We came to understand this after analyzing the U.S. Financial Diaries (USFD), an unprecedented study to collect detailed cash flow data for U.S. households. From 2012 to 2014 we set up research sites in 10 communities across the country. The USFD research team engaged 235 households that were willing to let us track their financial lives for a full year. We tried to record every single dollar the households earned, spent, saved, borrowed, and shared with others. We logged all transactions, whether they occurred digitally or in cash, above the table or below, in money or in kind. The households had at least one worker, and none were among the poorest or richest in their communities. Beyond that, the households were diverse: rural, urban, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, recent immigrants, and families that have been in the U.S. for generations.
Our first big finding was that the households’ incomes were highly unstable, even for those with full-time workers. We counted spikes and dips in earning, defined as months in which a household’s income was either 25% more or 25% less than the average. It turned out that households experienced an average of five months per year with either a spike or dip. In other words, incomes were far from average almost half of the time. Income volatility was more extreme for poorer families, but middle class families felt it too.
This income volatility is the result of broad shifts in the labor market. As employment in the service and retail sectors has grown, and dynamic staffing policies have spread, more workers depend on income from commissions, tips, and hourly work with fluctuating schedules. The unemployment rate has been low (under 5% nationally), but that doesn’t necessarily create stable incomes: Half of the volatility we saw was due to variation in the size of paychecks within the same job.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at We Tracked Every Dollar 235 U.S. Households Spent for a Year, and Found Widespread Financial Vulnerability