The pandemic has taken a toll on the American economy, but American optimism is strong, according to a Personal Capital and Empowerment Retirement survey.

COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on the economy. But it’s also changed the way many consumers are looking at their finances.

A recently published survey from Empower Retirement and Personal Capital highlights these changes. Back to Financial Basics: How Americans are responding after an unprecedented 2020 shows how different generations and genders are dealing with the changing economy.

Overall, the survey reveals that Americans are uneasy about their finances, as well as the future of the economy. However, this isn’t the case across all demographics. Women, black respondents, and baby boomers expressed the highest levels of concern, and that concern tends to decrease with each younger generation, with Generation Z being the most optimistic.

But to really check the financial temperature of American consumers, it’s important to look at the report in a little more detail.

A turbulent year leaves many uncertain

Personal Capital And Empower's Retirement Survey Offers Insight Into How American's Feel About Their Finances - General overview

As 2020 began, Americans already knew it would be an eventful year. Any year with a presidential election tends to be filled with uncertainty as voters wait to hear the results.

But 2020 was packed with surprises. Just three months in, a pandemic began spreading, forcing lockdowns to “flatten the curve.” Those lockdowns meant businesses were shut down, with many workers furloughed and others shifted to at-home work.

With all of this activity, Personal Capital and Empower Retirement set out to learn more about how consumers were faring. Working with The Harris Poll, the two financial firms surveyed 2,008 respondents. Responses were gathered in the final months of 2020. Of those surveyed:

  • Slightly more men responded, with 51% of the 2,008 respondents being male and 49% being female.
  • All respondents were at least 18 years of age, and more than 25% were age 65 and over. Only 10% of respondents were 18-24, with the rest fairly evenly divided between the 25-34, 35-44, and 55-64 age groups.
  • An overwhelming 48% of the respondents are classified as frontline workers, which means they have to physically show up to a workplace to do their jobs.
  • Only 22% of the respondents have access to a professional financial advisor when they need help.
  • Of respondents, 20% have been directly impacted by COVID-19.

COVID and economic optimism

At the start of 2020, things looked promising. American consumers were overwhelmingly optimistic, ready to tackle another year as they worked toward achieving their financial goals.

Then a pandemic came along.

As 2020 progressed, many consumers saw their employment become less stable. Even those who continued working experienced major changes. Working from home became the norm and many families found their children were at home, remotely learning right next to them.

Personal Capital And Empower's Retirement Survey Offers Insight Into How American's Feel About Their Finances - Relationship with money

By the end of 2020, optimism had dropped from 29% to 22%. For many Americans, optimism waned as they shifted into survival mode. In April, far more people were positioning themselves to grow financially or, at the very least, their finances were under control. That number dropped substantially by December, with far more people reporting their status as merely “stable.”

But even among those who are optimistic, there’s a divide.

  • Of those surveyed, 51% are more concerned about the economy than they were at the same time the previous year.
  • The future is a concern for many, with 43% reporting that they’re worried about what lies ahead for them financially.
  • According to the survey, women felt the impact of the pandemic more than men. At the end of 2020, 44% of men felt in charge of their money, while only 33% of women expressed that same optimism.
  • Baby boomers were more impacted than Generation X or Generation Z. Only 28% of boomers were financially optimistic, as opposed to 30% of Generation X and 58% of Generation Z. 
  • Women are also less hopeful when it comes to the stock market. At the end of the year, 26% of men felt optimistic about the immediate future of the stock market, compared to only 16% of women.

Politics and finances became blended

The poll also measured how the 2020 election impacted financial habits. Perhaps most interestingly, 75% of respondents said the election outcome would affect their finances, but 59% said they weren’t sure what that impact would be.

As with COVID-19, responses were different among generations. There also was a different response from first-generation Americans versus those who relocated here from another country.

  • Members of Generation X and parents were more likely to state that politics influenced their vote, while Generation Z, women, and retirees felt less strongly.
  • After the election, more than half of respondents said they sought financial advice, but first-generation Americans were more likely to do so.
  • Online research and family and friends were the most common sources of financial advice.

Savings and retirement are of great importance 

Financial stability is more important than ever for Americans, who have a renewed focus on saving and cutting back on spending. Impulsive spending is down as many consumers take a wait-and-see approach to their finances.

In light of the pandemic, savings is the big winner. In April 2020, 66% of respondents reported that they planned to put more money into savings as a result of the pandemic. That number has since risen to 70%.

