Scary Money: The Latest Research from FINRA Investor Education Foundation
Forget ghosts and goblins, few things are as scary as household finances for U.S. adults. In a recent nationally representative survey, more than 1,000 adults shared what worries them most in their lives. The most common answer? Money.
On this episode, we sit down with Gerri Walsh, the head of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, to discuss the recent survey and its findings, while also providing tips and resources to help make money a little less spooky.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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00:00 - 00:28
Joe Atmonavage: Forget ghosts and goblins, few things are as scary as household finances for U.S. adults. In a recent nationally representative survey, more than 1,000 adults shared what worries them most in their lives. The most common answer? Money. On this episode, we sit down with the head of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation to discuss the recent survey and its findings, while also providing tips and resources to help make money a little less spooky.
00:28 – 00:37
00:37 - 01:00
Joe Atmonavage: Welcome to FINRA Unscripted. I'm your host, Joe Atmonavage, and I'm excited to welcome a very special guest to today's Halloween edition of the podcast to discuss the Foundation's most recent research. Joining us today is Gerri Walsh, the President of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and Senior Vice President of Investor Education at FINRA. Gerri, welcome to the show.
01:00 - 01:02
Gerri Walsh: Thanks for having me.
01:02 - 01:09
Joe Atmonavage: So, Gerri, before we start, today is Halloween. So, I have to ask, do you have a costume lined up for the day?
01:09 - 01:22
Gerri Walsh: You know, I don't, but given how scary the findings from this research were, I'm thinking about dressing up as a financial statistic. Maybe a credit card balance.
01:23 - 01:37
Joe Atmonavage: A credit card balance could be a scary sight for some adults, which brings us to why you are on the show today. But before we dive into the research, Gerri, can you give our listeners a little background on what the FINRA Foundation is, the work it does, and your role there?
01:38 - 02:09
Gerri Walsh: Absolutely. The FINRA Foundation is a wholly owned subsidiary of FINRA, and our mission is to empower underserved adults to have the knowledge, information and skills they need for financial success throughout life. And we do that through partnerships and outreach. We engage in training and education, and we also do a substantial amount of research. Fundamentally, our goal is to help people build wealth and protect their wealth.
02:10 - 02:22
Joe Atmonavage: Thanks for sharing that, Gerri. The FINRA Foundation recently released research looking at how Americans feel about money and their situations. Can you talk about the purpose of the survey and why you all decided to do it?
02:23 - 03:42
Gerri Walsh: We believe strongly in benchmarking where U.S. adults are when it comes to their finances, and for a long time since 2009, we have been doing a National Financial Capability Study that looks at a broad array of topics, including people's relationship with money, their attitudes and beliefs, their knowledge about money. But we also do these shorter-term research projects that look at issues that are more topical. And with everything going on in the world, the state of COVID, the state of inflation, the state of war in the world, really all the tension that's happening, we wondered where, on a relative scale of things, money matters factored for people. Were people worried about their money? And so, we asked questions about, generally, what are you concerned about? And then we took a deeper dive into people's money concerns to tease out what those concerns were. And we also asked questions about what could help you overcome those concerns. And it's timely that the results came out on Halloween because here we are. And some of the findings are pretty scary.
03:42 - 03:46
Joe Atmonavage: So, what stood out to you from the findings from this research?
03:46 - 04:48
Gerri Walsh: It was really the universality of money worries. Concerns about money are widespread and they're top of mind for U.S adults across the age and income spectrums. This isn't just something that younger people are worried about, or that lower income people are worried about. Across the income spectrum, this is an issue. Just under half of U.S adults identified money matters as their top concern. It compared to the general direction of the world and health concerns. So, this is something that is significant. And while I wasn't surprised that 90 percent of people who have an income of less than $60,000, which is the current national average salary, I wasn't so surprised that those folks were worried about money. But it was very surprising that a similar percentage of folks who make $100,000 or more, 86 percent, also expressed fears about their finances.
