Survey: 40 percent of U.S. households struggle financially

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WASHINGTON — Four in 10 U.S. households are straining financially five years after the Great Recession — many struggling with credit, soaring education debt and issues related to savings and retirement, according to a new Federal Reserve survey.

The wide-ranging Fed study assessing the economic well-being of Americans shows that the economy has made progress to the point where most households said they were "living comfortably" or doing OK financially.

Almost 40 percent reported last fall that their families were "just getting by" or struggling to do so, and more people said their financial situation was worse than five years earlier.

The survey, conducted in September and reported Thursday, found the recession had forced substantial shares of the population to put off big purchases or delay major decisions such as moving to a new city or getting married. And many people leaned on others to get through the hard times.

"The survey indicates that many households have been providing assistance to one another during periods of financial distress," the 100-page Fed report said, noting that 34 percent helped friends or family with money.

Overall, the Fed's findings are consistent with many other studies and data depicting the deep and lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession. They provide fresh evidence that the recovery has been slow and uneven, generally skewed to the wealthy, and flesh out with numbers commonly held assumptions.

The survey found, for example, that 15 percent of those who had retired since 2008 had done so earlier than planned because of the downturn. Only 4 percent said they had retired later than expected. Based on demographics, that translates into roughly 2 million more people retiring since 2008 than if the recession had not occurred.

The central bank conducts a far more extensive survey of consumer finances every three years, but the results of the most recent one, for 2013, won't be released until early next year.

Even so, this latest snapshot, which the Fed said was aimed at monitoring the recovery and risks to financial stability, adds to the understanding of the severity of the Great Recession's effect on households and individuals. The report suggested that Americans had a fairly positive outlook about their finances. More than 60 percent said they expected their income to stay the same in the next 12 months, with 21 percent looking for it to increase. Only 16 percent expected it to decline.

Similarly, a plurality of homeowners — 60 percent of respondents said they own homes — said they expected their houses to rise in value over the next year.

Financial strains also were evident in health spending: About one-third of respondents said they had put off medical care in the prior 12 months because they could not afford it.

Also, fewer than 40 percent of households had a rainy-day fund to cover expenses for three months.