It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.


Last week, the Federal Reserve issued its Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017. Some key findings that the media has latched onto sound promising:

  • About 40 percent of adults said that if faced with a $400 unexpected expense, they would either not be able to pay it or would do so by selling something or borrowing money. This number has improved over time, mirroring the country’s economic expansion over the five years the Fed has been tracking the data.

  •  Individuals of all education levels, races, and ethnicities have shared in the economic expansion over the past five years.
  • Most workers are satisfied with the wages and benefits from their current job and are optimistic about their future job opportunities.
  • 75 percent of adults have something saved for retirement. And preparedness for retirement increases with age.

But there are nuances – in either the Fed’s data or in data or insights I’ve collected through my work with the Center for the New Middle Class – that paint a more holistic picture.

Though it's great to see improvement in how many can cover a $400 expense, is that even the right number to track? In market research sessions, many individuals share why they became non-prime, and why they need immediate influxes of cash. Common issues include car repair costs and hospital bills. While $400 may cover a minor car repair, AAA dataindicates that the average auto repair bill is between $500 and $600.


The Fed study also found that one in four people skipped medical treatment for financial reasons. That $400 metric may cover a few diagnostic tests and the copay at the hospital, but a 2013 National Institute of Health study put the median emergency room visit cost at $1,233. Our CNMC research finds that for those with credit scores below 700, a bill becomes a crisis at $1,400. For those with good credit, that bar rises to $2,900.


Economic improvement among all socioeconomic groups is great, though the Fed itself clarifies that reported well-being is lower for racial and ethnic minorities and those who’ve attained less education. The CNMC’s study of African Americans’ financial wellness mirrored these results, and in fact found that even when African Americans had prime credit scores – or scores of 700 or above – their financial wellness resembles the broader non-prime community.


Though most workers report being satisfied with their wages and, and optimistic about their future job prospects, challenges including irregular job scheduling remain. According to the Fed, one in six workers have irregular work schedules that they did not request, and one in ten receive their work schedule less than a week in advance. As the Fed notes, the gig economy is growing unabated, which can be a positive thing in that it means more opportunity. But it also means more fragility, since these jobs offer fewer benefits and less consistent work. Per CNMC research, half of non-prime Americans have an income that fluctuates month to month. This can make budgeting, planning and long-term saving far more difficult.


Lastly, though it’s great that three out of four adults have started saving for retirement, the Fed adds that 40% of those savers don’t feel they are on track. When we broke down CNMC data by age demographics, we found that Baby Boomers, those nearing retirement, were the most stable generational group. However, 7 in 10 non-prime Boomers report running out of money at least once in a year. If that data point feels irrelevant because it’s limited to non-prime individuals, consider this: 66% of Americans fall into that non-prime category, with credit scores below 700 or no credit score at all.


And speaking of generational trends, the Fed report found that 25% of young adults receive financial support from someone outside their home. Our CNMC data further found that millennials are more likely than other generational groups to experience unexpected car repairs or non-routine medical expenses. And 41% of them report that they run out of money every other month, or more often.


So, it’s the best of times, and I am super pleased that we are at a 5-year low of people who say they are “finding it difficult to get by.” But these numbers don’t necessarily show the fragility of the economy, nor the stories of the individuals – and especially those who are non-prime – hidden in these numbers. On a positive side, people continue to do better, that much we can be pleased with.