Personal Capital And Empower's Retirement Survey Offers Insight Into How American's Feel About Their Finances - Market votility

Americans also still have an eye toward their later years, though. Even with the pandemic, 63% say they feel confident in their ability to plan for retirement. But only 41% wanted to push more money into retirement plan investments in 2020, while 40% planned to purchase investments. This illustrates the drop in stock market confidence in the pandemic’s earliest months.

Surprisingly, though, that confidence doesn’t translate to existing investments. Only 35% planned to adjust their retirement plan or shift to less risky investments, and 26% said they were going to cash out investments.

But the demographics changed investment plans, as well.

  • Millennials were more likely to be focused on savings than other generations, at 81%. 
  • Employees of color also expressed a higher focus on savings. Hispanic employees (81%), Black employees (75%), and Asian employees (78%) said they were putting more money into savings due to the pandemic.

Investing in 2020 took off

Many Americans kicked off 2021 with an eye on the stock market. Although goals like paying off personal debt and getting their financial house in order were down when compared to 2019, there was a notable increase in the number of people planning to invest in the market. A much larger segment listed safeguarding finances as a priority, along with maxing out 401(k) plans and saving up to buy a home.

Overall, the responses show a shift in priorities from straightening out finances to setting some money aside for the future. Also illustrating what a rough year 2020 was, 83% reported that they wanted to worry less about their finances in 2021.

Personal Capital And Empower's Retirement Survey Offers Insight Into How American's Feel About Their Finances - Worry less about finances

Responses at the end of 2020 also demonstrated the “wait and see” attitude many people developed over the course of the year. Milestones like buying a car and getting married declined, as did working toward a college degree. Employment uncertainty seems to have sunk in, as well, with far fewer people saying they plan to look for a higher-paying position or switch jobs at all in 2021.

Planning for the future is the top priority 

Despite 2020 being such a turbulent year, Americans kicked off 2021 with a hefty dose of optimism. In fact, 62% said they’re optimistic about their financial future, down only 2% from how they felt at the end of 2019. Respondents are less likely than a year ago to take risks with their investments, with only 29% revealing that they take bigger risks to get better rewards.

One thing COVID has brought to personal finance is an increased demand for guidance. With 54% of respondents saying they are unsure where to get started with financial planning, it’s no surprise that 52% said they’re seeking more help with setting a financial strategy in 2021.

Going into 2021, 33% of respondents specifically stated a plan to work with a financial planner. That’s up from only 24% at the onset of the pandemic in early 2020. Retirement will probably be a top priority for those searching for a financial planner since 25% of respondents specifically mentioned that as a goal.

Survey takeaways: what you can do to protect your financial future

The best thing about the survey is that it shows where overall sentiment is when it comes to COVID-19 recovery. No matter how you’ve been impacted by the pandemic, you probably have taken some time to assess your own financial standing. After all, economic turbulence can happen at any time.

So what can you do to reduce financial worry? Here are some tips.

  • Set goals. You don’t need thousands of dollars to start setting money aside. Take a look at your debt and income and identify small amounts you can put into savings each month.
  • Eliminate unnecessary expenses. Review where you’re money is going each month and identify areas where you can cut back. Even canceling a few monthly subscriptions can give you extra money.
  • Use the right tools. Apps like Personal Capital can help you budget and keep a close eye on your investments.
  • Plan for retirement. Set some goals and start putting money into a retirement savings plan. Personal Capital can help you with planning and tracking your progress. The earlier you start with your retirement savings, the more you’ll be able to save.
  • Take advantage of COVID offerings. Many lenders have been lenient with consumers due to the pandemic. If you struggle to pay bills, contact your creditors and see if you can work something out.

Summary

Overall, the goal for 2021 seems to be “spend less, save more.” This year, respondents plan to spend less on essential items and set more money aside for the future. When combined with the financial advice they plan to seek, 2021 could be a year for financial regrouping before moving forward.

As vaccinations increase and businesses start to reopen, consumers seem to be ready to tackle the next stage of their lives and ensure they’re better prepared for any future unexpected crises.

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About the author

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Stephanie Faris has written about finance for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2013. She spent nearly a year as a writer for a credit card processing service and has written about finance for numerous marketing firms and entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared on Retirable, The Motley Fool, MoneyGeek, Ecommerce Insiders, GoBankingRates, and ThriveBy30. Learn more about Stephanie on her website or find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.