Many Marylanders living without a financial safety net

Marylanders on average have the highest income in the country, but when it comes to having a financial cushion in hard times, we're disappointingly mediocre.

If we were in school, our grade would be a C.

That's according to the 2012 Assets & Opportunity Scorecard to be released Tuesday by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, or CFED, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Washington.

The CFED says one out of five Maryland households have little or no money squirreled away to cover expenses for three months if they lost their jobs. And if you exclude assets that can't easily be turned into cash, such as a house or car, then nearly one-third of Maryland households are living without a safety net.

"If they don't have more assets than that, how can they save for a home they want or to send their kids to school and achieve the American Dream, which is still the hope for most people," says Kasey Wiedrich, senior program manager with the CFED.

Overall, Maryland ranked 19th among the states and the District of Columbia in terms of the financial security of its residents. Vermont ranked No. 1. Georgia came in last.

In 2009, the last time the CFED took a similar financial snapshot, Maryland came in 18th.

"We're not in a terrible place," says Robin McKinney, director of the Maryland CASH Campaign, which partnered with the CFED on the survey. "We do have a lot of strength and a lot of opportunity."

At the same time, she says, for such a wealthy state, we have a high percentage of residents who are "asset-poor."

The CFED, which has been ranking states for about a decade, looked at more than 50 measurements in five key areas. The lower the number, the better.

Maryland, for instance, ranked third in the nation on education, partly because of a high number of college degrees here. That was our only A.

The state came in 15th for business and jobs — a solid B. The average annual pay in the state is $56,757, or about $10,000 more than the national average.

Though the state ranks high by some measures overall, the disparities among minorities or low-income households drive down some of Maryland's scores, Wiedrich says.

In health care, for example, Maryland is 13th in the country for uninsured residents. But the state drops to 46th place for minorities without health insurance and 48th in low-income residents with no coverage, the CFED found. Overall, our health care grade is C.

"Some households in Maryland are doing really well, but the prosperity is not equally shared," Wiedrich says.

Our worst grade was a D in housing and home ownership. We ranked 40th overall in the nation, hurt partly by a lack of affordability, and came in second to last in delinquent mortgages.

But perhaps the most surprising data show how many Marylanders are living on the edge, despite the state's sizable household net worth, which averages $180,899. That's more than double the national average of $70,600.

Yet Maryland came in 45th for credit card debt — an average of $13,145 among those who carry a balance, compared with $10,852 nationally — and 44th in the number of borrowers more than 90 days behind in payments.

"As a state, we could definitely be saving more," McKinney says. "We might be making good money, but we are not as stable as it looks from the outside."

One of the first steps to moving away from the edge is to establish emergency savings so you don't have to resort to a credit card when problems arise.

Some consumers might be overwhelmed when they hear the standard advice that you need six months' worth of living expenses — or more — in a savings account, McKinney says. But the typical emergency is $200 to $300, and that goal is achievable, she says.

"Even if it's $10 a week or month [being set aside], having an emergency savings account is huge," McKinney says.

You also can use the tax system to boost savings.

Many people manage to save only by having their employer over-withhold taxes from their paycheck, guaranteeing a refund each year. But instead of spending that refund, have all or some of your refund put directly into savings.

With your federal return, you can request that a refund be directly deposited in up to three separate accounts, or used to buy U.S. savings bonds. Marylanders also can have their state tax refund deposited in up to three bank accounts.

And many still don't take advantage of the federal saver's credit for low- to moderate-income taxpayers who save for retirement in an individual retirement account, 401(k) or similar plan.

The credit reduces the bottom-line tax bill by up to $1,000 for singles and double that for joint filers. The IRS notes that given other deductions and credits, the actual saver's credit is typically smaller. According to the most recent figures, the average saver's credit amounted to $202 for couples and $121 for singles.

Still, that's money just for saving for your own retirement. And many Marylanders, as the survey suggests, need every penny they can get.

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