A Snapshot of American Finances

CHICAGO — In a time when the mortgage downfall remains top news, and word of a recession is cautiously thrown about by commentators, two recent studies took a look at how American finances are fairing.

Overall, the studies discovered that consumers appear to be struggling more than ever with their finances, with one survey even finding that one in four Americans missed making one or more bill payments on time last year.

That was the news indicated at least from a study TransUnion's TrueCredit.com commissioned Gfk Roper Public Affairs & Media to complete.

What were the most commonly missed payments? It was utilities and credit cards, both coming in at 12 percent. Next in line were payments of medical services at 11 percent. With January just upon the country, many more months of blustery weather are likely in the future.

In fact, officials found that only 17 percent of Americans picked paying down debt as their top resolution for 2008, which is down from 22 percent in last year's annual survey.

"The drop in priority for paying down debt may be an indication that more consumers are struggling today just to maintain their financial status quo," explained Lucy Duni, director of Consumer Education for TransUnion's TrueCredit.com.

When asked to be specific about their greatest financial concerns for the coming year, 40 percent of Americans picked salary level or job prospects and 41 percent named making non-mortgage payments.

The survey also found several correlations between age and attitudes about finances:

—93 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds expressed some financial concern overall in 2008, compared with 69 percent of those 65-.

—35- to 49-year-olds (19 percent, compared with 14 percent overall) are most apt to be concerned about mortgage payments.

—42 percent of those 65- are concerned about the value of their stocks and other investments, compared with 21 percent of both 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds.

"As consumers move through various life stages, their financial priorities and concerns will shift," noted Duni.

Continuing on, another survey of how Americans view their savings adequacy, major barriers to savings and successful savings strategies, recently released by the Consumer Federation of America and Wachovia Bank, also found that the population is struggling. 

This new study revealed that more than half of Americans, or 52 percent, said they currently cannot afford to save or are saving inadequately.

"This survey is far and away the most extensive we've undertaken and provides new insights into not only how Americans save but why they do or don't," explained Stephen Brobeck, CFA executive director.

When asked whether they think Americans are saving adequately, nearly four-fifths, or 79 percent, indicated they are not, with nearly half, or 47 percent, saying Americans are saving very inadequately.

Among demographic groups, the college-educated are most likely, 86 percent, to think Americans are saving inadequately.

According to officials, those questioned also appear "somewhat pessimistic about the chances of most Americans to accumulate significant wealth."

When asked what percentage of young Americans are likely to accumulate $1 million during their lifetimes, the typical response was only 10 percent, the study found.

"Americans are pessimistic about how other Americans are saving and how they will save in the future," noted Brobeck. "In part, this pessimism probably reflects widespread press coverage about the country's zero or near-zero personal savings rate."

More specifically, more than half of Americans, 52 percent, said they are not saving adequately. Seventeen percent said they cannot afford to save at all, while 35 percent said they are saving but not enough to meet short- and long-term financial needs, executives reported.

In an interesting finding, higher percentages indicated that they have adequate savings to pay for unexpected expenses like car repairs or emergency dental treatment, 68 percent, or to pay for regular household expenses for several months if there's a job loss, 58 percent.

And more than half, or 53 percent, reported that they are saving adequately for retirement. But when all short- and long-term financial needs are considered, only 44 percent said they are saving, or have already saved, adequately, officials highlighted.

Predictably, the highest income group, at least $75,000, is about twice as likely as the lowest income group, less than $25,000, to say they have saved adequately for each of the above-mentioned purposes.

Over one-third, 34 percent, of low-income Americans indicated that they cannot afford to save at present.

Not surprisingly, the high-income group is also most likely to believe they can accumulate $1 million during their lifetime. In fact, when asked about the chances of accumulating this amount, the typical response among the high-income group was 75 percent. 

For those with incomes less than $35,000, it was only 1 percent, and for those with incomes between $35,000 and $50,000, it was only 2 percent. For all respondents, the typical response was 10 percent.

"Americans are more positive about their own saving than about that of the country as a whole, yet a majority still believe they are not saving adequately," Black said.

Breaking it down even further, more than 1,000 sample members who said they are not saving adequately or could not afford to save were asked about factors that made it difficult for them to save. 

Economic factors were top of mind most frequently, with large regular expenses cited 72 percent of the time; unexpected expenses indicated 72 percent; low or unreliable incomes pointed to 66 percent; and large consumer debts referred to 60 percent.

But social and psychological factors were also cited as barriers to saving. More than one-third, or 37 percent, cited impulse spending as making it difficult to save. 

And when asked about other non-economic factors making saving difficult, 42 percent cited credit cards; 29 percent cited spending to feel good; 20 percent cited social pressure from friends or family; 15 percent cited trips to the mall; and 8 percent cited playing the lottery or gambling.

In an interesting turn, higher income groups reported more problems with impulse spending as a barrier to saving. Of the highest-income group, 46 percent said impulse spending made it difficult for them to save, versus 32 percent for those with incomes less than $35,000.

"Not surprisingly, economic factors were cited the most frequently as barriers to saving, yet social and psychological factors were also noted," Brobeck concluded.

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