In May 2023, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System released its 2022 update to the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED). While the Federal Reserve has published many useful interactives examining the differences among demographic groups, none of them disaggregate data points by sex, even though that characteristic is available in the SHED. Additionally, in the Federal Reserve’s full report for this survey, many of the descriptive statistics lack a gender lens. This original Center for American Progress analysis seeks to fill some of those knowledge gaps, as understanding the gaps in women’s financial well-being is imperative to identifying the interventions that can best target their needs.
This column breaks out data by gender to examine key questions about women’s financial well-being over time and compared with that of men. In 2022, women were:
- Less likely (at 79 percent) than men (at 84 percent) to be able to pay all their bills on time and in full.
- Less likely (at 52 percent) than men (at 56 percent) to be able to cover three months of expenses with emergency savings.
- More likely (at 15 percent) than men (at 12 percent) to have increased their usage of credit card debt.
A multitude of factors contribute to gaps in financial well-being between women and men. The gender wage gap—a product of discrimination, occupational segregation, and other factors—results in a 16 cent penalty for women for every $1 men earn. Women, and particularly women of color, are overrepresented in low-wage occupations and are significantly more likely to make less than $15 per hour. Despite this, women of color, especially Black women, are often the breadwinners of their households. To advance understanding of these disparities that affect financial well-being, the Federal Reserve should make data analyses disaggregated by gender as accessible as those that are disaggregated by other factors.
The SHED data show that in 2022, both women and men experienced levels of financial security consistent with those they experienced just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, 2022 saw a decline in financial security (using some of the measures listed above) compared with 2020 and 2021, tied to the expiration of many pandemic-related boosts to income and higher-than-usual inflation last year. At the same time, helpful COVID-19-related policies are about to taper off, including the student loan moratorium and the child care stabilization funds. The Federal Reserve fielded the 2022 survey in October of that year, and since then, inflation has decreased considerably—from about 7.7 percent during the survey period to 3.2 percent by July 2023—and average wages are keeping up with inflation. While the most recent economic data indicate improving conditions overall, the persistent gaps in both women’s pay and resilience to financial risk mean that it remains essential for policymakers to address the root causes of gaps in women’s financial well-being.
The share of women with increased expenditures has grown, but a smaller share has seen income increases
The gender wage gap puts women in a less financially secure position than men and makes it more difficult for them to accumulate savings. In fact, the gender wage gap causes some women to lose upward of $1 million over the course of a 40-year career. According to the 2022 SHED data, women (79 percent) were less likely than men (84 percent) to report being able to able to pay all their bills on time and in full. One of the reasons for this is that women are more likely to have volatile incomes. Among women, 30 percent reported that they experienced variable incomes, compared with 28 percent of men. In total, 12 percent of women reported that variable income caused problems paying bills, compared with 9 percent of men.
In 2022, increases in spending outstripped increases in income for the first time since 2020, when the SHED began collecting such data. The share of women that reported higher spending exceeded the share that reported higher incomes by 7.9 percentage points; among men, that statistic was 5.5 percentage points. Some people reported declines in income from prior years, with 13.5 percent of women and 11.7 percent of men reporting that their income fell in 2022.
Women are less financially resilient and face greater risk exposure
Women and men expressed similar attitudes about their economic conditions year over year. In the 2022 survey, both groups experienced similar increases in the share of those who said they were “somewhat worse off” or “much worse off” than they were in 2021. Both groups also had a smaller share of people who said they were “better off” than a year ago. However, these measures of financial well-being are likely skewed, as people may have felt optimistic in 2021 if they returned to their pre-pandemic levels of disposable income and emergency savings after a tumultuous 2020.
Women (52 percent) were less likely than men (56 percent) to report in 2022 that they were able to cover three months of expenses in the event of an emergency, with both groups dropping to rates seen in 2019 and 2020. This disparity between genders is relatively consistent over time. Across racial groups, Black and Hispanic women reported the most difficulty saving to cover three months of expenses. Many factors contribute to this disparity. Because of the nation’s long history of intersectional discrimination, women of color, especially Black women, face wider gender and racial wage gaps and have more difficulty building wealth.
Indeed, other Federal Reserve surveys illustrate the stark wealth gap between women and men. According to an analysis of the 2021 Survey of Consumer Finances, women held just 55 cents in wealth for every $1 men held. Even after adjusting for various household composition differences such as marital status, children, race, and age, there was still a 9 cent difference in median wealth by sex. These wealth discrepancies make it more difficult for women to manage risk exposure and weather financial shocks; women, especially single and older women, face more risk exposure in their lifetimes.
