Survey: 40% of Americans Feel Late to Financial and Life Milestones

To a certain extent, Americans are raised with expectations of how their lives will go. By 18 you finish high school, and then you choose a job or go to college. By 22 you should be settling down with a clear career plan, considering a family, and contributing to your 401k. By 30 you’ll have a comfortable savings, your first home, and your life all figured out. 

Part of reaching adulthood is realizing that there is no timeline set in stone for your life, and a thousand factors influence when and if you reach certain milestones. By your late 20s, you’ve figured out that 30 is not a magic number, either. Still, the pressures from the media and what we see our peers achieving can cause us to feel like we don’t measure up, and may even result in some questionable financial choices. So we set out to find just where Americans feel like they’re falling behind in life. 

We surveyed 1,500 Americans on peer pressure and found:

  • The most common answer for Americans feeling behind was that they’re not saving enough for retirement.
  • Americans feel more behind on financial goals, like career success and financial stability, than life goals, like finding a partner and starting a family.
  • 75% of Americans don’t discuss their financial health and details with their friends. 

Americans Feel Behind Their Peers on Saving for Retirement

Concern about retirement savings was the most common worry for the 40 percent of Americans who feel they’re falling behind in life. Retirement is one of the largest investments of one’s lifetime, and often takes decades to prepare for. The sense of falling behind in retirement savings may be heightened as COVID-19 caused layoffs, a loss in job benefits, and financial struggles that led many to dip into their savings. 

Saving for retirement is top of mind for those aged 45–54, 43 percent of whom reported feeling behind on their savings goals. This is not much of a surprise considering retirement age begins at age 66, leaving just a decade or two to fill their nest egg.  

Additionally, 66 percent of those who feel behind on retirement savings are women. Our survey found that women were more likely than men to feel like they’re behind their peers, despite the result that women and men are relatively even when it comes to discussing their personal finances with friends. 

Americans Feel More Behind on Financial Goals than Relationship Goals

Comparison of when American achieve these life milestones vs. the most concerned ages

All age groups were far more concerned about their financial goals and wellbeing than they were relationship milestones. This is particularly interesting considering only 25 percent of Americans discuss their financial status with friends, whereas their peers’ relationship statuses are far more visible. 

According to our study, only 17 percent of Americans feeling behind their peers are concerned about their search for a life partner. Even fewer are concerned about starting a family. While demographics under 30 were more likely to feel behind on relationship goals, financial goals were still a higher priority. 

While all age groups prioritize financial goals, these specific wants change with age. As the youngest group with the lowest income expectations, it’s no surprise that 14.8 percent of Gen Z feel as though they’re struggling for financial stability. Millennials feel more secure in their financial wellbeing and seem to be looking for their next investment — purchasing a home. This group had the lowest rate of consensus, but 12.9 percent of Millennials agree they’re behind on homeownership. 

Older demographics not only compare themselves to their peers less, but also have the same financial priority in mind — saving for retirement. Gen X is the most concerned about their savings with 15 percent believing they’re behind their peers. With less than a decade until retirement, Baby Boomers are equally concerned at 14.9 percent. 

75% of Americans Don’t Share Their Financial Standing With Friends

While Americans may be comparing their finances with their peers’, a majority of adults don’t discuss money topics. Of those who are open to money talk, 11 percent have shared their salary — a relatively popular topic with Gen X-ers, of whom 23 percent talk pay.

Bar graph of what financial topics Americans are sharing with friends

On the flip side, just six percent of Americans share their credit score. This could be in part because 43 percent of Americans haven’t checked their credit score in more than a year. 

If adults aren’t discussing their financial standing, then it’s likely that the peer pressure so many feel is a result of time anxiety more than actual, documented success. There’s a perception that adults should hit certain milestones by certain phases of life, and there’s a sense of anxiety we feel when we recognize that the deadline is looming. 

This reinforces the expectation that we shouldn’t discuss our finances, either because we don’t want to feel like we’re bragging or because we don’t feel comfortable sharing our real or perceived struggles. In fact, the taboo is so strong that in 34 percent of couples living together, at least one partner doesn’t know how much the other makes. 

The good thing is that there is no real timeline for our lives. There may be averages or societal expectations, but meeting or missing these “due dates” doesn’t define success, and certainly says nothing about one’s individual value.

It’s natural to compare yourself with your peers, but it becomes a problem when the feeling of falling behind crosses into time anxiety territory. The best thing you can do to control your financial success is budget well and focus on your own success while reducing the influence from others. While it may feel overwhelming, here are some great ways to manage your time anxiety and take control of your own timeline.

Sources: CNBC | Census Bureau | Pew Research Center  | Senior Living | Ness Labs | Fidelity | NAR

Methodology 

This study consisted of two survey questions conducted using Google Surveys. The sample consisted of no less than 1,500 completed responses per question. Post-stratification weighting has been applied to ensure an accurate and reliable representation of the total population. This survey ran during July 2020. 

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