Survey: Nearly half of Americans say their top financial priority is getting caught up or staying current on bills

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As the country reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, the top financial priority of nearly half of Americans in the last few months has been getting caught up or staying current on bills, according to a new Bankrate survey. About 46 percent of Americans name paying bills as their top priority.

It was the highest performance for paying bills in the six times this question has been asked in the Bankrate survey since 2012. Last year, this goal was named by 38 percent of households. In a distant second was saving more money, which was cited by only 28 percent of respondents.

“The pandemic-induced recession means more Americans are focused on just trying to pay the bills every month,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst. “Of those who can, many are trying to build up their savings – appropriately so.”

Bankrate surveyed 1,007 American adults about their top financial priorities. Below are the main findings from the survey.

Key takeaways:

Americans’ top financial priority: 46 percent say it’s paying the bills

According to the survey, Americans’ top financial priority over the past few months has been getting caught up or staying current on bills, with about 46 percent of households citing it. This number rose from 38 percent last year, and it’s the highest percentage for this priority in the six polls asking this question dating back to 2012. (This question was not polled from 2016-2018.)

Americans are still struggling as the economy remains under significant pressure. Unemployment has soared in 2020, as the pandemic kept people away from industries such as tourism and hospitality. Lockdowns shuttered other businesses, and wide swaths of the economy are operating below capacity. Now a feared second wave of the pandemic may lead to further effects.

The second-most cited financial priority was saving more money, with 28 percent of households naming it. This figure was largely unchanged from 29 percent last year, but higher than the 17 to 20 percent range typically seen from this category in the polls from 2012 to 2015.

The third-most popular answer was paying down debt such as credit cards and student loans, mentioned by 14 percent of respondents. That was down from last year’s 19 percent, and it’s the lowest showing in all prior years of polling.

Rounding out the responses was providing financial assistance to family members or friends, at 9 percent, the same as last year and consistent with the 9 to 12 percent in previous years. A further 1 percent named another priority, while 2 percent didn’t know.

71 percent of Americans say they’re making progress on those goals

The good news from the Bankrate survey: a high majority of Americans are making progress on their top priority, with 71 percent reporting so. However, at the same time, 17 percent say they have not made progress, while 9 percent said they’ve actually fallen further behind.

Of those households trying to get caught up or stay current on bills, 65 percent say they’ve made progress, while 20 percent have not and 12 percent have fallen further behind.

The number of those who have not made progress or fell more behind on their bills (32 percent) is higher than the same categories for other priorities of paying down debt (26 percent), saving more money (21 percent) and providing financial assistance to family or friends (15 percent).

By household income, the likelihood of making progress on a financial priority is positively correlated with income. Higher-income households were more likely to have made progress than lower-income households.

Those making progress on their top priority ranged from 61 percent for incomes below $30,000 a year to 83 percent for those earning $75,000 or more.

Those who have fallen further behind on their priority ranged from 4 percent among those with incomes above $75,000 or more to 15 percent for respondents earning $30,000 or less.

Millennials were least likely to make progress on their goals

Americans’ top financial priority as a whole, getting caught up with or staying current with bills, remained consistent across every major demographic – gender, race, age, geography, income and political affiliation.

By age group, millennials were the least likely to have progressed toward their financial priority. About 29 percent of millennials had either not made progress or fallen further behind, compared with about 24 percent of older generations overall.

The age group most likely to have made progress was the Silent Generation, at 79 percent. They were followed by baby boomers at 72 percent, Generation X at 72 percent and millennials at 70 percent.

By income, almost 52 percent of households earning less than $50,000 per year cited bills as their number one priority in recent months, as did 45 percent of Americans earning $50,000 to $74,999. Households earning more than $75,000 cited this priority 37 percent of the time.

This priority remained at the top across the U.S. By geography, this response ranged from 41 percent in the West to 52 percent in the Midwest. The South came in at 44 percent and the Northeast at 49 percent.

“Paying down debt took a back seat to keeping up with the bills and building up savings, even for millennials,” says McBride.

The priorities of paying down debt and providing assistance to family or friends show more variability by age group. Paying debt down was most cited by those ages 18-29, at 17 percent but fell consistently to 6 percent in those age 65 and older.

In contrast, helping out friends and family tended to increase in older age groups. It was the least cited (3 percent) by those ages 18-29 and rose consistently by age, topping out at 15 percent in those age 65 and older.

Income did seem to play some role in who chose paying down debt as their top priority. Higher-income families were more likely to point to debt paydown:

  • About 20 percent of households earning $75,000 or more named this as their top priority.
  • Around 14 percent of those earning $50,000 to $74,999 did so.
  • About 12 percent of those earning $30,000 to $49,999 cited debt paydown.
  • Almost 8 percent of those earning less than $30,000 named this priority.

Methodology

This study was conducted for Bankrate via online interview by SSRS. Interviews were conducted from Aug. 25-30, 2020 among a sample of 1,007 adults. Data are weighted and are intended to be representative of all U.S. adults, and therefore are subject to statistical errors typically associated with sample-based information.