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How Does Your Financial Health Stack Up Against America’s?

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There are about 255,000,000 adults living in the US.

So how’s your financial health compared with the other 254,999,999?

This article will give you a good idea of that.

For a lot of Americans, the answer—despite low overall US unemployment, rising GDP and a nine-year-old bull market in stocks—is not all that good.

Fully 17% of Americans are financially “vulnerable,” according to a study by the Center for Financial Services Innovation, a nonprofit research organization, in conjunction with the University of Southern California. The people who fall into that category are struggling with all, or nearly all, of their finances.

The majority of Americans—55% of them—are what the center calls “coping.” These individuals aren’t knocking the ball out of the park. They are struggling with some, though not necessarily all, aspects of their finances.

And less than a third of Americans, just 28%, are what the center calls financially “healthy.” These are individuals who are planning, saving, spending and borrowing in a way that, according to the center, “will allow them to be resilient and pursue opportunities over time.”

When you look at some of the details of the CFSI report, you realize this—for each of us, getting a handle on our own financial situation means understanding a range of factors that underpin it. That requires looking past headline economic numbers (however good they may be) and doing some personal number crunching of your own. Some things to consider…

Unlike what you might think from headlines, median household wealth has not returned to its level before the Great Recession (2007 to 2009), and Americans’ debt is higher than before the recession. Loan defaults are rising…and baby boomers are nearing retirement with a collective savings deficit of up to $14 trillion. Jeepers!

The CFSI uses a distinctive methodology to measure financial health, one that looks beyond the usual dry government statistics to focus “holistically” on the actual lives and well-being of households.

What seems certain is that readers will benefit from assessing their own personal economic well-being by looking at indicators tied to their own workaday experience.

For example, the survey gauges spending, looking at whether households pay bills on time. Are the gas and electric bills overdue again? Are you spending more or less than your income? Those are both signs of financial well-being—or potential peril—that don’t necessarily show up in government data. Among the survey respondents, 45% say they don’t have enough savings to cover at least three months worth of living expenses.

The center also looks at whether respondents believe that they have sufficient funds on hand for, say, an unexpected home or auto repair.  It also asks about long-term savings, looking at retirement accounts such as IRAs, 401(k)s and the like. About 37% of Americans are not confident that they are on track to meet their long-term financial goals. By the way, when was the last time you checked up on those accounts?

Another key indicator is the ubiquitous credit score—available through the various credit-reporting agencies—and whether respondents consider their debt to be manageable. More than one-quarter of survey respondents say that they have only fair or poor credit scores…and 30% say that they have more debt that is manageable.

Lastly, the survey asks whether Americans believe they have sufficient insurance and are confident that they are planning ahead for future expenses. About 37% of Americans are not confident that their insurance policies will cover them in an emergency.

The takeaway is that these are more relevant factors for individuals and households than, say, the monthly consumer price indexes or jobless claims numbers that we are all regularly bombarded with.

The results of the survey are, predictably, strongly correlated to household income, age and other factors such as gender, race and education.

For example, for those households earning $30,000 a year or less, only 8% are deemed financially healthy while 36% are vulnerable. For those with household incomes of $100,000 or more, in contrast, 50% are financially healthy and only 3% vulnerable.

But that still leaves 47% of these six-figure-income households just “coping”—and there’s something wrong with that picture.

Of those ages 36 to 49, only a fortunate 23% are financially healthy while 20% are vulnerable. For those ages 65 and over, in comparison, 48% are financially healthy and only 10% vulnerable.

Just 14% of non-Hispanic blacks are financially healthy and 24% vulnerable while 34% of non-Hispanic whites are financially healthy and 14% vulnerable.

Education is perhaps the biggest factor. For those who did not complete high school, only 12% are financially healthy and 30% vulnerable. Compare that with those with a college degree or higher—nearly half, or 47%, are financially healthy and just 7% vulnerable.

What to do? Consider each of the factors examined by the study that are described above (such as overspending income, having an emergency fund, tending to your credit score and buying adequate insurance) and ask yourself what you could do to improve that factor—even if by only a little at first. Taken together, these are powerful levers for financial health.

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Source: The Center for Financial Services Innovation, or CFSI, drew upon a University of Southern California study with a baseline sample of 5,019 individuals—US residents age 18 and older—between late April and early July 2018. Date: December 19, 2018 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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