Survey: Americans save, but many also face bank fees

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In a Nutshell

More than half of Americans have an emergency fund of some kind, according to our survey. But 48% of all respondents said they were charged bank fees in the last year — and a lot of folks said they keep their emergency savings in cash, not in a bank. Is there a connection between the prevalence of bank fees and the way people choose to stash their cash?

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Americans are trying to get stronger financially by saving for rainy days — but bank fees can chip away at those efforts.

While a joint survey from Credit Karma and Qualtrics shows that 54% of Americans have an emergency fund, about 18% of that group holds their savings in cash — even though most respondents have checking or savings accounts.

Keeping your savings in cash outside of a bank can be risky. There’s the threat of physical theft or damage. Plus, you miss out on a chance to earn interest.

So why would people avoid banking their emergency cash?

Some may worry about accessing their money quickly when they need it — or that account fees will cut into their savings. In our survey, 48% of respondents said they’d been hit with a bank fee in the last 12 months. And almost a third of respondents said they’d been surprised by a bank or credit union fee at some point in their lives.

Read on for a closer look at the data plus tips for finding an account that makes sense for you.


Key survey findings

Over half (54%) of respondents had an emergency fund. Of those, 50% kept their stash in a savings account, 29% in a checking account and 18% in cash.
For those who had emergency funds, 29% had two months’ or less worth of expenses saved. An entire 18% had saved a year or more worth of expenses.
Almost half (48%) of respondents had been charged a bank fee of some kind in the last 12 months.
For those charged fees, the most common were ATM fees (22%), checking account maintenance fees (14%), overdraft fees (14%) and late payment fees (9%).
Of those who have been charged bank fees, nearly a third (30%) said they faced more bank fees in the past 12 months than in the previous year.
A quarter of survey takers had tapped into their emergency funds in the last 12 months, with 20% of respondents in that group draining those funds completely.

Over half of Americans had an emergency fund, which is good because many had to use it in the last year

Our survey found that 54% of Americans had an emergency fund of some kind. Impressively, among those with emergency funds, 18% had more than a year’s worth of expenses saved up — though 29% had less than three months’ worth of expenses saved.

In the last 12 months, 25% of survey takers said they had to withdraw from their emergency funds. Of those, 22% used a significant amount of the money they had saved, and 20% completely drained their funds.

This underscores one of the key findings in a previous Credit Karma’s survey, where 82% of Americans polled said they felt the pandemic had demonstrated the importance of having an emergency fund.

Most Americans keep their emergency funds in the bank

In order to participate in this survey, respondents had to have a bank account of some kind. The vast majority of respondents (94%) said they had a checking account, and 76% said they had a savings account.

But although most survey takers had a checking or savings account, not all of them were using a bank account for emergency funds.

Among respondents with an emergency fund, savings accounts were the most popular vehicles for those savings, with 50% choosing to keep their “just-in-case” money there. Checking accounts were the next most popular choice, accounting for 29% of emergency funds.

But 18% of respondents with emergency funds said they hold their rainy-day funds in cash.

Almost half of respondents had been charged a bank fee in the last 12 months

Unfortunately, many financial institutions can and do charge customers fees for common services — and sometimes those fees sneak up on people. Overall, 32% of survey takers said they’d been surprised by a banking fee at some point in their lives.

In the last year, the most common fees among respondents were …

  • ATM fees (22%)
  • Checking account maintenance fees (14%)
  • Overdraft fees (14%)
  • Late payment fees (9%)

Gen Z is the group most likely to get hit with a banking fee, according to our survey. A whopping 79% of adults ages 18 to 24 years old were charged a fee in the last 12 months, compared to only 48% of the overall group and just 21% of adults over 56 years old.

Of the people who had been charged a fee in the last 12 months, 30% reported being charged more fees compared to last year, and 48% said they were charged about the same as last year.


Strategies for picking an account and avoiding fees

Choosing a financial institution

Before you choose a bank account, you’ll need to pick a financial institution that works for your situation. Ask yourself these questions.

Choosing an account

Once you’ve chosen where to bank, you need to pick the right account for your purpose.

Checking accounts give you easy access to your cash via a debit card, checks or cash withdrawals. Savings accounts are good for keeping your cash stowed away because it’s typically a little more complicated to withdraw cash from a savings account. You may also want to consider a money market account, a kind of hybrid between checking and savings accounts.

For people worried about self-control when it comes to saving, it may make sense to choose an account that makes it harder to get at your cash or penalizes you for withdrawing cash, like retirement accounts or certificates of deposit. Note that these kinds of accounts aren’t great for emergency funds because you won’t be able to withdraw money quickly if you need it urgently.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before opening your account.

  • How easy or difficult do I want it to be to access the cash?
  • What kind of fees might I be charged with this account? Can the fees be waived?
  • Can I earn interest on this account? If so, how much?

Avoiding fees

First, try to pick a financial institution and an account with as few fees as possible. Credit Karma has some advice for finding free checking accounts and free savings accounts.

For accounts that do have fees, here are some articles with tactics to avoid them.


Methodology

On behalf of Credit Karma, Qualtrics conducted a nationally representative online survey in March 2021 among 1,038 American adults to understand banking patterns and pain points.


About the author: Gaby Lapera is a researcher and writer at Credit Karma and a personal finance expert. She also spends time working on investing and science communication. Gaby graduated with a master's … Read more.