Americans and Money: Looking to the Future Despite Past Regrets

Elizabeth Renter
By Elizabeth Renter 
Edited by Rick VanderKnyff

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When it comes to money, Americans not only want more; they want to manage it better. A new NerdWallet survey conducted by Harris Poll reveals that most folks aren’t happy with the state of their finances and they're taking steps to change the situation.

Incomes are climbing, up 3.2% from 2015 to 2016, according to the latest median household income data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But NerdWallet’s most recent household debt study found that the cost of living has increased faster than incomes, and Americans are taking on more and more debt.

“Even with rising incomes, many Americans feel financially pinched, with household debt putting a lot of budgets in a chokehold,” says NerdWallet personal finance expert Kim Palmer. “If you owe monthly payments on your credit card, mortgage, student loans and other accounts, then it’s hard to feel like you’re getting ahead.”

To see how Americans are dealing with this financial balancing act, NerdWallet commissioned a survey by Harris Poll of over 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online Sept. 12-14, 2017. The results show that most Americans have financial regrets and stressors, but they also have goals and are working to accomplish them.

For the survey methodology, click here.

Key takeaways

Americans wish they had done some things differently, with 71% expressing regrets when it comes to money management. Millennials (those ages 18-34 in this survey) are more likely than the two other age groups to have such regrets (83%), according to the survey.

But they are looking ahead: 89% of Americans say they have financial goals that they hope to achieve within the next 10 years, and 88% are taking steps right now to manage their money.

(NerdWallet has found that small steps could help Americans reach these goals, potentially saving them thousands of dollars each year.)

They are mostly confident in their money skills, with 87% of Americans rating their money management abilities as at least fair and 59% saying their abilities are good or excellent. Just 13% say their ability to manage money is “terrible/poor,” the survey found.

They may be missing out on money management tools. Just 9% of those actively managing their money are using a personal finance app to track their spending and bills, for example, and 35% of Americans say they don’t know much about online money management products currently available.

Americans across income levels say more money would make things easier. Of the 74% who say something is preventing them from saving money right now, 56% blame not making enough money. Also, 54% of Americans say financial management would be easier if they just had more money, including 41% of those making $100,000 or more a year.

Most Americans have clear money regrets

Seventy-one percent of Americans have regrets related to managing their money, including not thinking about money management as early as they should have (48%), spending too much on nonessential items (39%), racking up debt on unnecessary purchases (33%) and not having a budget in place (32%), according to the survey.

Together, these can be costly. Younger adults are more likely to cite such regrets: 83% of millennials compared with 75% of Gen Xers (ages 35-54) and 59% of baby boomers (ages 55 and older).

For both men and women who had any regrets related to managing their finances, the biggest regret is not thinking about money management sooner — 51% of women cited this, compared with 44% of men.

“The upside of money regrets is that it shows there’s room for improvement,” Palmer says. “They can serve as a useful reminder to others to get started with money management today. Setting financial goals, whether it’s paying off debt or saving more, is an easy way to get started.”

Steps like negotiating recurring bills when you can, using a cash-back credit card and refinancing a mortgage are among the ways some folks could save nearly $5,000 each year, according to a variety of NerdWallet cost and savings analyses. Just how much can be saved depends on several factors — including the amount put (and paid off) on a credit card, how much is deposited into a savings account and if there’s a mortgage to refinance, for example.

Nearly half of young women feel stressed about their financial situation

Although about a third of Americans (34%) claim to feel “in control” about their current financial situation, only slightly less (30%) feel stressed, the survey found. Young millennial women are more likely to claim they are stressed about their finances compared with women ages 55 and older (46% vs. 19%, respectively).

Nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) have a bleaker outlook, saying they feel like they are “barely making it.”

Most have financial goals and confidence

An overwhelming majority of Americans (89%) have financial goals they hope to accomplish within the next 10 years, according to the survey, indicating past regrets and current stressors may not be damaging their long view.

Paying down debt is the top money goal across all income levels. Among those with financial goals, credit card debt specifically is the most common debt repayment goal, with 32% citing it.

Across generations, millennials are most likely to list paying off student loan debt as a 10-year goal — 25% of those with money goals cite it, compared with 15% of Gen Xers and 5% of baby boomers. Women with such goals were more likely than men to specify paying down student loan debt as a 10-year goal, 18% vs. 11%.

