques you can use to help build up your cash cushion. So far, we've come up with 25 surprising ways to earn a little more money on the side. If you're interested, take a peek at our list in the gallery below. And if you've got a method that we didn't highlight, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or mention it in the comments section.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.