New year brings hint of financial optimism

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When it comes to their finances, Americans who see the glass as half full are almost exactly matched by those who view it as half empty.

But that represents improvement.

The economic recovery, by most measures, continues to limp forward. Even the admittedly tepid momentum appears to be igniting a tiny spark of optimism in Americans’ feelings about their finances. At the same time, uncomfortably high numbers of people seem to feel the recovery is leaving them — and their financial security — behind.

Those are the conclusions that can be drawn from Bankrate’s January Financial Security Index, conducted earlier this month. In five key areas surveyed, roughly as many Americans are feeling better about their finances as those who are feeling worse, according to the national poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

That rough parity actually reflects a detectable improvement from December, when pessimistic views clearly held sway over optimism, at 32 percent over 21 percent.

While there was some good news, in one important area of personal finance — personal savings — there are still far more people uncomfortable with their savings situations.

Better overall?

In a heartening sign that the recovery is positively affecting Americans’ outlook, Bankrate’s Financial Security Index for January found 27 percent of Americans feel their overall financial situation is better than it was a year ago. In December, only 21 percent felt that way.

Yet, the proportion of people feeling worse about their overall finances was the exact same — 27 percent. However, that was an improvement from the 32 percent of people who were feeling worse about their finances in December.

The fact that roughly equal numbers of people feel better and worse about their overall financial situation — in each case, 27 percent — was a common pattern in January’s Financial Security Index. About half the country feels things haven’t changed much in the last year, when asked about their personal finances. The remainder was often a near-draw: It was split almost evenly between those who feel more secure compared to a year ago and those who feel less so.

Concerning net worth, 26 percent felt it was higher than a year ago, versus 23 percent who thought it had declined. That represented a reversal of December’s trend, when those who felt their net worth had dropped outnumbered those who thought it was up.

One possible explanation might be the source of a household’s wealth. If a home is a family’s biggest investment — well, housing values remain depressed. But if net worth comes from a portfolio, it likely rose with the markets. The Wilshire 5000, the broadest index of U.S. stocks, was up 15 percent last year.

Securing jobs

Another striking example of the economic dichotomy concerned job security. Reflecting a labor market that stopped getting worse, but isn’t getting much better — the so-called jobless recovery — the Bankrate survey found 55 percent of the country feels about the same sense of job security as a year ago.

Twenty-two percent feel more secure while 21 percent feel less secure about their employment. The nearly evenly matched senses of security and insecurity might be explained by a couple of statistics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, mass layoffs peaked in 2009 and fell by half in 2010. Yet unemployment remains at a stubbornly high 9.4 percent.

A core component of financial security, of course, is the burden of debt. And there’s no question that during the recession, Americans lightened that load. A recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found nearly $1 trillion in consumer debt was trimmed between the third quarter of 2008 and the same period of 2010.

Against that backdrop, the latest Financial Security Index found those who are more comfortable with their debt now outnumber those who are less comfortable, a distinct departure from December. Yet, the two numbers remain relatively close — 27 percent versus 23 percent.

Unsavory saving

In one important area, however, the Financial Security Index received a lopsided — and somewhat alarming — response. Concerning savings, those less comfortable with their savings outnumbered those who feel better by a 2-to-1 margin: 38 percent versus 19 percent.

To be sure, that was an improvement from December, when only 14 percent felt better about their savings and 44 percent felt worse. The satisfaction with savings was highly associated with age: One in three respondents under 30 was more comfortable with the savings than a year ago, versus just 12 percent of those older than 65.

Results are based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,018 adults, ages 18 and older. The interviews were conducted from Jan. 6 to Jan. 9, 2011, by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ± 3.6 percentage points.