Though American incomes grew in last month, they didn't stow more of that money away, according to Commerce Department statistics. Americans' personal income increased by 0.3 percent in June, but the share of that money they saved fell from 4.6 to 4.4 percent.
That downtick represents a further decline in Americans' post-recession savings habits. Starting in the Great Recession, Americans began putting more money away and paying down their debt (paying down debt principals – but not interest – is counted as saving). At the height, consumers held onto over 8 percent of their disposable income. But aside from a spike attributable in part to the fiscal cliff, the saving rate has largely fallen off since early 2011.
"The recession drove home the point that people need to have some emergency savings," says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. He adds that consumers also realized the need to climb out of debt. "To the extent that we have seen some debt repayment on the part of consumers over the years, I think [the growth in the saving rate] is a reflection."
Saving is still stronger today than pre-recession – at one point in 2005, Americans were saving just two percent of their income. However, the rate is well below where it was a few decades ago. In the mid-1970s, the American saving rate peaked at 17 percent.
Though several factors contribute to each household's spending decisions, McBride points to two factors that likely have brought savings down nationwide.
One is that incomes are not keeping up with household expenditures. Wages as a share of GDP have fallen by 16 percent since the late 1960s, according to government data. In addition, he adds, the rise of consumer culture has driven people to spend more.
"There's a lifestyle component to that. Households are a lot bigger than they were back in the '70s," he says, adding that people buy lots of TVs, furniture, and cars to go with those houses.
With an improving economy, people are more willing to spend, which means faster economic growth. However, it may also mean that Americans forget the lessons of the recession.
"I think a lot of consumers are going to quickly revert to their familiar ways," says McBride. Pent-up demand from years of holding back on spending, combined with flat wages, could mean that the saving rate will resume its former downward trajectory.
That could also change how Americans stack up against other nationalities' saving habits. France, Switzerland, and Germany led OECD nations in saving as of 2010, according to the most recent data available from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
Americans are just below the middle of the pack among 29 nations for whom data is available. Culture and wages can contribute to a nation's saving rate, as can the nation's economy – witness Greece's remarkable -11.1 percent rate. The presence or absence of safety nets can also influence a nation's saving rate.
That's one factor playing into China's remarkably high saving rate, which the IMF last year put at over 30 percent for urban households and 25 percent for rural households. One major reason Chinese families put money away is to pay for education and health expenses, as government spending for that is scarce.