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The latest findings from the FINRA Foundation’s National Financial Capability Study suggest that key measures of Americans’ financial capability may have plateaued after six year of substantial improvements. For the majority of Americans, financial capability, stability and confidence are no longer improving in step with the economy.

The NFCS was first conducted in 2009 and then repeated every three years, its aim to benchmark key indicators of financial capability and evaluate how these indicators vary with underlying demographic, behavioral, attitudinal and financial literacy characteristics.

In the three years since the 2015 study, Americans’ financial capability has not increased along with the continued expansion of the U.S. economy. Rather, it has settled into a static financial state, possibly signaling a “new normal,” according to the study.

Although all demographic groups are better able to cover monthly expenses and bills than they were in 2009, the study found that younger Americans, people with lower incomes and African Americans had improved less than older folks, those with higher incomes and other ethnicities.

Among white respondents, the percentage who spend less than they earn has remained steady since 2009 at 42%, while that of African Americans who are able to save has declined by six percentage points to 34%.

The 2018 NFCS replicated two components of the 2015 study: a state-by-state online survey of 27,091 American adults and an online survey of 2,003 Americans who had investments outside of retirement accounts.

Financial Anxiety

Fifty-three percent of all respondents and 63% of millennials reported that thinking about their finances made them anxious. Forty-four percent of the sample and 55% of millennials said discussing their finances was stressful.

Single women are more likely than their male counterparts to feel anxious or stressed about their finances.

The latest NFCS found that 42% of student loan holders with payments due had been late with a payment at least once in the past year. Further, 47% of those with student loan debt wished they had chosen less expensive colleges, and 48% were worried that they would be unable to pay off their loans.

The study reported a positive finding amid the daily stress of making ends meet: Some three in 10 Americans with less than $25,000 in annual income were able to save. That said, the percentage of savers in this income bracket was lower in 2018 than it was in 2009.

Financial literacy fell from 42% in the 2009 NFCS to 34% in the latest one, even though 71% of most recent respondents believed that they had a high level of financial knowledge.

The new study found that both the amount and quality of financial education correlated positively with behaviors indicative of financial capability. Respondents who received more financial education or believed that their financial education was higher quality were likelier to save and less likely to overdraw their checking accounts, engage in fee-generating credit card behaviors or use nonbank borrowing methods.

New questions in the 2018 NFCS showed that both online and mobile banking have become common. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they engaged in computer-based banking, and 65% said they did their banking by phone.

In addition, 39% reported using websites or apps to help manage their finances, 35% said they used their mobile phones for payments at the point of sale and 37% did so for transferring money to another person.

The 2018 NFCS found that the gig economy has taken hold. Thirty-two percent of employed respondents reported earning money from work outside their main employment in the past year.

Seventeen percent said they had taken on a work assignment through a website or app such as Uber, TaskRabbit, Care.com and other gig economy tools. This number rose to 27% among self-employed respondents.