Taking Americans’ Financial Pulse

In addressing consumers, should a marketer assume they feel (a) better off financially, (b) worse off financially or (c) about the same as they were four years ago? A CBS/New York Times poll (fielded late last week and early this week) suggests the answer is (d) any of the above. A narrow plurality of respondents, 36 percent, said their family finances are about the same as they were four years ago, while 29 percent said they’re better off and 33 percent said they’re worse off.

Another question in the survey gauged respondents’ financial condition by asking about their household income: Is it “more than enough so that you can save money or buy some extras, just enough to meet your bills and obligations, or is it not enough to meet your bills and obligations?” A majority said the income isn’t enough to cover their bills (17 percent) or just suffices to do so (44 percent), while 37 percent said they can save money or buy some extras. Of course, some of the bills respondents are paying may be to cover items that many people would regard as “extras,” so this measure might overstate the amount of genuine austerity consumers are practicing.

On the other hand, while the unemployment rate (though rising) isn’t wildly high by historical standards, it understates the amount of anxiety consumers are feeling about the labor market. For one thing, 29 percent of respondents said some adult in their household has been “out of work and actively looking for a job” at some point in the past 12 months. Looking ahead, 21 percent are very concerned that they or someone else in their household will be out of work in the next 12 months, with another 23 percent somewhat concerned.