04:49 - 05:03
Joe Atmonavage: So, you mentioned the state of the world and the financial landscape. Is that second number in terms of folks earning over $100,000, still having that same concern speak to that larger question and maybe concern that's currently going on?
05:04 - 05:50
Gerri Walsh: It really does. Because when it came to alleviating money concerns, like what would help you alleviate your money concerns, a lot of people said that having higher levels of income, even at the $100,000 and above salary level, people were saying that having more income would help allay their concerns. What was frightening, again, was that at the lower end of the income spectrum, about 75 percent of people said that they would need to double their income in order to be able to allay their concerns. And that speaks to a whole host of factors—do people have the ability, is their health such that they can do this, their family obligations, time? It speaks to a very stressed nation when it comes to money matters.
05:50 - 06:04
Joe Atmonavage: Some of the research and the findings looked at how this impacts folks' lives, outside of just worrying about money. Can you talk a little bit about the overall impact money concerns and financial worries can have on an individual?
06:05 - 08:19
Gerri Walsh: Well, they're widespread. It's not just a pocketbook issue, and that's how we tend to think about them. When we took a look at the impacts that money concern had on different areas of people's lives, about 69 percent of people said that it impacted their relationships. Seventy-two percent of people said that it impacted their physical and mental health, and a whopping 79 percent said that it impacted their ability to make important life changes. Now, the relationship issue is important for a host of reasons, because financially, there's truth to the old adage that two can live as cheaply as one. Just think about the benefits of splitting your housing costs with a spouse, a partner, a roommate, the value of buying food in bulk, which can lead to food waste for a single person household—I've witnessed that myself in my younger days—sharing transportation costs, the list goes on. That whole relationship element is super important. And anybody who's ever gone through a divorce, or might be going through a divorce now, knows that breaking up is not only hard to do, it is financially challenging to do.
But the impact that money concerns has on the ability of people to make important life changes is particularly worrisome and striking, because how can you make a change if you're frozen by fear? Whether the change for you is that you need to take a new job or build more hours into the amount that you work, or obtain a higher level of education than you currently have, perhaps a certificate, some sort of skill you need to reskill or upskill. All of that, all those decisions, relocating, you'll benefit if you're in a non-emotional, clearheaded frame of mind when you make that decision. But being in that emotional flight or fight response mode in your brain can lead you to making suboptimal decisions. And that's where the tie in between money matters and health is so concerning.
08:20 - 08:34
Joe Atmonavage: We saw it for people under 45. This was especially a concern for younger people of that greater impact their financial worries and situation can have on them. Any particular reason why that group, younger people, may be experiencing that?
08:35 - 09:47
Gerri Walsh: Well, the research doesn't tell us the why, but one of the things that we know from other research that we've done, the National Financial Capability Study, for example, we are seeing that younger people have higher levels of educational debt, have lower incomes, and are not saving as much for longer term goals. They have lived through the Great Recession, which is now 15 years in the rearview mirror. But that has long generational impacts for people who are 45—they were 30, they were at that early stage of their careers when jobs were scarcer and people weren't necessarily advancing in their careers the way their parents may have done. And folks who are in that 30- to 45-year-old age bracket, many of them are sandwiched generation dwellers. They've got children of their own, or they're beginning to think about starting families. But they also have aging parents who may have monetary woes. And so, having young people less well positioned for financial success is troubling.
09:48 - 10:05
Joe Atmonavage: So, this, obviously, is not a new phenomenon, money being a concern for people. But is there anything that stood out in the research, or any new fears associated with money that either stood out, or that the FINRA Foundation is hoping to explore further now that we have a little bit of a better understanding based on this survey?
10:06 - 11:18
Gerri Walsh: Well, the study certainly reconfirms the pervasiveness of age-old concerns about having enough money for both long- and short-term goals. And while our latest National Financial Capability Study, which is a separate research project, found that Americans increasingly reported having an emergency fund, this study suggests that folks feel that their savings might not be adequate. So, even though they have the savings, those savings might not be enough. And one example this study found that being able to set aside enough money for unexpected expenses was a concern for a majority of respondents. Again, regardless of income, more than 50 percent of people were concerned about being able to set aside enough to meet those expenses. And another stark, scary finding is that many Americans, especially those who are at the lower end of the income spectrum or have a lesser level of educational attainment, maybe they've only graduated from high school or didn't even get a high school GED, they're struggling to make ends meet day to day.
