Consumers say financial security improves

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While it’s too early to proclaim that Americans are in a festive mood about their personal finances, they have finally crossed the threshold from negative to positive territory.

In May, Bankrate’s Financial Security Index hit more than 100 for the first time since polling began in December 2010, registering at 100.8. A reading of 100 indicates that financial security is unchanged from one year ago, while any number higher than 100 indicates improved financial security, and any number less than 100 is a sign of worsening financial security. Financial Security Index
Bankrate’s Financial Security Index gauges how Americans feel today versus a year ago on vital financial matters. An index value of less than 100 indicates declining levels of financial security; a value greater than 100 reveals higher levels of security compared to 12 months ago.

OK, so Americans have only tiptoed across the threshold, but it’s a start.

In recent months, the Financial Security Index has trended higher in small increments. Compared to poll results from a year ago, consumers are feeling better about job security, debt, net worth and their overall financial situation.

Savings is the lone sore spot. Consumers who are less comfortable about their savings this year outnumber those who are more comfortable with their savings by more than 2 to 1.

Highlights from the Financial Security Index

Feelings of job security surged 7 percentage points in May from the previous month, with 27 percent of Americans saying they feel more secure than they did 12 months ago. About one-fifth of the population (18 percent) still feels less secure about their jobs, while the majority (54 percent) feels about the same.

Other Financial Security Index findings:

  • The debt reading changed slightly from one month ago, but overall, Americans have grown gradually more comfortable with their debt over the past six months.
  • Only 1 in 5 Americans says his or her net worth is lower than a year ago — a new low. Half say their net worth is about the same as last year.
  • Consumers’ feelings about their overall financial situation have improved in six of the past seven months.

Will these positive sentiments spill over into the economy? That remains to be seen. Bankrate’s “wild card” question this month asks Americans if they have cut back on nonessential spending since the start of the year due to gasoline prices. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans (59 percent) say they have cut back on such optional activities as taking vacations or dining out.

“Oil prices may be at a three-month low, but consumers are still clearly feeling the impact of elevated gas prices in an environment of stagnant wages,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate’s senior financial analyst. “Those most likely to have cut back on spending due to gasoline prices are those with lower levels of income and education,” he adds.

Sheyna Steiner delves into the effects of gas prices on the economy in her story, “When gas prices rise, consumers cut back.”