The national personal savings rate jumped to historic levels in 2020, peaking at nearly 34% of disposable personal income in April 2020, coinciding with the first round of stimulus payments, which many put directly into savings. This rate fell back slightly in 2020, bouncing back to 27.6% in March 2021 with the arrival of yet another round of stimulus. For perspective, savings bottomed near 2% in 2005 when consumer confidence was high.

Here in California, the room for saving is even narrower due to the high cost of living, thus the savings rate is lower than the national average. Over the past decade, while jobs recovered steadily from the 2008 recession, home prices and rents increased far faster than incomes. This disparity has chipped away at the ability to accumulate savings sufficient to cover emergencies, let alone enough for a down payment on a home. Further, the incentive for saving remains as low as the “negative” interest rates on savings accounts, which are insufficient to cover inflation increases. In turn, the savings rate remains low in California, meaning 20% down payments are increasingly rare among first-time homebuyers.

Looking beyond 2021, many residents will find themselves drawing on savings to survive as the damaged economy continues to struggle through this recession and pandemic. Expect to see the savings rate remain well above normal for the next couple of years as individuals who remain employed turn to saving as a way to fend off recessionary anxiety.

Updated May 11, 2021. Original copy published November 2013.

Chart update 05/11/21

2020 2019 2018
Annual average personal savings rate
16.4% 7.6%

Chart update 05/11/21

March 2021 March 2020 March 2019
Personal Savings Rate
12.9% 8.0%

Data courtesy of United States Department of Commerce: Bureau of Economic Analysis

Gray bars indicate periods of recession.

More and more, real estate demand is driven by how much money potential buyers save. Personal savings were at an all-time high in 2020. What does this mean for future home sales?

Trends in saving

The 20% down payment was once the gold standard of residential mortgages. During the fevered years of the Millennium Boom, this became a quaint novelty. Buyers (and lenders) got used to the easy days of purchasing a home with 0% down, and seller-paid or financed closing costs. This low barrier to entry was seductively convenient for Millennium Boom buyers.

Unsurprisingly, this was reflected in the personal savings rates of the period. From 1952 – 1990 personal savings as a percentage of disposable income was around 8-10%, according to the Federal Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). During the Millennium Boom, it dropped to nearly 0%, a 50-year low. Then, the onset of the 2008 Great Recession ushered reality back through the front door. Homeowners who felt the trauma of the housing crash began wisely stockpiling cash. The personal savings rate leaped up to 6% within a year.

The personal savings rate was at 27.6% at the end of Q1 2021, having spiked due to the most recent round of individual stimulus payments. This follows a long and gradual trend upward from when the savings rate bottomed in 2005. As we continue through the current recessionary period, expect to see a greater reliance on savings emerge, with households saving when possible to make up for the economic turbulence of the ongoing recession.

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Savings to continue?

Over the last few decades, savings has followed a path conversely proportionate to consumer confidence. When consumer confidence runs high, the rate of personal savings falls as people spend more than they earn. When consumer confidence is relatively low, personal savings rises. A financial “comfort zone” is accommodated either way.

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Homebuyers feel ready and willing to buy, but not financially able

The hotly-debated definition of a qualified residential mortgage (QRM) was thought to force savings for those who seek the American Dream. However, it ended up falling short of expectations.

For a loan to be considered a QRM under the first proposed definition, the homebuyer needed to bring in a minimum 20% down payment. However, the final QRM rules had no down payment requirement, a huge miss for stabilizing the mortgage market. Thus, a return to higher savings rates will not originate in new housing regulations.

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Even if the QRM had required a minimum down payment requirement, homebuyers still have many ways to get around providing significant down payments. In lieu of conventional financing, many first-time buyers opt for Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-insured financing. FHA-insured loans have more permissive underwriting standards, but require mortgage insurance premiums (MIPs). And, the minimum down payment requirement for an FHA-insured loan is only 3.5%.

Further, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now accept minimum down payments as low as 3%.

However, as stricter credit standards are set across the mortgage industry during our present recession, tighter access to credit is keeping many homebuyers who were qualified even a few months ago from qualifying today. These would-be homebuyers will need to return to the drawing board for the next year or two, increasing their savings and improving their credit scores before they can take on homeownership.