Workers hoping for a pay raise may have to settle for another year of belt-tightening.
A new survey of 1,500 U.S. companies from consulting firm Mercer found that employers expect to increase worker salaries by an average 2.9 percent in 2014, up just slightly from 2.8 percent raises this year.
That's a continued increase from recent years, although short of the bigger raises Americans might have seen before the recession, said Catherine Hartmann, a principal at Mercer.
Part of the reason for the slow recovery is the still-high unemployment rate. "With few exceptions, the job market is still very much a buyer's market and that puts downward pressure on pay raises," said Steve Tobak, managing partner at Invisor Consulting in California. Higher costs of companies' health-care benefits have reduced funds available for raises, he said.
Many workers will see even smaller raises in their paychecks. More employers are doling out raises based on performance, to reward and retain their best workers, said Hartmann.
Almost half of the money available will go to 7 percent of the work force—the top-performing employees, who will receive average raises of 4.6 percent. Average workers (54 percent of the work force) will see pay increases of 2.6 percent, according to Mercer, and the lowest-performing workers (2 percent of the work force), just 0.2 percent.
Those average increases are large enough to qualify as a raise, but just barely. "Wage gains are surpassing price increases, but it's because price increases are weak," said Chris Christopher, an economist with IHS Global Insight. The June consumer price index was 1.8 percent higher than a year ago, and core prices were up 1.6 percent.
That leaves many workers with a little extra pay that won't go to offsetting the higher cost of living, he said. (Part of the recent increases stem from spiking gas prices, which leaves workers with even less.)
It's not enough to justify splurging. "Virtually everybody needs to do something productive with their new-found income," said certified financial planner Sheryl Garrett, founder of The Garrett Planning Network. "Think first, 'how can I enhance my net worth statement?'"
Most workers would benefit from putting an extra 1 percent (or more) as automatic contributions in their 401(k) or other retirement account, Garrett said. Paying down high-interest credit card or student loan debt is another beneficial option, as is contributing to an emergency fund or other future savings.
Whatever you choose to do, hold off on acting until that money appears in your paycheck, she said. Until then, it's not guaranteed.