Image: Piggy bank © Le Club Symphonie, Ian Nolan, Photodisc, Getty Images

Americans have never had much love for fiscal puritanism. We're a nation of risk takers and consumers. We want it all. We want to hit it big. We don't want to sacrifice the pleasures of today by saving for tomorrow.

Yes, I know the economy stinks, and saving isn't easy. Wages have stalled. The unemployment rate is still above 8%. Home prices are off. Stocks have recovered from the recession, but they have merely returned to highs reached years ago. Saving can also seem pointless when returns -- from investments, savings accounts or whatever -- are low. A lack of disposable income makes it even harder.

But the truth is, even in good times, we didn't save. In the 1970s, when the economy's debt-driven growth, high inflation, favorable demographics and steady increase in asset prices meant it wasn't so hard, we didn't save. We consumed.

From 1976, when the oldest baby boomers were hitting their 30s, through the peak in 2007, household net worth grew from $5 trillion to $67 trillion -- mainly because of the rise in home prices. Accounting for inflation, the rise was around $24 trillion in 2012 dollars.

Yet starting that same year, the savings rate fell from around 10% to a low of 1% in early 2005. And household debt rose from 70% of disposable income to a peak of 134% in 2007. Not only were people not saving, they were borrowing against their new wealth to spend even more.

Image: Anthony Mirhaydari - MSN Money

Anthony Mirhaydari

Now, despite an epic housing bubble, retirement portfolios constrained by the fact the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX) is at levels first reached in 1999, and household net worth below its pre-recession peak at $63 trillion, the savings rate has increased to 3.7%. This is an improvement, but it's far from enough. And we've only started to work down our debt, which has fallen to 113% of disposable income, thanks mainly to mortgage defaults. (Because of falling home prices, debt as a percentage of assets has actually increased.)

Personal saving rate

Moreover, people who are saving are taking fewer risks, selling stocks and piling into bonds and other fixed-income investments, lowering their potential returns in an environment of ultralow interest rates from the Federal Reserve.

The truth is that for most Americans, saving is dead. People are simply not putting away enough to fund a comfortable retirement, rebuild balance sheets damaged by the housing bust or benefit from the Fed's stated goal of boosting the prices of stocks and housing. And they're not taking enough risks with the money they do save to earn decent returns.

Straightening this out isn't easy, but I'll outline the way to do it below. And it has to be done, unless your retirement strategy involves freeloading off your kids, who'll have problems -- like massive student loan debts -- of their own.

Why saving seems so hard

Why does saving seem like an outdated concept?

Well, part of the reason is that Americans don't like to lower their standard of living unless they absolutely have to. Thus, while wages and some assets have bounced back (to a degree) from the recession, the added capital is going into things like the surge in auto sales or smartphones instead of building -- or rebuilding -- wealth.

That leads Morgan Stanley analysts to believe that Americans aren't saving more simply because they don't feel they can, given budget constraints.

Saving is a also a lower priority here than in places like Germany or even China. It's a cultural thing, too.

And Americans are protecting what money they have saved out of fear of recent market volatility, which explains the shift into "safe" assets like bonds.

What Americans have

Let's take a look at where things stand for the average American.

Because the country's wealth and income are concentrated at the top, economywide measures of income and net worth are somewhat misleading. The Fed's 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances, the latest available, gives us a clearer picture. It suggests that even middle-class, well-educated families are under strain:

  • Median family income is down 7.7% since 2007 and stands at $45,800. For families whose primary earner has a college degree, it's down nearly 10% (but down only 1% for those whose primary earner lacks a high school diploma).
  • Median net worth is down nearly 40%, from $126,400 to just $77,300 -- returning to levels last seen in the early 1990s. For those with a college degree, median net worth fell 34.6% to $195,200.
  • The percentage of families that saved fell to 52% from 56.4% in 2007. Compare that percentage to the 62% of families with a college degree. Back in 2001, nearly 60% of all families saved.

While the wealthiest among us are enjoying a rebound, thanks to a resurgent stock market, the wealth of middle-class families depends much more on home prices. While the Dow Jones Industrial Average ($INDU) has been pushing to new post-recession highs, home prices are just now starting to get up off the mat.