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'Mass Affluent' Have Paid Off Their Debts, Moved on to Save

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Call it a tale of two demographics, with two studies showing the middle class still saddled with debt and the "mass affluent" ready to de-prioritize debt and pick up the pace on their retirement savings.

First up is Wells Fargo's (WFC) Middle Class Retirement Study.

Wells reports that 59% of middle-class Americans are saying paying down debt is their chief financial priority, compared with 52% who said the same thing last year.

Meanwhile, saving for retirement is a "distant priority," with only 13% in the middle class calling it their No. 1 financial obligation -- and 42% of middle-class adults saying that saving for retirement and paying down debt is impossible.

About half of all middle-class Americans see the stock market, which historically has been the main driver of retirement income for millions, as a class issue. Specifically, 45% of those surveyed by Wells Fargo say the stock market "doesn't benefit people like me." Another 52% fear losing their savings in the ebbs and flows of the stock market.

If that seems like the middle class is giving up on Wall Street, that's no accident, experts say.

"There is a striking amount of fear about the stock market among all investors," says Laurie Nordquist, director of Wells Fargo's institutional retirement and trust division. "The middle class just isn't making the link between being invested and the potential growth of their savings, but on top of this fear is apathy -- there is no interest in learning more about investing. Fear and apathy are a bad combination, whereas knowledge about saving and investing is empowering."

"We've got to move people to this mindset," she says.

As for the affluent, well, they don't have that problem.

Merrill Lynch's latest Edge Report, released this week, reports that "mass affluent" Americans say saving for retirement has supplanted paying off debt as the No. 1 item on their financial "to-do" list.

"It's encouraging to see that mass affluent investors are switching to a long-term view of their finances and that they are looking to place their debt behind them," says Alok Prasad, director of Merrill Edge. "As the economy continues to come out of the downturn that began in 2008, this is a good time for both men and women to establish better money habits and set challenging, but realistic, retirement goals."

The mass affluent, defined by Merrill as Americans with between $50,000 and $250,000 in investable assets, say they want to save more than $700,000 for retirement, but only have $160,000 saved, on average, so far.

The mass affluent are realistic, as 61% say they will delay their retirement until they're better equipped to retire securely and a plurality say they will rely on the stock market to "catch up" on their retirement savings.

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