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New Report: Middle Class Americans Acknowledge Past Financial Mistakes

In an analysis of two new sources of information about family finances, the Consumer Federation of America and Primerica found that two-thirds of middle class Americans acknowledge having made financial mistakes, often costly ones.

The new report, “The Financial Status and Decision-Making of the American Middle Class,” also concluded that the financial condition of most middle class families is challenging. For example, in 2010 the typical middle class family had financial assets of $27,300 – including retirement savings but not pensions – which was 28 percent less than the $37,800 held in 2007.

The comprehensive analysis includes a national survey of 2015 representative adult Americans by ORC International in July of this year and a statistical examination of the Federal Reserve Board’s 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances, by Professor Catherine Montalto of The Ohio State University.

In the ORC International survey, 843 out of 2015 respondents reported household incomes between $30,000 and $100,000 and were considered to be middle class. Key findings from an analysis of the survey data are:

  • Two-thirds of middle class Americans (67%) said that, in the past, they had made at least one “really bad financial decision,” and nearly half of those questioned (47%) acknowledged that they had made more than one bad decision. The typical (median) cost of these bad decisions was $5,000, but the average cost was $23,000.
  • Few of these Americans said their main source of information or advice about specific financial decisions would be from the Internet, books, magazines, or TV. And a number said they would not seek information or advice in making these decisions. For example, for “saving and investing,” only 15 percent said they would rely on the Internet, publications, or TV for the information, yet another 17 percent said they “wouldn’t seek any information or advice, and just make a decision.” However, for this kind of decision, 45 percent said they would use information and advice from a financial professional.
  • These middle class Americans are much more risk-averse than those with higher incomes. If given $1,000,000 to invest for retirement, only 21 percent of middle class Americans, compared to 48 percent of higher-income persons (incomes $100,000 and over), would invest mainly in “stocks, bonds, and/or mutual funds.” And 19 percent of the middle class group would “invest” most of their funds in a savings account while 25 percent would invest mainly in real estate.
  • Yet, large majorities of these Americans believe their ability to make financial decisions is “good” or “excellent” – for example, 81 percent for ability to budget income and 80 percent for ability to manage credit card debt though only 63 percent for ability to save for retirement and 67 percent for their ability to purchase a mortgage loan.

“Considering their past mistakes and the complexity of the financial services marketplace, we were surprised at how highly most middle class Americans rate their ability to make a variety of financial decisions and how infrequently they rely on information from the Internet and publications,” said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck.

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