It isn't enough that our debt-ridden nation is woozy from the market's latest roller-coaster ride. Now comes word that we lag behind an economic rival in a key area of personal finance: savings. Many more Chinese families are saving money for emergencies and education than U.S. families, according to a University of Missouri study released Thursday.

The numbers paint an unflattering portrait of Americans' ability to plan ahead: 60% of Chinese households are saving for "precautionary reasons," compared to only 35% of American households.

The gap is even greater for education planning. An impressive 59% of Chinese urban households reported saving for school-related expenses, such as tuition, compared to 19% of U.S. families.

Recent reforms have put more pressure on Chinese families to subsidize higher learning, while U.S. government aid provides less incentive for Americans to sock it away for the proverbial rainy day, explains Rui Yao, an assistant professor in the university's personal financial planning department.

A Looser Safety Net

"In the U.S., unemployment insurance and other welfare programs provide a relatively sound safety net," she says, "whereas in China, there are no such social-welfare programs. As a result, Chinese households must resort to family support or previous savings in the case of an emergency."

The report found less of a difference in saving behavior for retirement. More than half of Chinese families (51%) indicated retirement as a motive for saving, as opposed to 45% of American families.

Yao culled her research from the America 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances and the 2008 Survey of Chinese Consumer Finance and Investor Education.

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