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Personal Finance Reports

Survey: Financial Goals for Americans Include Paying Off Debt, Saving for Retirement, & Building Emergency Funds

Updated Jun 14, 2023   |   15-min read

Establishing financial goals can be the first step, and perhaps the most important step, on the process towards building a healthy money situation.

They give you a benchmark that you can use to base your budgeting and spending off of. For example, if your primary financial goal is to pay off student loan debt, maybe you will tighten your budget and spend less on going out to eat, while also being less aggressive in your retirement investing so you have more money to pay back your loans.

When it comes to financial goals, which are the top priority for everyday consumers? LendEDU has conducted a survey of 1,000 adult Americans to answer this very question.

In addition to seeing what the most pressing financial goals are, we also gauged how long people think it will take them to reach those goals, if ever, and if there was anything that could derail the targets consumers have set.

Full Survey Results

(All results derive from an online survey of 1,000 adult Americans)

(1) Out of the following options, what financial goal is the most important for you to achieve or is your number one priority?

  • 20% of respondents answered “Buying my own house or apartment”
  • 7% of respondents answered “Paying off my student loan debt”
  • 10% of respondents answered “Building an emergency fund”
  • 19% of respondents answered “Having enough saved so I can finally retire”
  • 4% of respondents answered “Buying a car”
  • 14% of respondents answered “Paying off credit card debt”
  • 1% of respondents answered “Buying a second home”
  • 4% of respondents answered “Paying off other forms of debt not including student or credit card debt”
  • 6% of respondents answered “Building my credit score”
  • 1% of respondents answered “Investing in real estate”
  • 2% of respondents answered “Investing in the market outside of my retirement account”
  • 3% of respondents answered “Creating a retirement account”
  • 1% of respondents answered “Buying a second or third car”
  • 5% of respondents answered “Having enough saved so I can move out on my own and rent a home/apartment”
  • 3% of respondents answered “Start a business”

(2) Realistically, how long do you think it will take you to complete the goal that you answered Question 1 with?

  • 16% of respondents answered “Within 1 year”
  • 47% of respondents answered “1 to 5 years”
  • 17% of respondents answered “6 to 10 years”
  • 8% of respondents answered “11 to 15 years”
  • 2% of respondents answered “16 to 20 years”
  • 3% of respondents answered “More than 20 years”
  • 7% of respondents answered “Realistically, I don’t think I will ever be able to attain the goal I answered question 1 with”

(3 — Asked only to those who answered Question 2 with “Realistically, I don’t think I will ever be able to attain the goal I answered Question 1 with.”) Why do you think you will be unable to attain your most important financial goal?

  • 14% of respondents answered “I have too much debt to payoff”
  • 20% of respondents answered “My expenses are simply too high and I have no discretionary income to use on other things”
  • 1% of respondents answered “I do not have enough/good enough credit”
  • 7% of respondents answered “I am stuck in a low-paying job/industry”
  • 6% of respondents answered “In general, my consumer confidence is simply too low”
  • 52% of respondents answered “Another reason not listed”

(4 — Asked only to those who answered Question 2 with either “16 to 20 years” or “More than 20 years”) Why do you think it will take you roughly 20 years or more to attain your most important financial goal?

  • 19% of respondents answered “Payments toward my debt command most of my income at the moment”
  • 37% of respondents answered “My expenses are too high right now and I do not make enough money at this point to use on other things”
  • 11% of respondents answered “I do not have enough/good enough credit”
  • 11% of respondents answered “My job doesn’t pay well enough and will take a while for me to get a significant raise or promotion”
  • 3% of respondents answered “My consumer confidence is simply too low right now”
  • 19% of respondents answered “Another reason not listed”

(5 — Asked only to those who answered Question 2 with any answer besides the last one in which they said they would not hit their financial goal) In your mind, is there anything that could realistically end your chances of hitting your goal at any moment?

  • 33% of respondents answered “Yes, a bill from an emergency like a major injury or car accident would destroy my savings”
  • 9% of respondents answered “Yes, I am working in an industry that could experience major layoffs and/or lacks job security”
  • 3% of respondents answered “Yes, I am too invested in one place or in volatile stocks that could sink at any moment”
  • 14% of respondents answered “Yes, I have a few debts that could get out of hand quickly if I don’t keep an eye on them”
  • 13% of respondents answered “Yes, for another reason”
  • 28% of respondents answered “No, I feel relatively secure at the moment”

(6) Do you believe that politics play a role, positive or negative, in your ability to hit your financial goals?

