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​Half of Americans are living on the financial edge

Economy grew faster in Q1, and other MoneyWat... 01:05

Here's the gist of the Federal Reserve's financial stress test for Americans: Say your car unexpectedly breaks down, and it's going to cost $400 to fix it so you can get to work. Do you have the cash to pay for the repairs?

If not, you're not alone.

Forty-six percent of American adults told the Federal Reserve that they either don't have the cash to cover an emergency expense, or would have to sell something or borrow money to come up with the funds, according to the central bank's annual study, which surveyed more than 5,000 people in October and November about their household finances.

While the economy may be improving, those gains apparently aren't being felt in the wallets of many Americans, given that the share of people failing the stress test has barely budged since last year, when 47 percent said they'd struggle to come up with the money. Even more troubling, almost one-third of Americans -- or 76 million adults -- said they are either "struggling to get by" or are "just getting by."

Americans aren't experiencing the recovery in the same way, the report found. Those who are more likely to say they're in a better financial situation than a year earlier are those with higher levels of education or who already had been earning middle-class or upper-middle-class incomes. That reflects the reality of the 21st century job market, where workers with high school-level educations are struggling with stagnating wages and declining opportunities while their college-educated peers are pulling ahead financially.

"Economic advancement continues to be experienced to a greater degree for respondents in higher socioeconomic circumstances," the Federal Reserve said in the report. "Among those with only a high-school degree or less, respondents are just 1 percentage point more likely to report that they are better off than they were a year earlier than to say that they are worse off."

Almost 41 percent of the college graduates surveyed by the Fed said they were living comfortably. But among Americans with high school-level educations or less, that share was only 19.8 percent.

An even starker picture emerges in focusing on people who the Fed interviewed two years in a row. The researchers tracked down more than 2,000 respondents who had participated in its 2014 survey and asked them to describe their financial situation a year later. In a classic "rich-get-richer" phenomenon, those Americans who said they were well-off two years ago were the most likely to say they were on even stronger financial ground a year later.

But many of those who said they were struggling financially in 2014 said their economic situation had deteriorated in just a year, the report found.

"Nearly half of those who had been finding it difficult in 2014 now say that they are actually worse off than they had been a year earlier," the Fed noted.

Among the larger pool of respondents, the Fed found that Americans overall say they're doing slightly better, with about 69 percent saying they are either "living comfortably" or "doing okay," compared with 65 percent a year earlier. But again, it appears that much of those improvements stem from those who were already financially stable.

For the most part, Americans who are married, have college degrees and are white are more likely to say they're living comfortably.

"Single parents, racial and ethnic minorities, and respondents with lower levels of income or education are all more likely to report that they were having some level of difficulty getting by financially," the survey found.

But back to the $400 stress test. Why is that revealing?

It turns out that money emergencies are fairly common, with the survey finding that almost one of five respondents reported that either they or a family member who lives with them had experienced a financial hardship in the past year, ranging from job loss to a reduction in work hours.

Without a financial cushion to fall back on, it's more likely those Americans will turn to expensive financial products like payday loans or racking up credit card debt, potentially ending up in even more dire financial straits.

The report noted, "The many pockets of consumers who display elevated levels of financial stress and who are at risk for financial disruption in the case of further economic hardships remain a concern."

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