Why do people pay for college? Yes, the new friendships and experiences are important, but ask anyone what their main motivation is and you know they’ll say something along the lines of “to be able to get a high-paying job when I graduate.” In fact, a recent study from Money.com shows that college graduates make, on average, more than $22,000/year more than their high school counterparts.

However, is this higher earning potential enough to outweigh the overwhelming price of college tuition and housing, not to mention increased costs due to inflation and a pandemic?

We surveyed 800 people who earned their university or post-grad degrees within the past ten years, and the financial instability of this group was startling:

  • 32% of recent college grads have less than $5,000 in their savings account
  • 43% say they “often” or “always” live paycheck to paycheck
  • 21% have more than $20,000 in credit card debt

4 in 10 Live Paycheck to Paycheck

When asked to give an approximation of how much money they had in their savings account, 32% of survey respondents said they had $5,000 or less saved.

According to The Balance, most experts say an emergency fund should include three to six months’ worth of expenses. However, half of this group (16% of total respondents) actually say they have under $1,000 in their savings account, leaving little room for any emergency expenses they may encounter.

In addition to lacking a robust savings or emergency account, 43% of respondents reported that they either often or always live paycheck to paycheck.

15% Don’t Have a Retirement Account

When facing frequent financial uncertainty as many in this survey group appear to be, putting money towards retirement is likely low on the list of priorities. In fact, when asked how much money they have contributed to their 401(k) or other retirement plans, 15% of respondents say they don’t even have one set up.

An additional 13% report that they have under $1,000 in their retirement savings. According to Investopedia, the average twenty-something should have around $10,000 in their 401(k) while the average thirty-something should have about $38,000, so it would appear that a notable percentage of the 22-32-year-olds surveyed are falling short of these benchmarks.

20% Have $20K+ in Credit Card Debt

Some recent college graduates are also contending with high levels of credit card debt. When asked for an approximate amount owed on credit cards, one in five respondents reported having $20,000 or more in credit card debt, while 10% say they owe upwards of $40,000.

One in Five Incurred Heavy Medical Debt During the Pandemic

Similarly, and likely related to, their credit card debt, about 21% of recent college grads incurred upwards of $20,000 in medical debt during the pandemic, while 13% say they have more than $40,000 in medical debt from the pandemic.

Federal Student Loan Repayment Will Pose Difficulties for Many

Three-quarters of survey respondents say they still owe on their student loans, with 36% owing upwards of $20,000. Of this group, 56% say it will be somewhat or very difficult for them to start paying their federal student loans again, and only 14% say they have still been making payments during the loan pause of the past two years.

In order to start paying their federal loans again, respondents plan to cut down on entertainment expenses, pick up extra work hours, and hit up their savings account, among other strategies.

Although a college degree undoubtedly opens up job opportunities with higher earning potential, this doesn’t mean that graduates are guaranteed a stable financial future. In fact, many of our survey respondents reported an alarming lack of savings and high credit card debt, and it would appear that the impending restart of federal loan payments, if and when it does happen, will only put more strain on this group of recent college grads.


This survey was commissioned by Intelligent.com and conducted online by the survey platform Pollfish on April 5, 2022. In total, 800 participants in the U.S. were surveyed. All participants had to pass through demographic filters to ensure they were between the ages of 22 and 32 and had obtained a university or post-graduate degree.