Rates of credit card debt have gone up, but women have reduced their usage of predatory lending options
In each year of the survey, SHED respondents are asked if they hold more credit card debt this year than in the previous year. In 2022, both women and men were carrying more credit card debt than in 2021. The 2022 rates—15 percent for women and 12 percent for men—represent the sharpest increase since the survey first asked this question about credit card debt in 2016. Women were more likely to frequently carry an unpaid balance, with 22 percent reporting they did this “most or all of the time,” compared with 17 percent of men. Credit card debt is more financially risky than other types of consumer debt such as mortgages, in part because it is not secured by underlying collateral and therefore carries higher interest charges that make unpaid balances grow faster.
While overall, Black households generally hold less debt of any kind than white households due to structural barriers and discrimination that limit credit access, the composition of the debt they do hold is disproportionately consumer-related. Consumer debt can be more financially burdensome. When income fails to keep up with increasing debt and increasing interest rates—the latter of which the Federal Reserve has rapidly ratcheted up over the past year—households typically begin to struggle to pay bills on time or to miss payments altogether. Fines and fees for late payments are especially burdensome, as are so-called junk fees—fees that are hidden or unexpectedly tacked onto transactions or bills. The Biden administration has proposed rules to reduce excessive credit card late fees and surprise overdrafts and junk fees.
Predatory financing options that carry particularly high risk—such as payday loans, check advances, pawnshops, auto titles, and tax advances—were used at lower rates in 2022 than in 2019 and 2021. Women and men used predatory lending options at similar rates in 2022, but women drove the downward trend in predatory lending from 2019. In 2019, 5.9 percent of women used predatory financing options compared with 4.7 percent of men, and in 2022, those numbers were 4.8 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.*
Women were also more likely than men to hold types of debt, such as student loans, in 2022. Student loans are particularly risky for individuals who do not complete their degrees. According to research by The Pew Charitable Trusts, women are more likely to default on their student debt as a result of income disparities. Accounting for both a person’s own debt and the debt of their child or grandchild, 23 percent of women reported holding student loans, compared with 17 percent of men, in 2022. This was a modest increase over 2021 levels but consistent with rates seen in 2019 and 2020. Research tracking loan repayment shows that the federal government’s student loan moratorium—which, beginning in March 2020, set interest rates at zero and paused payments—allowed women to make a substantial dent in their balances for the first time since 2009. It is, however, slated to expire in September 2023.
As pandemic response policies such as the student loan moratorium and child care stabilization funds expire, the financial effects will fall disproportionately on women. The Biden administration’s major pieces of economic legislation, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, advance the idea that supporting parents, and especially mothers, is an integral part of economic security and growing the economy. Beyond this legislation, many households with children would benefit from increased investments in affordable and accessible child care, such as those proposed in the Child Care for Working Families Act. Child care, however, is not the only policy that would improve women’s financial well-being. Paid leave and state-level measures to ban salary history from being used in wage-setting decisions would also boost women’s long-term financial outlooks and the likelihood that they have secure retirements.
Respondents’ answers to the 2022 SHED questionnaire were likely influenced by the high inflation at the time the survey was conducted. Regardless, however, the expiration of the enhanced financial supports that were in place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic will increase many households’ financial vulnerability. At the same time, U.S. households seem to be maintaining real levels of consumption consistent with the pre-2020 trend, and that consumption seems to be partially funded through an increased use of credit cards. Policy interventions to increase the minimum wage and boost real wages at a pace that keeps up with inflation would improve financial security for all Americans, but especially women. Women face greater risk exposure than men, face multiple points of exposure simultaneously, and are less likely to have three months of emergency savings to deal with these risks. The Federal Reserve must consider women’s economic reality in its analyses and include the key demographic lens of gender in future SHED data interactives and reporting.
* Predatory financing options that the author analyzed using SHED microdata include the following loans and advances, taken out in the past 12 months: predatory loans or payday advances, pawn shop loans, auto title loans, and tax refund advances.
The author would like to thank Allie Schneider for her diligent code review; Isabela Salas-Betsch for her research assistance; and Maggie Jo Buchanan, Maureen Coffey, Emily Gee, Stephanie Hall, Rose Khattar, Lily Roberts, Edwith Theogene, Alex Thornton, and Christian E. Weller for their helpful feedback.