Fact

Around half of Americans (52% according to a 2016 Gallup Poll) own stocks.

What Percentage of America Owns Stocks?

According to a 2016 Gallup poll about half of Americans own stocks and about half don’t. This is down since 2007 when around 65% of Americans owned stocks.[1][2]

This means, counting HSAs, 401(k)s, IRAs, private investing, the employee’s who receive shares as benefits, and all other investment types: only 1 in 2 Americans are actively invested in the market.

Just Over Half of Americans Own Stocks, Matching Record Low. Gallup.

Just Over Half of Americans Own Stocks, Matching Record Low. Gallup.

This may seem high or low depending on your perspective, but as noted above, this is less than in past years. This is unfortunate in many ways. 65% of America owned stocks at the height of the 2007 Financial Crisis, while only 52% own stock today. Meanwhile, the market has rallied since the crash. That means those in the market made a steady return, while those who exited the market after the crash lost money, and those who never entered or reentered haven’t gained anything.

How The Stock Exchange Works (For Dummies)

FACT: According to inequality.org the richest 1% of Americans hold about 35% of all privately held wealth in the United States. Meanwhile, according to a 2014 article in the NY Times, the bottom 90% hold 73% of all debt. These numbers differ by source and date, but specifics aside, the point is, the cards are stacked against you unless your last name is Buffet or Icahn. By not investing in “tax advantaged vehicles” like a 401(k) you only make joining the 1% (or even the 10% without the bulk of debt) harder. You could potentially lose your pension, but you could manage your own private investments, retirement account, or HSA and take your risk and rewards into your own hands while enjoying a tax benefit. Even for those who want to “sit in cash” and not take risks, I am of the opinion that every tax paying American should learn the basics of the market or find a fiduciary they trust. If you don’t actively invest your money in the physical world like a small business or real estate, you might fail to utilize the market or tax-advantaged savings accounts. This would leave you facing inflation and measly bank interest returns. This may leave you taking the brunt of a crash like we had in 2000 and 2007. Many of the 50% of Americans who don’t own stock could potentially benefit from owning it, but this isn’t the only option, and it carries risk.[3]

The Bank Vs. Tax-Advantaged Vehicles

Today banks pay next to nothing in interest, the only way to offset inflation in the long term is the market. So while investors always take on risk for that interest, and while a 2007-style crash remains a possibility, Americans not invested in the market may want to consider the generous tax benefits of a retirement account or 401(k).

Learn more about the basics of investing, 401(k)s / IRAs, and HSAs by clicking on the links. Here is the simplest summary I can muster. Please note that the amount you can fund and the tax implications differ by factors of income, employment status, etc.

  • 401(k) is a retirement account that lets you invest the funds. Tax-free in, but you pay taxes when you take money out. This has higher limits and benefits those with higher incomes. To get a 401(k), you must be offered one through an employer; you can use a solo 401(k) if you are self-employed.
  • IRA is a retirement account that lets you invest the funds. Roth IRAs are taxed going in, but you don’t pay taxes on the other end, traditional IRAs work more like a 401(k). An IRA has lower limits and can benefit those with lower incomes. See IRA vs. 401(k) – What’s the Difference?
  • HSA is a health savings account that is tax-free in and tax-free out and lets you invest. HSAs carry great benefits, but only for those who have the money to fund them. See our Guide to HSAs.

TIP: Above are the common tax-advantaged vehicles, there are also 403(b), 457 plans, and the Thrift Savings Plan for example. Also, not all vehicles can be funded at the same time. For example, you can’t max out your 401(k) and your IRA.

From the Author’s Perspective: An Example

Every year I max out my 401(k) and HSA and take advantage of matching employer contributions in line with my income and health plan. Each year I make a return on my money and avoid paying the top tax rate on the part of it that I put in my HSA. If that seems unfair, it is, but only partially. I’m taking a risk and, if I withdraw the money before retirement, I have to pay fees. I will also need to pay taxes when I take the money out. Taking advantage of ALL tax benefits you are eligible for, is going to put you in a much better place than you would be otherwise. Apparently, half of Americans are not taking advantage of this, and even bearing in mind that 1/2 of America doesn’t pay income taxes, this still tells me some people who could be improving their financial standing aren’t doing so.

401(k) Contribution Challenge – Investing Basics | Fidelity.

FACT: A majority of Millennials, the generation of people who in 2015 were between the ages of 18 and 34, do not invest in the stock market. When I use the term “stock market,” I include buying individual company stocks, bundles of stocks through mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, and contributing to retirement accounts such as 401(k)s. This has far-reaching negative side-effects. The longer you have to invest in the market, the better your returns will be, and the better you can absorb the inevitable “bubble pops.” Please learn about bubbles and dollar cost averaging before you go putting a lump sum into a popular ETF.



Conclusion

According to Gallup and other sources, the general consensus is that about half of America is attached to the ebb and flow of the market via stocks. Likewise, the other half is compeltely disconnected from this aspect of our economy (and by logical extension has no tax-advantaged savings account).

It is easy to show this is generally true by simply double checking the studies and polling methods, but the implications are more complex than a simple statistics-based factoid.

There is something unhealthy about us not all being in the same boat together, despite the ever-present risk of busting bubbles. I can’t recommend investing to one who won’t learn about responsible investing, thus, I suggest any tax paying American learn about how to take the tax advantages and invest wisely. The tax code essentially forces your hand to fund 401(k)s and HSA(s) once you start moving up the tax brackets.

In a society where most own debt and only a small fraction a bulk of the wealth, it really makes sense to attach yourself to the market. Statistically speaking only 1 in a billion is a buffet, and only a few in the top 1% can afford BRK-A, but most Americans can afford to own at least one share of BRK-B and be “a part of” the ebb and flow.


Citations

  1. Just Over Half of Americans Own Stocks, Matching Record Low
  2. Why so few millennials invest in the stock market
  3. How the stock market is a sham for the working and middle class. 53 percent of Americans have no money in the stock market, including retirement accounts. 62 percent of all US wealth owned by top 5 percent.


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