Pew Survey Shows Americans' Financial Worries Cloud Optimism

Sense of improving conditions outweighed by feelings of insecurity

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Pew Survey Shows Americans' Financial Worries Cloud Optimism

WASHINGTON—Americans today are more optimistic about the state of their own finances and the economy than they have been in years, but at the same time only about half report feeling financially secure, according to a survey conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Many of those polled say they are barely breaking even or spending more than they make each month, and more than half said they feel unprepared for a financial emergency.

The results, captured in a new issue brief, “Americans’ Financial Security: Perception and Reality,” are based on a nationally representative survey of more than 7,000 households, as well as focus groups conducted in Orlando, Boston, and Phoenix. The survey gauged Americans’ perceptions of their financial security and how their views differ depending on their income, wealth, race, and other demographic factors.

“Our findings show that despite a steady economic recovery, many Americans continue to feel vulnerable,” said Erin Currier, director of Pew’s financial security and mobility project. “Many worry about their finances, and record numbers—more than 9 in 10—say it is more important to them to achieve financial stability than it is to move up the income ladder.”

Among the survey’s key findings:

  • Most of those surveyed (56 percent) rated their own financial situation positively, up from 42 percent during the recession in 2009. The proportion rating the economy positively climbed to 27 percent in 2014, up from just 9 percent in 2008.
  • Only half of Americans (51 percent) said their households are financially secure, and more than half (56 percent) reported worrying about their finances over the past year, citing everything from short-term bills to retirement. A majority (57 percent) also said they are not prepared for financial emergencies.
  • More than half (55 percent) report just breaking even or spending more than they earn each month, and one-third (33 percent) said their household has no savings.
  • Only 45 percent of Americans reported having a steady income and consistent expenses, and 36 percent of this group said their households had no savings.
  • Asked about their retirement plans, 1 in 5 (21 percent) said they are not planning to retire, while more than half (53 percent) anticipate doing something else, including working at a different job. Just 26 percent have a traditional notion of retirement in which they stop working altogether.
  • Six in 10 households (60 percent) reported experiencing a financial shock—such as a drop in income, hospital visit, loss of a spouse or partner, or a major car or house repair—in the past year. Of this group, 55 percent said the setback made it harder for them to make ends meet.
  • When asked whether they would prefer to have financial security or move up the income ladder, the vast majority of Americans (92 percent) chose security, an increase of 7 percentage points since 2011.

The survey results supplement Pew’s analysis of financial data, released in January, that illustrated the precarious state of family balance sheets by examining families’ own perceptions of their financial security. The findings give policymakers additional information to consider when developing proposals to support the financial well-being of American families. More detailed demographic results from the survey will be released in the coming months.

Note: This news release and the related issue brief have been updated to include revised data for the percentage of Americans who experienced a financial shock in the past year. The figure was originally published as 82 percent and has been corrected to 60 percent.

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The survey was administered to a nationally representative panel between Nov. 6 and Dec. 3, 2014. Including oversamples of black and Hispanic respondents, the total sample size was 7,845. Survey firm GfK conducted the data collection on behalf of Pew and administered the computer-based questionnaire in English and Spanish.

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