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1 in 4 Americans have more credit card debt than savings

The economy is slowly hobbling back to health, but for many Americans the rainy day fund is still looking a little dry and the credit card bill is still looking a little scary.

About 24 percent of Americans have more credit card debt than emergency savings, according to an annual survey released Monday by the personal finance website Bankrate.com.

The survey found that only about 55 percent of Americans have more emergency savings than credit card debt. About 16 percent had none of each, and the rest either didn’t know or wouldn’t answer.

The results are little changed from the same survey Bankrate.com did in 2011 and 2012. The results suggests that, in general, people’s ability to save up for a rainy day and keep a handle on credit card debt hasn’t gotten much worse in recent years - but it hasn’t improved, either.

Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with Bankrate.com, said a big problem is that people’s wages have been pretty stagnant in recent years, even as expenses for things like food and health care have edged up.

“It just leaves less money that can be put toward debt repayment or emergency savings,” McBride said.

Americans appeared to have been sobered by the Great Recession, and some people were able to get a better handle on their credit card debt in the years that followed.

The total amount of revolving debt, which is made up mostly of credit card debt, fell between 2008 and 2010, according to the Federal Reserve. Since then, it has held relatively steady at around $850 billion, the Federal Reserve data shows.

But those aggregate numbers don’t’ tell the whole story, said Lucia Dunn, economics professor at The Ohio State University.

Her research has shown that some people were able to pay off their credit card debt around the time of the Great Recession. But those who weren’t able to get control of their debt during that period are likely still struggling with it, she said.

“For those who were not able to pay off (their credit cards) and were still carrying a balance, that balance is still growing,” said Dunn, who was not involved in the Bankrate.com survey.

Dunn said her data also has shown that people continue to have elevated levels of stress about their debt, even though the recession has officially been over since June of 2009.

 “We may be out of the recession, but debt’s still a looming problem for people,” she said.

The Bankrate.com data also showed that saving up enough money for an unexpected emergency remains a thorny problem.

Nearly 4 in 10 people said they were feeling less comfortable about their savings levels than a year ago, while nearly half were feeling about the same. Only 14 percent said they were feeling better about their savings levels.

They Bankrate.com survey was of a representative sample of about 1,000 adults, and it was conducted in early February.

McBride, from Bankrate.com, said many Americans may have the goal of increasing their savings but find that they have little left over after the bills are paid.

“I think that people care about it. I think most of it is just sort of the inability to make substantive progress,” he said.

Still, McBride said he wasn’t sure that Americans will improve their financial habits once the economy improves For many Americans, he noted, thriftiness has been forced on them because their credit lines have been cut, they’ve suffered a job loss or they’ve hit another financial brick wall.

As the economy starts to strengthen further, he expects Americans will be more likely to spend their extra cash rather than save it.

“At the point where incomes do start to grow, I don’t think it means that the savings rate’s going to go up,” he said. “I think it means that consumer spending is going to go up.”