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The 2020 Planning & Progress Study, an annual research study from Northwestern Mutual, explores U.S. adults’ attitudes and behaviors toward money, financial decision-making, and the broader issues impacting people’s long-term financial security.

Fragile Financials

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak led to a spike in unemployment and declines in the stock market and broader economy, 33% of Americans were already within three missed paychecks of having to either borrow money or skip bills.

These are the first set of findings from the 2020 Planning & Progress Study, an annual research project commissioned by Northwestern Mutual that explores Americans’ attitudes and behaviors toward money, financial decision-making, and broader issues impacting people’s long-term financial security.

From a financial perspective, the research shows people view cash and money market funds (45%) as their best defense against economic uncertainty and market volatility, with stocks, bonds and life insurance in a three-way tie for second (all at 18%). At the same time, nearly a third (31%) of people are unsure of what their best financial defense should be at a time of uncertainty and volatility.


Critical to plan

The research shows that 71% of Americans say their financial planning needs improvement.  That said, there are some encouraging signs in the data about people’s instincts to plan and the discipline they bring to it.

  • 22% consider themselves “highly disciplined” planners – They know their exact goals, have developed specific plans to meet them, and rarely deviate from those plans
  • 39% consider themselves “disciplined” planners – They know their exact goals, and have developed specific plans to meet them, but those plans can deviate at times because they don’t always stay on top of them
  • 29% consider themselves “informal” planners – They have a general sense of their goals and how to meet them, but they do not have a formal plan in place
  • 10% are not planners and have not established any goals

There’s also a sizable percentage who say they enjoy planning, and a plurality that see it as necessary even if it’s not their favorite thing to do. That said, 3 in 10 Americans struggle with confronting their financial situation, and given the economic downturn it’s reasonable to expect that number could go up. Specific numbers regarding how people feel about financial planning were as follows:

  • Excited and inspired. Love to do it! (29%)
  • Not my favorite thing in the world but know it needs to get done – like a medical check-up (37%)
  • Worried, nervous about confronting the financial details of my life (16%)
  • Prefer to not deal with it until I absolutely have no choice (6%)
  • Frustrated, annoyed with my financial situation (8%)
  • Skeptical about the value of planning (3%)

Benefits of getting professional help

The study shows that 29% of Americans work with an advisor and 65% do not.

Interestingly, when asked who people trust the most for financial advice, the #1 response was themselves (28%), followed by a financial advisor (24%) then a family member (13%). Meanwhile, 15% said they don’t get financial advice from anyone.


Read the news release

Download the 2020 Planning and Progress Study - Fragile Financials

Debt + Credit Cards

The latest findings from Northwestern Mutual’s 2020 Planning & Progress Study reveal that among Americans who carry debt, a third (33%) of their monthly income goes toward paying it off, exclusive of mortgages. Those with debt report having $26,621 on average, and 13% of Americans expect to be in debt the rest of their lives.

Among U.S. adults carrying debt, 58% say it has a substantial or moderate impact on their ability to achieve long term financial security. Additionally, many report that debt impacts their ability to reach major financial milestones:

  • 36% delayed significant purchases
  • 29% delayed saving for retirement
  • 18% delayed buying a home
  • 8% delayed having children
  • 7% delayed marriage


Signs of Progress…Before the Storm

There are some positive indications in the data that suggest Americans have been making progress in their ability to manage and reduce debt over the last several years. But it’s important to note that this year’s findings were collected just prior to the steepest impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. Even so, it is worth noting the trend lines:

  • The total average debt among those who have it has been slowly declining over the years – from just over $38,000 in 2018 to $29,800 in 2019 to $26,621 this year
  • Of those with some debt, over two thirds (67%) have a specific plan to pay it off
  • Over a quarter (26%) of Americans report having no debt


The Credit Card Crunch

Credit card bills (22%) and mortgages (21%) are the leading sources of debt for Americans. Car loans (8%) and personal education loans (8%) came in as the next highest sources of debt.

Of the 42% Americans who report holding credit card debt, the average amount is $5,400. Of that debt, over half (52%) went toward paying for absolute necessities like rent, utilities and groceries; 36% was for discretionary expenses such as entertainment, vacations, or dining out; and 11% was used for educational expenses. The study also found:

  • 30% of U.S. adults either always or often pay the minimum payment on their credit card bills, just covering the interest without paying down any principal
  • 33% pay greater than a 15% interest rate on their cards, and 9% don’t know what interest rate they’re paying
  • 12% expect to be in credit card debt between 11 and 20 years, and 7% expect their credit card debt to last more than 20 years

There also appears to be a bit of a learning curve when it comes to credit card usage. More than six in ten Americans with credit card debt (61%) said that if given the choice, they would have changed the way they used credit cards in the past.

  • 56% would have limited their use of credit cards to primarily cover necessities
  • 37% would have gained a better understanding of interest rates
  • 23% would have waited to get a card until they really needed one


Read the news release

Download the 2020 Planning and Progress Study - Debt + Credit Cards

Americans’ Financial Response to COVID-19

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Market volatility and the economic downturn prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a significant financial response among Americans and a whirl of proactivity, according to the latest findings from Northwestern Mutual’s 2020 Planning and Progress Study.

