The Ups and Downs of Americans' Finances

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In The Atlantic’s May issue, Neal Gabler explores his own financial troubles for clues as to why so many Americans are struggling to remain financially solvent.

When Rachel Schneider, the senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, read the cover story, she thought that one piece of the story was missing: volatility. She explains:

Neal Gabler’s beautiful and brave exploration of his financial life captures many of the reasons that millions of Americans live precarious financial lives: stagnating wages, the rising costs of a middle class life, and an overreliance on debt to fund the gap. But, there is another, more hidden cause of financial insecurity: volatility. In the U.S. Financial Diaries project, Jonathan Morduch and I found that, on average, households in our sample experienced more than 5 months a year in which their income was 25 percent more or 25 percent less than the average. The same was true for spending.

That means that even families who earn enough over the course of the year to cover their expenses often find themselves short this month or this week. The rent may be due Tuesday, groceries need to be bought now, but the paycheck isn’t coming until next Friday. It costs time, money, and energy to bridge those gaps. Better ways to plan, save, borrow, and insure can help even out the spikes and dips, but the financial advice and products of the past often assumed a baseline of cash flow stability. We will need to revise that assumption if we want to build supports for the future of financial health.