  • 53% of respondents answered “Yes”
  • 40% of respondents answered “No”
  • 7% of respondents answered “I’d prefer not to say”

(7) Are you currently in a dedicated relationship or married?

  • 61% of respondents answered “Yes”
  • 37% of respondents answered “No”
  • 2% of respondents answered “I’d prefer not to say”

(8 — Asked only to those who answered Question 7 with “No”) Long term, which of these is more important to you?

  • 72% of respondents answered “Reaching my financial goals”
  • 23% of respondents answered “Finding the romantic love of my life”
  • 5% of respondents answered “I’d prefer not to say”

Observations & Analysis

Retirement is the Second Most Prioritized Goal, But Over One-Third of Americans Don’t See It Ever Happening

When it came to the financial goals that Americans prioritized the most, “buying my own house or apartment” led the voting by capturing 20%, followed by “having enough saved so I can finally retire” (19%), “paying off credit card debt” (14%), and “building an emergency fund” (10%).

There was only a minor lack of confidence that the latter two could ever be achieved, while a slightly larger contingent of consumers – 17% to be exact – did not believe they would ever become homeowners.

And finally, consumer confidence was most strikingly missing when it came to those poll participants whose most important financial goal was finally having enough in the bank to retire; 39% of this cohort indicated that they don’t believe they will ever be able to attain their retirement goal.

When it came to the age of those respondents that lacked confidence in being able to retire, 52% were over the age of 54, 30% were between the ages of 45 and 54, and 15% fell between the ages of 35 to 44.

Holly Wolf and her husband, Gary, both of whom are baby boomers, have had to put their retirement on hold for one specific reason: health insurance.

One of our goals is having enough money to retire.  It has taken us 30 years to hit that goal. But the reality is we should be able to retire early, but the cost of health insurance is so cost prohibitive that we can’t afford it.

If we had to take $30,000 out of our annual retirement income to pay for health insurance, that would make it impossible to live on the remainder. So we will continue to work just to cover healthcare costs.

Holly & Gary Wolf, Married baby boomers

Between the broken-down results found immediately above and the segmented data for those who prioritized building an emergency fund, it appears that having disposable savings is a major issue amongst older Americans; 100% of those who listed “building an emergency fund” as their top goal but couldn’t see that goal being completed were aged 45 and over.

How Do Financial Goals Vary By Generation?

When it came to financial goals, there were some noticeable differences when broken down by which of the following generations our respondents belonged to: silent generation & baby boomers, Generation Xers, millennials, and post-millennials.

The generations were filtered as per the latest update from the Pew Research Center. Members of the silent generation (1928-1945) were lumped in with the baby boomers as there were so few members of the former that participated in this survey.

There are many trends that can be taken away from the graphic above, but a few especially stood out.

First, the respective correlations between the generations and two forms of debt, credit card and student loan.

As the generations got younger, the respondents became less concerned with credit card debt, likely because expenses grow over time. Conversely, poll participants became more concerned with student loan debt as they got younger. This can be attributed to both the cost of higher education rapidly increasing for younger generations (and therefore higher student debt balances) and also because older respondents have had more time to pay off their student debt.

Ashley Lomelin, a communications professional at an online financial services firm and a Generation Xer who just missed the millennial cutoff, expressed her main concerns were over student loan debt.

I have a financial goal to one day pay off my student loans, hopefully within the next five years. By paying off my student loans, I’ll be able to start saving for a home and retirement. I want to believe I will be able to pay it off within the next five years.

Ashley Lomelin, Generation Xer and communications professional

Caitlin Fisher, a millennial author, has a very similar experience to Ms. Lomelin:

My most important financial goal is to become debt free. My student loan debt is around $34,000, and I have paid it down from $42,000 in about six months.

My key financial goal is to become debt free by age 33, which is April of 2021. After that, I will save up to buy a home by myself and hope to have the home paid off in under five years.

Caitlin Fisher, Millennial author

Second, the post-millennial generation had zero interest in either creating a retirement account or investing in the market outside of retirement, but the generation as a whole prioritized investing in real estate more than any other generation.

But, How Much Does Consumer Confidence Vary By Generation?

Specific personal finance goals differ according to generation, but was there a difference amongst the age groups when it came to how confident each was in hitting their desired financial targets?

When it came to generational confidence, the trends were certainly harder to dissect, but one thing is clear: age allows a consumer to develop a more realistic sense of their financial ambitions.

