Money is a huge mental drain — for one in four Americans, it’s the topic they think about most on a daily basis, found the GOBankingRates 2015 Life + Money Survey. This preoccupation can grow into a significant problem; half of Americans worry about three or more major financial concerns at the same time, according to a Gallup poll.
One of the best ways to combat financial worries is to take action. “Make a change,” said Andrew Meadows, a brand ambassador at Ubiquity Retirement + Savings. Instead of worrying about money, “Do something about it.”
“As you start digging your way out of financial problems, you’ll get this feeling of accomplishment,” said Meadows. “Take the fear out of your money management, and feed that feeling that comes with taking action and being prepared,” he said.
You can probably find your major source of financial worry in this list of the biggest money struggles Americans face, based off of the Life + Money Survey findings. You also can find out what to do to make a positive change for both your wallet and your peace of mind.
Keep Reading: Infographic Shows Americans’ Biggest Money Fears Today
1. Out-of-Control Spending
For many Americans, the biggest struggle is simply making ends meet. Along with planning for retirement, Americans struggle most with sticking to a budget, with one in five saying this is their biggest financial challenge, according to the Life + Money Survey.
For two-thirds of people, the struggle to stick to a budget might stem from not having much of a budget to begin with. Another Gallup poll found that just 32 percent of Americans prepare a detailed household budget each month. And the 2015 Life + Money Survey data shows that people who are younger and earn lower incomes are slightly more likely to cite sticking to a budget as a major money struggle.
How to fix it: If you see a need to get your household’s spending under control, create a budget. Calculate your monthly income and your expenses. During this process, look for a few simple ways to cut expenses, like eating out one day less each week or switching to a cheaper cable package.
Budgeting helps you get a big-picture view of your money. Creating a budget that works for you and practicing financial discipline can help you make sure your money is going toward what is really most important to you.
2. Planning for Retirement
If you’re behind on your retirement savings, you’re not alone. Even among people nearing retirement (55 and older), just over half have no retirement savings, and 29 percent have neither savings nor a pension plan, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It’s no wonder that one in five Americans (20 percent) say planning for retirement is their biggest financial challenge, according to the Life + Money Survey.
Those near retirement feel a sense of urgency about building their savings, and the portion of people concerned with planning for retirement rises steadily with age. Americans ages 55 to 64 are the most likely to name saving for retirement as their biggest challenge, with more than a third (34 percent) worried about this more than any other financial goal included in the Life + Money Survey.
How to fix it: If you’re nearing retirement, it’s still better to face your financial fears head-on. “Definitely try to hit the maximum amounts you can save or invest each year,” said Meadows. Employee contribution limits for 401ks are at $18,000 for 2015, according to the Society for Human Resource Management; plus, those 50 and over can save an extra $6,000 “catch-up” contribution.
“If you’re maxing that out, that will be $24,000 you’re saving just for the future,” said Meadows. “Even if you’re behind on retirement savings, hitting those maximums will get you prepared.”
If you’re younger but still concerned about your lack of retirement planning, the first step is to enroll in a 401k, especially if your employer provides contribution matching. Continue saving frequently and steadily. You also could benefit from getting professional help managing your accounts.
3. Rising Costs of Higher Education
A third of people ages 18 to 24 years old say paying for higher education is their biggest money challenge, making it the biggest concern of college-age respondents of the 2015 Life + Money Survey. Paying for college is the top concern of 15 percent of people overall.
Tuition and fees rose 17 percent at public, four-year colleges in the past five years, based on 2014-2015 school year price data compiled by the College Board. Keeping up with these rising costs is difficult even for families that have saved diligently for college. As a result, more college students have turned to student loans to fill the gaps. Borrowing more than ever before, the average student loan balance for 2015 graduates is just over $35,000, according to The Wall Street Journal.
How to fix it: Start tackling this challenge by figuring out what you or your family can afford. If you haven’t saved as much as you need for your first-choice school, consider less-expensive options like starting out at a community college and then transferring.
To help cover costs, students should apply for scholarships and grants and hold a job or participate in a work-study program. A student who decides to take out loans should borrow as little as possible and do the math to make sure payments will be affordable for the salary he can expect to make after graduating.
4. No Emergency Fund
Stagnant wages have several side effects, including a stagnant savings rate. With many Americans struggling to just keep up with living expenses, it can be hard to find extra money to tuck away for an emergency. People earning lower incomes are more likely to say saving an emergency fund is their top challenge, according to the Life + Money Survey. Overall, saving up an emergency fund is the top challenge for 13 percent of Americans.