For some, the crisis has led them to see the importance of having a financial plan. Among U.S. adults age 18 and older, 15% say they didn’t have a plan before the pandemic but now have been prompted to develop one.

For those who already had plans in place, the crisis has prompted many to adjust course. One-fifth (20%) of Americans say they have revisited their financial plans and made significant adjustments in response to the pandemic and its subsequent economic impact.

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Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z are seeking help

The study found that one-fifth or more of each Gen X (19%), Millennials (22%) and Gen Z (22%) say they didn’t have a financial advisor before the pandemic but will seek to start working with one now.

Additionally, the younger generations stand out for how proactive they have been in response to the economic downturn:

  • Nearly three out of 10 (28%) Millennials have revisited their plans and made significant adjustments, more than any other generation.
  • One-fifth (19%) of Millennials and one-quarter (25%) of Gen Z didn’t have a financial plan before the pandemic but are looking to develop one now.

Bruised but not broken

When asked how financially secure people feel on a 10-point scale, the average rating was 6.1, compared to 6.7 before the pandemic. Taking a closer look, the numbers reveal shifts at both the higher and lower ends of the scale:

  • 35% rate themselves as financially secure (between an eight and 10), which is down from the 45% among these same participants who say they were financially secure prior to the pandemic.
  • Those who rated themselves between one and three, or not financially secure, jumped to 19% compared to 12% pre-pandemic.

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Cautious but resilient

The pandemic has had a real impact on people’s financial situations, and in turn their decision-making and behaviors. Overall, Americans are showing a combination of caution and resilience in the face of adversity.

More than four in 10 (42%) Americans say they’re less willing today to take risks with their finances in an effort to protect their assets, compared to just 16% who say they’re more willing to take risks with their finances in an effort to pursue higher returns.

Additionally, a significant number of Americans (45%) have taken steps to cover their regular living expenses:

  • 25% have dipped into personal savings or emergency funds (excluding retirement accounts)
  • 14% have borrowed money from family or friends
  • 10% have dipped into retirement account/savings (e.g., 401k, IRA, etc.)
  • 8% have applied for a loan from a financial lender
  • 8% have sold investments to raise cash (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc.)
  • 6% have used the cash value of a life insurance policy

Many Americans have also re-prioritized and re-evaluated their critical vs. discretionary expenses, and hit pause on some big decisions:

  • 23% have postponed large purchases or projects (e.g., car purchase, home remodeling, etc.)
  • 15% have postponed changing jobs/searching for a new job
  • 11% have postponed buying or building a new home
  • 9% have postponed starting a business
  • 7% have postponed starting / attending college
  • 5% have postponed retiring / leaving the workforce
  • 5% have postponed getting married
  • 3% have postponed having / adopting children

Finally, the pandemic has prompted many Americans to reconsider their views of life insurance’s role as part of a holistic financial plan, with nearly four in 10 (37%) saying they now see an increased importance for owning it.


Read the news release

Download the 2020 Planning and Progress Study - Americans' Financial Response to COVID-19

Student Debt

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The latest set of findings from Northwestern Mutual’s 2020 Planning & Progress Study highlights the impact that student debt can have on a financial plan. Among U.S. adults aged 18+ who hold student debt, the average amount is $24,155. The study also finds that 42% of Americans with student debt say that if they had to do it over, they wouldn’t take a student loan at all.

Debt Report Card

The 2020 Planning & Progress Study finds that about 1 in 4 Gen Z (25%) and Millennials (24%) hold student debt compared to 16% of Gen Xers. Among those with student debt, younger generations have lower averages than Gen X:

  • Gen Z – $15,798
  • Millennials – $21,367
  • Gen X – $34,075 

The findings also show that the younger generations appear to be more optimistic about how long they expect to hold their student debt. Nearly half of both Gen Z (46%) and Millennials (47%) expect to pay off their student debt within one to five years, compared to 33% of Gen Xers. In contrast, 11% of Americans with student debt say they will be holding that debt for more than 20 years.

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Back to School

Two in five Americans (40%) say they did not have a proper understanding of the implications of taking on student debt when they elected to seek a loan, according to the research. Additionally, two-thirds (66%) say they would change something about their decision given the chance:

  • Over four in 10 (42%) say they would have not taken a student loan at all
  • Over one-third (36%) say they would have borrowed less

Among generations, Gen X and Millennials are more likely than Gen Z to say they would not have taken a loan at all (41%, 44% and 22%, respectively), while more than half of Gen Z say they would have borrowed less (57%).

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Family Affair

Those with student loan debt also report receiving significant support from family members.

Nearly one in six (16%) say their parents help to pay off their student debt. The younger generations report their parents help at slightly higher rates, with 31% of Gen Z and 19% of Millennials.

In addition, 25% of Gen Xers and 22% of Millennials say their spouse/partner contributes to paying off their student loan debt.


Read the news release

Download the 2020 Planning and Progress Study - Student Debt