The findings of the latest Old Mutual Savings & Investment Monitor, which was released this week, make for sober reading. As a survey of the financial attitudes and behaviour of South Africa’s working metropolitan population, it shows how low we’re all feeling about our finances and economic outlook. But it also shows that while savings levels are down, there are those who are managing to save more – and not necessarily because they are earning more.

Almost half of all households say they are saving less than they were a year ago. This is the worst measure since the inaugural survey in 2009, which was immediately after the 2008 financial crisis when 52 percent of respondents claimed to be saving less.

This year, two-thirds of respondents described their level of financial stress as “overwhelming” or “high”. Almost 60 percent of respondents found that, at least once over the past year, their income did not cover their living costs. This was the case for three-quarters of respondents in low-income households (monthly income of R6 000 or less) and for one-third of those with a household income of more than R40 000 a month.

On a more positive note, the survey shows that those who are managing to save more say they are able to do so because of “good debt management” (and the knock-on effect of freeing up funds that can be saved) and a realisation of the importance of savings.

Among the more worrying findings of the survey is that almost half of all mothers in South Africa classify themselves as single parents, with 88 percent of them not receiving regular financial support from the fathers of their children. And the poorer the household, the more likely it is that it will include a single mother.

Adding to the burden on single mothers is that some are in the “sandwich generation”, which means they are also supporting their parents, a sibling, a relative or another adult.

Nearly 40 percent of all respondents said they had dependants in addition to children of their own.

Almost 60 percent of respondents said they expected to support parents or relatives in future. Since the inception of the survey in 2009, this is the highest percentage of respondents facing taking on this responsibility.

The survey shows that debt levels and financial stress are closely linked: 52 percent of respondents who described their stress levels as “overwhelming” said they had too much debt and were battling to manage it.

There has been an increase in the percentage of debt-stressed households that admit to “feeling in trouble”. A quarter of all respondents in this year’s survey said they had too much debt and were having trouble managing it, compared to 16 percent of respondents last year.

Respondents in all income bands are less satisfied with their personal finances than they were last year. The survey notes that, to date, the higher income bands have been fairly resilient, but now even they are showing signs of strain.

To gain an understanding of just how financially robust working metro households are, and to understand how they would behave in the face of a financial emergency, respondents were asked how they would handle an unforeseen expense of R1 000, then R5 000, rising to R100 000.

This year’s survey shows that all but two percent of working households could handle an unforeseen expense of R1 000. Fifty percent would access savings, nine percent would use a credit card and the rest would borrow from a friend (25 percent) or a stokvel (six percent). Most (84 percent) would not be able to handle an unforeseen expense of R100 000.

In response to financial hardship, households are trying to cut costs by curbing spending on luxuries such as travel (88 percent) and entertainment (86 percent). Almost 80 percent of respondents said they avoided situations where they might overspend and 71 percent took lunch to work (instead of buying it), according to Lynette Nicholson, the research manager at Old Mutual.