This is the first story in a series about Americans’ financial health based on a survey provided by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to financial education and empowerment.
If you had to grade the U.S. economy today, it would probably get straight As.
The country is a month short of the longest economic expansion ever. Unemployment is at 50-year lows. Stocks notched the longest bull market last year and are again nearing fresh highs. And U.S. home values hit a record high in the first quarter.
But a survey of Americans finds their individual financial security is less clear than those collective highpoints suggest.
In many areas, fortunes have greatly improved compared with years past. But Americans remain stressed about money and only a minority are satisfied with their financial position, according to the 2018 Financial Capability Study from FINRA Investor Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to financial education and empowerment.
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USA TODAY was given an exclusive look at the survey on financial capability, which considers people’s ability to make ends meet, plan ahead, manage financial products and understand financial concepts. The results will be released later Thursday.
“I give our nation’s financial capability a solid C, leaning toward a C-minus,” says Gerri Walsh, president of the FINRA Foundation. “While some Americans feel better about their finances now compared with 10 years ago, too many face obstacles that will likely keep us as a nation from acing financial capability any time soon.”
Conducted every three years since its 2009 inception, the study surveyed more than 27,000 respondents nationwide online, measuring key indicators of financial capability.
The survey had some upbeat news. Only one in five Americans experienced an income drop in the last year, and half can comfortably meet their monthly obligations, according to the FINRA Foundation survey.
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Catherine Wrona of Cheektowaga, New York, is one of them. She’s a long way from where she was 10 years ago when the Great Recession officially ended and she had just completed a debt management program after a divorce that left her swamped in credit card debt.
“I don’t make a lot of money,” says Wrona, a research study coordinator. “But I can pay my bills every month and on time.”
Wrona, 57, also has a little bit saved for unexpected expenses like a car problem or other small emergency. “I would have the money to deal with it,” says Wrona, reflecting a larger trend.
Asked if they could come up with $2,000 in emergency savings in a month, 43% of Americans were certain they could, while another 22% said they probably could – an improvement since 2012.
The survey, though, revealed a host of concerns about Americans’ finances.
Retirement savings: Only 58% of Americans have a retirement account, a figure that hasn’t hardly moved in 10 years, according to the survey’s history. And half worry they may run out of money while retired.
“That’s a big concern of mine. I come from a family of long-lived women,” says Mary Joseph, 72, a retiree living in Pike County, Pennsylvania. “Prices are going up, but my pension and Social Security don’t go up as much.”
The share of Americans either taking a loan or hardship withdrawal from their retirement accounts remains small, but has also grown since 2009 when the recession ended in June of that year.
Health care costs: While most Americans have health insurance – 87% according to the survey – medical costs remain a strain. Nearly three out of 10 avoided a medical service because of cost last year, including a quarter of those with health insurance. Just under one in four have past-due medical bills.
Student debt: Nearly half with student loans wished they’d gone to a cheaper college. About half didn’t fully understand how much they would owe, and half worry they won’t be able to pay off their student loans ever, the survey found.
“People coming out of college had the expectation of making more money than they could and are now forced to make some difficult decisions,” says Dawn Hudson, a credit counselor with GreenPath Financial Wellness in Michigan, who has advised a recent influx of younger people struggling with education debt.
Savings and debt: Even though Americans can make ends meet, the percentage spending less than their income has stayed nearly unchanged over the decade. Almost half haven’t set aside money to cover expenses for three months. And 37% say they have too much debt, the FINRA Foundation found.
All this leaves Americans feeling stressed about money despite the booming economy. Half say their personal finances make them anxious, and only 31% are very satisfied with their money situation. Just under a third earned income outside their main job.
“People are still struggling even though wages have increased and unemployment is down,” Hudson says. “The cost of goods and services have gone up, but people’s spending power hasn’t kept up.”