11:19 - 11:36
Joe Atmonavage: Thanks, Gerri. I think it's vital to discuss tips and resources on how to make money and one's financial situation a little less scary. But first, Gerri, why is it important that we understand these fears and do research to look at the fears that people have associated with their finances?
11:36 - 12:43
Gerri Walsh: Fundamentally, Joe, money is emotional. And whether it's the excitement of the prospect of having it, the excitement at the prospect of spending it, money is related to our emotions. But research shows that when you are in a heightened emotional state, whether it's positive or negative, you are less likely to make optimal decisions when it comes to your money. And so, being able to diffuse the emotion, to take people out of the ether of a fabulous pitch, to have people look at the hard reality of their financial situation, really requires getting away from that fight or flight element of the brain. And that's why it's really critical to understand emotional issues, because economists might think that something is logical and that there is the "rational consumer." But we know from our research consumers are not rational. That's not a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. And you have to meet people where they are.
12:44 - 12:55
Joe Atmonavage: So, I guess the million-dollar question is how can we make money a little less scary? What are some tips that people can take into consideration as they evaluate their financial situation?
12:55 - 14:02
Gerri Walsh: One of the best things that people can do is to talk about their financial situation. And I'm not talking about broadcasting on social media, what your bank balance or your investment portfolio looks like. I'm talking about having conversations not only with yourself in the mirror, but with your spouse or partner, your family, your parents, depending on what age you are. What are the resources that you have? What's your family's financial balance sheet? What's all the income coming in? What are the expenses going out and taking that pen and pencil or using a spreadsheet, whatever it is that helps you see starkly what the numbers are in a very non-emotional way, can help you think about the steps that you might need to take to try to change or improve your money situation. And so, really just taking the time to approach it logically, calmly, but openly with the people that you share financial interactions with is key.
14:03 - 14:24
Joe Atmonavage: One of the things that is a theme from various reports that has come out from the FINRA Foundation's National Financial Capability Study is education and how education can help improve one's financial capability and is a core part of doing that. So, how important is financial education with helping people overcome these fears and improving their financial capability?
14:25 - 15:28
Gerri Walsh: It's critical. What we see from study after study is that there is a strong correlation with higher levels of financial education and financial knowledge with better financial outcomes. So, things like paying only the minimum on your credit, carrying a balance, those kinds of things tend to be correlated with lower levels of financial knowledge. And knowledge is power—understanding how compound interest works to your benefit and to your detriment, regardless of where interest rates are. That's critical to be able to bring you into that non-emotional part of your brain. Just do the math. And none of us love doing math. I think as a nation we maybe aren't as good at math as we could be. But there's again a strong correlation between math knowledge and financial knowledge. And so, thinking about how to keep track of your finances can pay huge, huge dividends with better financial outcomes down the road.
15:29 - 15:57
Joe Atmonavage: So, you mentioned having that honest conversation about your finances, continuing to improve your financial education as a way to make money a little less scary. Gerri, I know you've also mentioned before relieving debt, what can come with that and how that could be a path forward to improving that and being more positive about how you think about your money. Why is that so important, and is that a critical issue at the core here, in terms of people maybe having scary thoughts when they think of their money?
15:57 - 18:16
Gerri Walsh: There's a number of dimensions along which it's critical that younger people feel like they can participate fully in our financial markets and our capital markets, because our capital markets depend on investors. And not all investors are institutional investors. Many investors are retail investors, people like you and me, people like our parents, people like our children. And we need collectively as a nation to have a well-educated, actively participating investor population in order for our economy to thrive. So, that macro global view of it. But it's equally important that young people feel empowered to participate in our markets. And we know that many are getting their start in crypto. They think about becoming an investor because they've invested in crypto. Maybe they got burned, maybe they made money. But whatever reason led them to think about the capital markets having invested in crypto markets, that's a positive development to see that people are coming to us that way.
