In the midst of what was arguably the worst stock market crash since 1987, Americans showed surprising resilience when asked about the stock market and the economy.

A poll conducted by Gfk Roper for Bankrate on Oct. 10, 11 and 12 reveals that more than one-third (35 percent) of Americans said they are not at all worried about investing in the stock market because it will go up over the long term.

Other poll findings
Bankrate’s poll on pocketbook issues that affect Americans yielded some surprising results.
Most Amercans…
  1. … have an optimistic outlook on the economy
  2. … expect their personal finances to improve
  3. … say inflation is the chief hindrance to progress
  4. … believe investing, education are keys to growth

Consider the context of their answers. The week before the survey was conducted brought unprecedented volatility in the broad markets, culminating in an 18.2 percent decline of the Dow Jones Industrial Average by the market’s close on Friday afternoon.

Taking it in stride
How do you feel about investing in the stock market?

Tyler Bartlett, a Certified Financial Planner with Merriman Berkman Next, was surprised at the even-keeled response by the majority of respondents. Besides the placid responses from 35 percent of poll takers, another third expressed mild concern that the markets will continue to decline for a long time.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard from other financial planners across the country that people are very worried and jumping ship,” says Bartlett. “You just look at what’s going on in the market and people are going to cash day in and day out.”

Just 25 percent of respondents said they were either very worried and losing sleep about the state of the economy or terrified about an imminent economic collapse.

Liz Weston, personal finance columnist and author of “Easy Money: How to Simplify Your Finances and Get What You Want Out of Life,” also expressed amazement at the relatively low number of panic-stricken people following the tumultuous week in the markets — this on the heels of weeks of financial crises.

“I’m hearing from those people who are in a state of high anxiety … and I assumed that the people who are panicking made up a larger portion of the population,” she says.

Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com, says the 25 percent of respondents who do feel shaky are at risk of making poor investment choices.

“No one has a crystal ball, of course, that the economy will get worse over the next year. And I think more people will feel it and this level of optimism might decline,” she says.

Teflon attitudes
How will your personal finances change in the next year?

View on home economics even rosier

At the individual level, fortunes could take a turn for the worse in the coming year, if you believe media reports.

Americans don’t see it that way, though. When asked to predict how their own financial picture might change in the coming year, only 13 percent said that they will get worse or much worse, compared to the 36 percent who had a gloomy forecast for the economy as a whole.

All told, 86 percent of Americans believe that their own personal finances will remain about the same or get even better.

“That is the optimism of the specific. It reminds me of those polls that say that people think Congress is doing a lousy job, but their own individual representatives are doing great a job,” says Weston.

“It’s the same as everyone thinking that they are better-than-average drivers. It doesn’t hold up, but it’s the way we perceive the world,” she says.

Biggest obstacles to getting ahead

No matter how Americans may perceive their future prospects, they are feeling the pinch of rising costs for basic goods and services. Nearly a third said this factor alone is most responsible for impeding their fiscal growth.

Not surprising, says McBride.

“The Consumer Price Index does not tell the whole picture on inflation — it is inflation of staples and everyday purchases that consumers are feeling, and I’m not talking about gas prices. A walk through the grocery store is an excellent example of how prices have increased,” he says.

Nearly a quarter of Americans said their biggest financial impediment is inadequate income.

“No one has a crystal ball, of course, that the economy will get worse over the next year. And I think more people will feel it and this level of optimism might decline,” she says.

View on home economics even rosier

At the individual level, fortunes could take a turn for the worse in the coming year, if you believe media reports.

Americans don’t see it that way, though. When asked to predict how their own financial picture might change in the coming year, only 13 percent said that they will get worse or much worse, compared to the 36 percent who had a gloomy forecast for the economy as a whole.

All told, 86 percent of Americans believe that their own personal finances will remain about the same or get even better.

“That is the optimism of the specific. It reminds me of those polls that say that people think Congress is doing a lousy job, but their own individual representatives are doing great a job,” says Weston.

“It’s the same as everyone thinking that they are better-than-average drivers. It doesn’t hold up, but it’s the way we perceive the world,” she says.

Biggest obstacles to getting ahead

No matter how Americans may perceive their future prospects, they are feeling the pinch of rising costs for basic goods and services. Nearly a third said this factor alone is most responsible for impeding their fiscal growth.

Not surprising, says McBride.

“The Consumer Price Index does not tell the whole picture on inflation — it is inflation of staples and everyday purchases that consumers are feeling, and I’m not talking about gas prices. A walk through the grocery store is an excellent example of how prices have increased,” he says.

Nearly a quarter of Americans said their biggest financial impediment is inadequate income.

Predictably, 41 percent of those earning less than $20,000 per year pointed to poor compensation as the biggest problem. But they are far from alone. Twenty-two percent of those earning between $40,000 and $49,000 believe they’re underpaid, as do 14 percent of those making more than $50,000.

Credit card debt, much maligned as the bane of modern existence, barely registered in the survey as a budget-breaking factor. Only 6 percent of Americans say their credit card debt is holding them back.

“That fits what the Fed statistics tell us about who does owe money and has credit card debt,” says Weston.

“A lot of personal finance writers have trouble accepting that there are households out there that do not have credit card debt because we don’t hear from those folks. We hear from the ones that are several tens of thousands of dollars in debt and losing their homes,” she says.

Growing the bottom line

Maybe it’s a vestige of America’s puritanical beginnings, but Americans are prudent and hard working when it comes to growing their wealth.

In response to the question, “In the future, what do you envision as your best option to get ahead?” the largest percentage of respondents — 36 percent — said that they plan to get ahead through saving and investing a portion of earnings.

“It’s very sensible for the most part,” Weston says. “The majority are looking at very sensible ways — investing in themselves or investing in the stock market or investing in their own abilities to earn money.”

Nearly a quarter of respondents (23 percent) expect to get ahead through additional education or job training. Notably, more than 50 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 chose the education route while people between the ages of 35 and 64 were more likely to point to savings as their best option.

“If anything, this is reassuring,” McBride says.

“It is telling, in a sense, that when you are young, the ticket is to do what you can to grow your income. That will raise your earning potential each and every year throughout your career. And then the key is — you have to save it,” he says.

Not everyone is resigned to saving their pennies, however. Nine percent of Americans hope to win the lottery, with the largest concentration in the upper age groups of the population. Eleven percent of those over 50 fork over hard-earned money for a slim chance at a jackpot.

“That certainly is not a comforting notion. It probably speaks to the fact that there are some seniors that have come to realize that they don’t have a sufficient nest egg to where they can envision retiring in the future,” says McBride.

While entrepreneurship is often thought of as the best way to get ahead, only 6 percent of those polled plan to start or sell a business to increase their fortunes.

“It seems like the new American dream is winning the lottery, not starting a business,” Bartlett quips.

Starting a business is difficult and fraught with risk, but the odds of success are better than winning the lottery, though an entrepreneur does stand to lose much more than a dollar.

“You have to wonder what the answer would have been last year, because starting a business in a recession could be really suicidal. And there is a reason why everyone is not cut out to be an entrepreneur — it’s hard work and it’s risky,” says Weston. “It’s not within everyone’s realm of possibility.”

This national random-digit-dialed phone study of 1,004 adults 18 or older was conducted for Bankrate by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. The surveys were conducted from Oct. 10 through Oct. 12, 2008. The sample was weighted by demographic factors including age, gender, race, education and census region to ensure reliable and accurate representation of adults in U.S. households. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3 percentage points for the full sample. For full results and methodology, download this PDF.

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