The global pandemic, a highly polarizing election, and social unrest all made 2020 an unprecedented year with profound and far-reaching impacts. One significant consequence is how working Americans are changing their approach to financial planning.
Following the tumult of 2020, Americans are seeking a sense of security. Financial confidence is top of mind: 83% of people we recently surveyed said they want to worry less about money in 2021. It’s a worthy goal, but many of the same people report feeling uneasy about the economy this year.
Here’s what we uncovered in “Back to (Financial) Basics: How Americans are responding after an unprecedented 2020” a survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Empower Retirement and Personal Capital:
- 51% of people told us they are more concerned about the economy than they were a year ago
- More than a quarter (33%) are now more concerned about their ability to retire
- Almost half (43%) are more worried about their financial future
- 60% of people said that their finances were top of mind when casting their vote for president
It’s worth noting the great divide in the pandemic’s financial impact. Some people have realized a boon to their investments, whereas millions of others lost their very livelihood.
“COVID-19 impacted every person in different and often exhaustive ways,” said Craig Birk, CFP, Chief Investment Officer at Personal Capital. “So many families suffered loss, hundreds of thousands of small businesses closed and millions of jobs vanished. For others, working remotely has had positive aspects.”
There’s much that remains uncertain. With a new presidential administration now in office, here’s how working Americans are feeling about their financial futures going into 2021.
How Finances Impacted Americans’ Vote
Last week, Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th President of the United States. The 2020 Presidential election was a highly anticipated and hotly contested event, with many investors believing that the outcome would have a major impact on their personal finances, and on major issues important to their financial lives.
Late last year, 75% of Americans we surveyed told us that they believe the outcome of the presidential election will have an impact on their finances going forward.
Money was a major factor in how people cast their ballots. Gen X, at 68%, was the age group most likely to say that their financial situation was one of the most important factors in their vote.
In some key areas, men and women took different approaches to financial planning around the election. Men were more likely than women to vote according to their finances and also make money changes as a result of the outcome.
When it comes to saving and investing, Personal Capital advisors recommend staying the course — particularly in polarizing and volatile times.
“Transitions in leadership from elections can be emotionally charged for people,” Birk said. “Many individuals tend to feel the world will come crashing down if the opposition has won. But in terms of the economy and markets, the reality is little tends to change. Regardless of which party wins, equity returns tend to be positive in both the election year and first year in office. These days, both parties tend to run large deficits.”
2020 Volatility Led to Big Financial Actions
Throughout last year, market volatility caused many people to take big action when it comes to their finances.
Emphasis on Savings
In response to the turmoil of 2020, Americans decided to build up a cash cushion, with 70% reporting that they have or plan to put more money into savings. Gen Z respondents, at 83%, were the most likely to beef up their savings. Boomers, at 58%, were least likely.
Because money is one of the most significant sources of stress for many Americans, having funds set aside in savings can create the peace of mind necessary to reduce financial stress.
Birk advises automating your savings. He recommends setting up automatic transfers from your checking account to your retirement savings accounts, such as a 401k or IRA, in addition to your savings account. You won’t have to think about it, and it will take extra work on your part not to save because you’ll have to cancel the transfer manually.
Changes in Investment Strategy
Going into 2021, investors are cautiously hopeful. However, women are much less optimistic than men about the trajectory of the stock market: Just 16% of women say they are more optimistic about the stock market than they were last year, compared to 26% of men.
Current sentiments aside, last year many Americans reacted strongly to market volatility:
- 45% have or plan to buy investments as a result of the market volatility related to COVID-19
- 38% were spooked by the turbulence and report shifting to less risky investments
- 35% sold investments to cash out
Feeling exposed? Diversifying your portfolio can reduce the inherent risks involved with investing. With well-diversified assets, your portfolio will be more able to weather financial storms like market volatility and recessions.
“Regardless of market conditions, diversification is key,” Birk said. “It’s one of the best ways your portfolio can cushion itself against bumpiness in the markets and it helps you stay comfortable sticking with a plan.”
Shifts in Retirement Planning
2020 volatility also caused many Americans to rethink their retirement plans:
- 44% adjusted retirement plan investments
- 39% adjusted their retirement plan time horizon
For most people, retirement is the single biggest financial goal that they’ll save for. It often takes decades to financially prepare for retirement. However, studies show that the majority of Americans aren’t adequately saving. Even more alarming is that nearly 33% of Americans pulled money from an IRA or 401k during the pandemic to cover basic expenses.
Financial Advice Gains Priority in 2021
One way to worry less about money? Many people are opting to work with a certified financial planner. 52% of respondents agreed that after all the uncertainty of 2020, they are seeking more guidance on their financial strategy this year. This includes consulting a financial advisor, either for the first time or more often, or also taking advantage of workplace resources.
Younger respondents are far more likely to pursue advice: 64% of Millennials and Gen Z respondents plan to seek more guidance, whereas only 38% of Boomers said they are asking for more help.
One of the most important things a good financial advisor does is help remove emotions from financial decisions. When a person has worked for years to amass personal wealth, only to see it fluctuate during market volatility, emotional detachment doesn’t always come easily. That’s why having a trusted advisor to help is so vital.
“It’s sometimes hard to tune out all the noise of people telling you what the market is going to do next and what you should be buying or selling,” Birk said. “Working with a good financial advisor will give you an objective person to call when you’re scared or not sure what to do.”
This survey was conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Empower Retirement and Personal Capital from November 25, 2020 to December 11, 2020 among 2,008 respondents. Respondents needed to meet the following criteria: U.S. resident, 18 years old or older, employed full time or retired, and not currently working in sensitive industries.