Not having a savings fund to serve as a buffer can make you feel like you’re always just one disaster away from going broke or into debt. Over half of Americans (55 percent) experience this stress, saying they are worried about not being able to cover emergency medical costs, according to Gallup.
How to fix it: Start small, tucking away even $20 at a time until you have a small buffer, then work up to having at least a month’s worth of your basic expenses tucked away. You can also use any “found money” — like bonuses, cash gifts or your tax refund — to build an emergency fund. Creating an emergency fund will help strengthen your savings habit, said Meadows.
5. Steep Housing Prices
Housing prices have largely recovered since the Great Recession, but wages aren’t keeping pace, according to analysis from RealtyTrac. With housing prices increasing at 13 times the rate of wage growth (17.31 percent compared with 1.30 percent) from 2012 to 2014, many Americans are getting priced out of the dream of homeownership.
Yet many people are still striving to become homeowners, with one in eight (12 percent) naming saving for a home as their top financial challenge in the Life + Money Survey. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the age group most likely to name this as a top challenge, this number jumps to 17 percent.
How to fix it: People planning to buy a home should be actively working toward this goal, said Meadows. “One of the biggest financial mistakes I see is people not properly planning to purchase a home,” he said.
Take the worry out of the process by educating yourself and getting a realistic view of the costs you’ll be dealing with as a new homeowner, including miscellaneous charges like property taxes or HOA fees. Include these costs as you set your savings goals for buying a house. Buy a home when the timing is right for you and your finances instead of trying to time housing markets or mortgage rates.
6. Overwhelming Debts
“Credit card debt is debilitating,” Meadows said. For his work on the documentary “Broken Eggs: The Looming Retirement Crisis in America,” Meadows traveled the country interviewing people about the state of their savings and retirement plans. “Credit card debt and medical debt, which can be really hard to avoid, were the No. 1 reasons I heard over and over again that people weren’t saving,” Meadows said.
This struggle is reflected in GOBankingRates’ Life + Money Survey findings: Paying off credit cards is the biggest challenge for about one in eight Americans (12 percent).
How to fix it: To overcome credit card and other debt, take ownership of your debt and your financial habits. “You got yourself into it; you’ll have to own it and downsize your lifestyle so you can pay down your debts,” Meadows said.
Being realistic doesn’t mean you have to live like you’re broke, however. “Just because you’re in debt doesn’t mean you’re homeless or poor — it’s just a trick of budgeting,” Meadows said. Paying off debt is a numbers game, so start focusing your dollars on bringing down debts and getting the numbers working in your favor.
7. Volatile Stock Markets
Just 8 percent of Americans say building an investment portfolio is their top financial challenge, even though investing long term is one of the best ways to build financial security and wealth.
But putting together a balanced investment portfolio requires financial know-how that the average American lacks. When they start looking into investing, “People run into a bunch of jargon they don’t understand and start feeling like investing is too big and scary,” Meadows said.
Additionally, many investors are still shaken from the huge market crashes of the Great Recession. While over 60 percent of Americans had holdings in stocks before 2008, only 55 percent say they have money in the stock market today, according to a Gallup poll. Stock market volatility in recent months has also hurt investor confidence. But these investment worries could keep you from taking advantage of opportunities to grow wealth.
How to fix it: You can avoid becoming a stress case every time markets dip by taking a long-term approach that gives gains and losses time to even out. You also can benefit from determining your risk tolerance — many 401k sign-up packets include a quiz that helps you assess your risk tolerance, said Meadows. Invest accordingly to hit the blend of risk and reward with which you’re comfortable.
8. Lack of a Financial Plan
A big source of financial stress is seeing a need to work toward certain money goals but having no idea where to start. A lot of Americans fall into this category; only 40 percent have set financial goals, and even fewer (12 percent) have a written financial plan, according to a Northwestern Mutual survey. Without a plan that prioritizes financial goals, people are stuck second-guessing their choices or worrying about money decisions instead of making them.
How to fix it: One of the best fixes for learning how to manage money with a financial plan is to get professional financial help — clients of financial professionals are twice as likely to feel financially secure, found the Northwestern Mutual survey. Just like you’d go to a doctor to care for your physical health, a financial planner can help manage your monetary health and empower you to make informed decisions. And like a doctor would create a treatment plan for any health issues, a financial advisor can help you design a financial plan to tackle your biggest money problems and achieve your goals.