As the generations moved from post-millennial to the silent generation and baby boomers, the percentage of consumers who didn’t believe they would hit their financial goal consistently increased.

For Many, a Financial Emergency Could Derail Their Goals

For the vast majority of survey takers – 93% exactly – there was a belief that they would one day achieve their respective financial goals, whether that took less than a year or more than 20 years. This is positive news that consumer confidence is so strong.

However, the results of the survey also made clear that many Americans are skating on thin ice when it comes to hitting their personal finance priorities.

The plurality of poll participants, 33%, indicated that a major bill from an emergency like an injury would destroy their savings and thus, their financial goals. Another 14% of respondents cited some form of debt that could quickly get out of hand.

Once again, Ms. Lomelin was able to attest to data found from this survey:

I believe that even losing my car and having to get a new car would make that (paying off student loan debt) impossible. And, definitely getting sick and having the burden of a medical expense would make it a lost cause.

Ashley Lomelin, Generation Xer and communications professional

That being said, there was still the 28% of survey takers that felt “relatively secure” and did not believe their financial goals could be derailed by anything.

Having financial goals is important, but security in your personal finance situation is more important. If a consumer can have both than that is ideal, but it is crucial not to become so ambitious in achieving something that it leaves one vulnerable.

Frederick W. Penney, a baby boomer and Managing Attorney at Penney & Associates, identified this theme as well:

An important thing one must do to achieve financial goals is to spend very conservatively, particularly when you are first starting out in business, or starting in your desired profession. Once my company started doing well, I paid off my “middle income tract home” and started investing the extra money in other businesses in order to diversify.

Do not try to get rich quick! It rarely works. Everyone hears about those who made it big fast, but nobody reads about the millions who did not. Not everyone makes it big, much less on their first attempt at anything! Growing gradually is OK, increasing your portfolio and driving financial success slowly is OK.

Frederick W. Penney, Baby boomer and Managing Attorney at Penney & Associates

Financial Goals > Love

This particular survey was wrapped up with one last, light-hearted question. Amongst the 37% of respondents that stated they were not in a relationship, we asked if finding the love of their life was more important than hitting their respective financial goals.

Clearly, our single consumers are more zeroed in one achieving their financial targets (72%), as opposed to finding their romantic partners (23%).

One can find both the positive and negative in the results of this question. On the glass-half-full side, it is good that Americans are quite serious when it comes to realizing their personal finance goals. But, on the glass half empty side, sometimes one’s finances can’t buy happiness, or in this case love, and it is always important to understand what is truly important in life.

Tips on Managing Your Finances

There are times when managing your finances is not only stressful, but can seem downright fruitless.

LendEDU offers a few tips below that could help you get ahold of your finances.

Compare Your Options

Many of us will need to use a financial product over the course of our lives. One of the best ways to ensure you are getting the best product from a financial institution is by doing your due diligence and comparing your options.

Luckily for you, LendEDU has already done the legwork when it comes to comparing different financial institutions and lenders. Whether you need a private student loan, mortgage, home equity loan, or personal loan, LendEDU has published helpful reviews of the various lenders that offer those products.

Create a Budget

One of the best ways to manage your finances is with the tried-and-true method of creating and sticking to a budget. Budgeting can help you manage, save, and perhaps even grow your money by adding structure to your financial situation.

In 2020, there are a number of personal finance software options out there that should be able to help you achieve your budgeting goals.

Control Your Student Loan Debt

As the cost of college continues to increase, many young adults are saddled with student loan debt that can get in the way of achieving other financial goals.

Implementing strategies to pay off your student loans fast can go a long way toward securing your financial freedom. One strategy to potentially help with student loan repayment is refinancing your student loans to hopefully secure a lower student loan interest rate.

Methodology

All of the data in this report derives from an online survey commissioned by LendEDU and conducted online by polling company Pollfish.

In total, 1,000 adult Americans aged 18 and up were surveyed for this particular poll. Respondents were screened using Pollfish’s age filtering feature to ensure we surveyed appropriately aged consumers.

To do the generational breakdowns that were in this report, LendEDU sorted each respondent by their birth year and broke down the survey results by using the generational parameters as set by the Pew Research Center report mentioned earlier in the report. Members of the silent generation were lumped in with the baby boomers as their representation in this survey was not significant enough separately.

The survey was conducted over a two-day span, starting on May 10th, 2019 and ending on May 11th, 2019. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities.

See more of LendEDU’s Research