It used to be among millennials that the 401K at their employer, their workplace was their first introduction to investing. But for younger investors, it tends to be more crypto and talking to their parents, it's a little bit of the employer element, but more these other factors. And so, it's key that all of us have a solid grounding on the fundamentals of finance, how to make a budget, how to think about spending, how to manage debt, weighing financial decisions. Because usually our financial decisions are not made in a vacuum. So, the more we as a nation talk about the importance of understanding key financial concepts, and the more people feel like they can turn to FINRA for resources that are unbiased, that have no sales pitch associated with them whatsoever, we regulate the people that make investment recommendations. We don't sell any investments. We want people to get that straight from the horse's mouth information so that they can thrive and continue to participate in our markets, and that really benefits us all.
18:16 - 18:24
Joe Atmonavage: What are some of those resources that FINRA has made available and where people can find those?
18:24 - 19:49
Gerri Walsh: Finra.org/investors, that's f-i-n-r-a dot o-r-g slash investors. You'll find an array of resources and tools. We have smart investing courses for people who are just starting out to help them understand risk and asset allocation. Key concepts to investing. We also have a series of personal finance articles, and we have a series of Investing Insights articles that we publish on a regular basis to help people understand what's happening in our marketplace today. So, I encourage you to visit finra.org/investors to avail of those tools. And if you're thinking about bonds or mutual funds or stocks, we have resources that will give you unbiased information. We have a market data center that provides information on equity securities. We have bond data. If you're interested in debt, we have a fund analyzer. If you're interested in looking at ETFs or mutual funds. And one of the things to remember, especially with funds, is that the price you pay, the fees that are associated with those investments are often baked into the product, and they can have a significant impact on your returns over time. We do the math for you. You can model out that math by using our tools. So, I encourage you to visit finra.org/investors.
19:49 - 20:00
Joe Atmonavage: Thank you for sharing all that, Gerri. For someone listening to this who is in that situation where money may be a little scary at the moment, what is your message for them as they move forward on their financial journey?
20:00 - 21:22
Gerri Walsh: Help is available and seek out help if you need it. If debt is a concern, we have resources that will direct you to nonprofit credit information sources. If investing is something that you want to get started with but don't quite know where to turn, we have information on that. And if you work with a financial professional, which is an important way to seek advice, we have a tool that can help you check out whether that individual is licensed to sell securities or to give investment advice. It's a tool called BrokerCheck, and I encourage everyone who's thinking about investing to check out any individual that they're considering working with. The vast, vast majority of investment professionals in the United States are hardworking individuals who care about the best interest of their customers and clients. But to the extent that someone had some issues in the past, you want to know about that before you're working with them. So, again, use the tools that are available at finra.org. We link to other regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, Treasury, the Fed, all sorts of resources that are unbiased. And that's important because there's a lot of biased noise out there.
21:23 - 21:34
Joe Atmonavage: Thanks for sharing that and I echo what you're saying about the resources available on FINRA and through the FINRA Foundation. And Gerri, last question. It is Halloween, so we got to circle back—favorite Halloween candy?
21:34 - 21:44
Gerri Walsh: Oh, my goodness. Well, the key to my heart is dark chocolate. So, I'm going to say dark chocolate peanut butter cups.
21:45 - 22:21
Joe Atmonavage: There you have it folks. You heard Gerri's favorite candy. So, that's going to close out today's FINRA Unscripted. Gerri, thank you so much for joining me to talk about the Foundation's most recent research, while also providing our listeners some valuable resources and tips to hopefully make money a little less spooky. Listeners, if you don't already, be sure to subscribe to FINRA Unscripted wherever you listen to podcasts to stay up to date on the latest news and notes from FINRA. Today's episode was produced by me, Joe Atmonavage, engineered by John Williams and coordinated by Hannah Krobock. Until next time.
22:21 – 22:27
22:27 - 22:54
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