A lot of it has to do with Americans' record as savers. Only 54 percent of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt, according to the survey, and 40 percent of Americans feel less comfortable with their savings compared with a year ago.
"Emergency savings remains a problem for many Americans," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate, in a release. "As difficult as it may be to boost savings, having an adequate emergency savings cushion is critical to maintaining financial stability."
Without a sufficient "rainy day fund" to protect against job loss and other unplanned financial hiccups, the only other option for many Americans is taking on more high-interest credit card debt—hardly a recipe for financial peace of mind.
Americans have recently made strides in paying down their debt and boosting their savings. In December, consumers saved 4 percent of their income, up from 3.5 percent in November. While that's still not a high rate—savings rates hovered around 10 percent at times during the 70s and 80s—it's a step in the right direction.
But the turnaround will likely take some time. "The balance was so out of whack to begin with that it's going to take a long time to right-size that equation," McBride says, adding that stagnant wage growth coupled with rising food and energy prices has made it doubly hard for consumers to sock away extra cash.
The key component of the equation is jobs, McBride says. As soon as job growth recovers, people will have more income padding their wallets, which will help them pay down debt and increase savings. Whether that trend will continue in years to come is another story.
"In a stronger economic environment, people will probably revert to their spending ways," McBride says. "But memories of the recession are still very fresh, so people are going to stay in this more conservative mode for awhile."
"We have not undergone a permanent shift towards savings," he adds.