[Updated] Question of the Day: What percentage of Americans can not come up with the cash to cover a $400 emergency?

Feb 11, 2020
Question of the Day, Savings, Current Events, Credit Cards

Answer: 12%

It is time once again to take a look at new data on this often quoted number, and put it in context.

(In fact, 12% is the critical figure here, representing those who can’t pay it at all: 27% would have to borrow or sell something to cover the expense.)


  1. Are you surprised by this number? Why or why not?
  2. What are some emergency expenses that could amount to $400?
  3. How do you think the 39% cover this emergency cost if they don’t have money saved to cover it?
  4. What is more important to your decision to save money, the interest rate you earn on yours savings or the interest rate you pay on borrowing?

Click here for the ready-to-go slides for this Question of the Day that you can use in your classroom. 

Behind the numbers:

A CBS report on the most recent (2018) Federal Reserve Data breaks this figure down and puts it in context. On a brighter note, this figure has inched down since we first posted this QoD in 2015 based on 2014 data, when the figure was 47%.

CBS provided this explanation:

What that means on the ground: Even a thriving economy can leave people close to the edge. The Fed found that 27% of survey respondents would have to borrow money or sell something to cover a $400 emergency — 12% couldn't cover it at all. Other findings from the annual Fed report, which is based on a survey last fall of 11,000 people:

  • 17% of U.S. adults are unable to pay all of their bills in full every month.
  • 25% of Americans skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they couldn't afford the cost.
  • 30% of families must cope with income that that varies from month to month.  
  • 25% of adults who are still in the labor force have no retirement savings or pension.  
  • 30% of people either can't pay their bills or are one modest financial emergency from serious trouble.


Your students can play NGPF Arcade Game Spent to experience what it means to live "paycheck to paycheck" and one unexpected expense away from financial difficulties. 

About the Authors

Beth Tallman

Beth Tallman entered the working world armed with an M.B.A. in finance and thoroughly enjoyed her first career working in manufacturing and telecommunications, including a stint overseas. She took advantage of an involuntary separation to try teaching high school math, something she had always dreamed of doing. When fate stepped in once again, Beth jumped on the opportunity to combine her passion for numbers, money, and education to develop curriculum and teach personal finance at Oberlin College. Beth now spends her time writing on personal finance and financial education, conducting student workshops, and developing finance curricula and educational content. She is also the Treasurer of Ohio Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy.

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.