It's no surprise that the coronavirus pandemic took a toll on Americans' finances, but the numbers are still shocking. Millions of workers have lost their jobs since the crisis began and many of those who are employed are struggling to get by. Nearly two-thirds, 63%, of U.S. adults say they have been living paycheck-to-paycheck for almost a year.
That's up 10%, as per a recent survey from research firm Highland: More than half, 53%, of respondents say they were not living paycheck-to-paycheck before the pandemic.
The survey covered more than 2,000 Americans nationwide to get a sense of how the pandemic has affected their bottom line.
Living for each check presents several problems, but one of the biggest is that it leads to saving less. Nearly 50% of respondents said they've run out of emergency savings, the poll shows, and more than 80% wouldn't be able to cover a surprise $500 expense if it came their way.
Those stats aren't exclusive to Highland survey-takers. A September CNBC + Acorns Invest In You Savings survey found that 14% of Americans, accounting for up to 46 million people, said they completely wiped out their emergency savings because of the crisis.
Meanwhile, the personal finance website MagnifyMoney led a separate survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults in November and found that two-thirds of the respondents were not able to add any money to their savings that month, while another 23% didn't have any money saved at all.
"If people do live paycheck to paycheck, they don't have much wiggle room. It is challenging because they may not have the safety net," says Marguerita Cheng CFP, CRPC, of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. "Cash reserves or rainy-day funds are important for any emergencies."
Video by Courtney Stith
Just as it gets harder to juggle job losses and pay cuts with bills and other expenses, it's becoming more vital than ever to stash away money in an emergency account, experts say.
The general rule of thumb is to set aside 3 to 6 months' worth of living expenses for an unexpected layoff, medical scare, or an expensive issue with your car or home.
But the less stable your job, the more you should save: "Now is the time to pay close attention," Aaron Ansel, the chief executive officer of Puraka Masks, told Grow in October. "Is demand for your skill set waxing or waning? If it's waning … now might be a good time to pivot."
Assuming you're still employed, one way to find more money is by cutting back on the little things: Consider trimming down to just one or two streaming services at a time and cancel any other subscriptions you aren't using. Don't splurge on pricey gifts for the holidays. Budget and resist the urge to buy things you don't need.
Video by Jason Armesto
Delivering groceries or taking surveys online can be great ways to make some extra cash. About a third of workers (34%) polled by Acorns say they have a side hustle outside their normal job. And 84% of Monster.com users planned to apply for seasonal work, according to the job search site's recent poll of 3,889 respondents.
The pandemic has forced Americans in every corner to think more about their financial futures. Whether you're struggling financially or stable, make a priority of adding to your emergency fund or personal savings. Putting money in a high-yield savings account can help you capitalize on it through compound interest, which traditional savings accounts don't offer.
"I think the topic of financial security is important, but to become financially secure, people need to have the opportunity to build a safety net and recover," Cheng says. "No one planned for the pandemic, but having cash reserves can help folks be better prepared for the storm."
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