With all of these goals comes a healthy dose of confidence: 87% of Americans rate their money management abilities as “at least fair” and 59% say their abilities are “excellent/good.”

Regardless of income, more money could help

Despite their goals, 74% of Americans say something is preventing them from saving money right now. This sentiment is most common among those earning less than $50,000 a year (84%). Still, 62% of those in the survey’s highest income bracket, making $100,000 or more a year, cite barriers to saving. The chart below shows how Americans’ two most common barriers to saving break down across income levels.

More than half of all Americans (54%) also say financial management would be easier if they just had more money. Across all income levels, having more money was the most frequently cited solution for financial management woes — even 41% of those making $100,000 or more each year say it would be easier with more money.

9 in 10 taking steps to improve financial health

A number of Americans, 13%, say their money management abilities are “terrible/poor,” but many are seeking solutions, according to the survey.

Nearly 9 in 10 (88%) Americans are doing something to manage their money. Of those:

  • 56% are limiting spending on nonessential items

  • 38% are following a budget

  • 34% are re-evaluating their bills frequently to see where they can cut down

  • 25% are contributing to a retirement fund

Millennial women (39%) who are taking steps to manage their money are more likely than young men (24%) to frequently revisit their bills. Re-evaluating, then negotiating costs to reduce the amount paid on recurring bills could help an individual save $600 a year, depending on his or her expenses, according to data from Billshark, a NerdWallet partner that works to negotiate lower bills for consumers.

Personal finance apps and tools

Only 9% of Americans currently taking steps to manage their money use a personal finance app. Perhaps unsurprisingly, millennials are most likely to use this kind of money management approach — some 17% of this generation does so, compared with 8% of Gen Xers and 5% of baby boomers, according to the survey.

This low rate could be due to a lack of information:

  • 35% of Americans say they don’t know much about the online money management products and apps currently available. These include tools that help with budgeting, monitoring your credit score and tracking finances.

  • 9% of those who say there is something preventing them from saving right now claim “there isn’t an easy solution/product out there to help me.”

  • 7% of Americans say they would find it easier to manage their money if the process was automated.

Only 17% of Americans think online money management products and apps currently available are easy to use. Millennials, the group most likely to use financial apps, are also most likely to rate current financial products as “good” (29%) and “easy to use” (26%).

It's never too late to make changes

Though the most common financial regret Americans have is that they didn't think about money management as early as they should have, it's never too late to start to make up for lost time. NerdWallet members can track spending, set and reach financial goals and learn money-saving tips in one place. But no matter what tools you use, start with the following:

Create a budget. Know how much money is coming in and where it's going. Track your spending to help stay within your budget.

Pay down and manage credit card debt. Your budget should earmark some money to pay debt. Once you're not carrying debt from month to month, fully pay off credit card balances with each billing cycle.

Contribute to a retirement fund. If you wait too long to start setting aside money for retirement, you'll miss out on the boost from compounded interest and may have a hard time meeting your savings goals by retirement age. Set aside what you can and revisit your contributions regularly.


This survey of 2,083 U.S. adults ages 18 and older was conducted online on Sept. 12-14, 2017, by Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet. This online survey isn’t based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Megan Katz at [email protected].

In this survey, the millennial generation includes Americans ages 18-34, Generation X is defined as ages 35-54 and baby boomers are those ages 55 and older at the time of the survey.

Here’s how savings and costs were calculated in the table "Small steps to more money":

  • Bill negotiation savings according to Oct. 4, 2017, data from Billshark's customers assumes an average of 2.5 bills renegotiated. Billshark is a NerdWallet partner that helps customers save money by working with companies to negotiate lower monthly costs on internet, wireless, cable and home security bills.

  • Savings from cash back credit card use assumes $2,000 in monthly spending on a card with 1% cash back and no annual fee, paid in full each billing cycle.

  • High-yield savings account assumes interest earned on a $5,000 initial deposit in an account earning 1.20% APY.

  • Auto insurance savings, according to NerdWallet analysis of auto insurance rates.

  • Mortgage refinance data, according to NerdWallet analysis of refinance candidates and potential savings.

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