Frightening facts about Americans' personal finances

Frightening facts about Americans' personal finances

It’s October, and I can’t help but smile thinking about some scary trick-or-treat moments from my youth. What lurked around the corner? More candy, or a pack of middle-school bullies hooting and hollering with shaving cream (destined for my face) in hand? 

I don’t know if I’ve ever again reached the speed I achieved that Halloween night. Fear can be a powerful motivator. In the spirit of the season, I’ll share a roundup of five scary personal finance statistics that may startle you into a course correction of your own. 

Consumer debt in the United States is greater than $14 trillion. If you are like me, your memory of the Great Recession and its across-the-board effect on our economy still sends shivers down your spine. Earlier this year, consumer debt surpassed the accumulated debt Americans carried back in 2008. I don’t have a crystal ball, but here’s to hoping all that debt doesn’t trigger another slide. Let a little fear inspire you to map out a path to a debt-free future. And don’t be scared to get help. A credit counselor affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling ( could provide you with the edge you need to get to a better place.

More than 80 percent of Americans have this retirement plan: keep working. When the Employee Benefit Research Institute surveyed retirees and workers during 2019’s annual Retirement Confidence Survey, it disclosed a shocking disconnect: 34 percent of workers planned to work beyond 70, but only 6 percent of retirees actually did. Don’t base your retirement plan on false assumptions, or use those assumptions to justify avoiding the heavy lifting – saving, investing and planning – to prepare you for retirement. 

Sixty percent of millennials experience financial infidelity. That’s according to a 2017 survey from the financial wellness resource CentSai. In other words, they experience things like lying or being lied to about spending, hiding accounts or outright stealing. Obviously, that type of behavior is flat wrong, but on a more functional level, when was the last time you had a frank financial chat with your significant other? Now’s the time. I always say money is a team game. You can’t be in the game if you don’t know what’s going on. And you should, of course, be a good teammate.

Only 25 percent of Americans have a written financial plan. As a financial planner, I find this element of the report (issued as part of Schwab’s 2019 Modern Wealth Index) particularly frightening. I understand that not everyone needs a formal written plan, but the same report indicated that fewer than half of respondents had specific financial goals. You don’t need to be a financial planner – or a rocket scientist – to realize that’s off-base. Map out your goals, and build your plan today. 

This year, instead of running for the hills like I did when confronted with a scary situation, tackle your financial challenges head-on.

J.J. Montanaro is a certified financial planner with USAA, The American Legion’s preferred provider of financial services. Submit questions for him online.