Despite good economy, many still struggle with finances and health care

It’s not supposed to be this way.

Almost 10 years into the economic expansion, many Americans still face significant personal financial pressures. Though there have been signs of progress, benefits from the economic rebound have been uneven and not widely shared.

Some observations:

Wellness gains visibility

Americans are having trouble saving money on their own, so more people are looking to their employer for assistance — and employers seem up for the challenge.

MetLife earlier this year asked whether employers have a responsibility for the financial well-being of their workers. Some 50 percent of workers said yes, as did 59 percent of employers.

Workers also expressed interest in comprehensive financial-wellness plans that include not just things like 401(k) matching funds but more workshops and planning sessions on topics including paying down debt, budgeting, saving and more.

“It’s about giving people the skills and tools to tackle the things they’re thinking about every day,” said Pat Moran of the Scottsdale-based American Financial Literacy Institute, which conducts wellness workshops in the workplace.

Many people always have been interested in such topics, but now employers are recognizing their importance — partly as a means to boost productivity, he said.

A separate Fidelity Investments study found that financial worries rank among the top causes of stress among workers, with saving for the future and paying off debt among the primary challenges. Employee debt issues are linked to lower productivity, including higher rates of absenteeism, and even health problems, the study found.

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Fidelity’s own workplace-wellness program includes helping employees develop a personal action plan that covers topics such as benefits, debt management, investing, insurance and estate planning. The process helps workers assess where they stand, identify challenges and set priorities and goals.

Meredith Ryan-Reid, a MetLife senior vice president, recommends several wellness-focused tips for workplace open enrollment. These include taking the time to read all information provided by employers, looking for group discounts on auto and home insurance, and considering disability insurance to protect income and accident insurance for perils not covered by standard health plans.

Uneven pace of recovery

Lower-income households have seen fewer positives from the strong economy despite nearly full employment. Many are just treading water, or worse.

Of people earning under $30,000 a year, 78 percent of respondents in a September Bankrate.com survey said their financial situation hasn’t improved over the past two years, and a sizable slice said it has worsened.

To no great surprise, financial stress eases for people higher up the income ladder. Among those earning $75,000 or more, for example, 54 percent said they are feeling better about their finances.

“The broader U.S. economy has continued to improve compared to two years ago just before Donald Trump was elected president,” Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com, said in a statement. “However, the average American tells us they’re not feeling the improvement in their own wallet.”

Americans ages 65 and older reported the lowest rate of financial improvement of any generation, while Millennials ages 28 to 37 reported the most improvement. Also, men more than women said they’re doing better now than before.

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Results from the survey of more than 1,000 adults provide a wake-up call, given that the economy overall is strong, with consistent job gains and still-mild inflation and interest rates. The current environment certainly provides more opportunities to advance than a recession would. 

“Individuals should strive to save more money and pay down, or pay off, debt while they still can,” Hamrick said.

Health care top benefit

Many employers are expanding their range of benefits — including things like legal assistance and pet insurance, but health coverage still ranks at the top. Respondents in a new survey said they considered health care the most critical issue facing the nation — and a key component affecting their own financial wellness.

In a survey of more than1,500 workers by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 26 percent of workers ranked health care as the most important issue, ahead of immigration, the role of the federal government, jobs and other topics.

Almost three in four respondents cited health insurance among the three most important benefits factoring into their own decisions to stick with a job or look for a new one.

The survey also revealed that employees generally are concerned about and dissatisfied with their health insurance, especially noncovered expenses.

Nearly one-quarter of respondents said health-cost hikes led them to cut contributions to 401(k)-style plans, and nearly one-third reported having trouble paying for necessities such as food, housing and utilities.

On the plus side, health-cost costs have encouraged some workers to try to take better care of themselves, choose generic drugs more often and visit the doctor only for serious conditions and symptoms, the survey found.

Part of the problem is that health-care expenses continue to escalate. Costs have been rising for most Americans, regardless of how they receive coverage, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report.

That includes workers with employer-provided health insurance. Roughly half the people in this group have seen premiums and other out-of-pocket costs increase faster than wages over the past decade, which Moody’s said partly reflects the trend toward high-deductible plans.

Reviewing investing basics

Given that so many people aren’t good at saving money — and many don’t have any investments — it’s perhaps wise to periodically review fundamental strategies.

Christina Kilroy, vice president of the Investment Company Institute Education Foundation, did this in a recent blog. Some of the suggestions are quite rudimentary, such as simply making an effort to enroll in a 401(k) plan — and making sure you contribute enough to trigger employer matching funds.

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If you lack access to a retirement plan at work, don’t use that as an excuse not to save and invest. Anyone with job-related income may open up an individual retirement account. Anyone with any money can invest in various tax-managed mutual funds and exchange-traded funds.

These vehicles don’t offer tax deductions but still can be good choices considering that any long-term capital gains would be taxed less severely than the ordinary-income rates that apply on IRAs and 401(k) withdrawals.

As another suggestion, Kilroy urges workers to beware of leakage in their retirement accounts when changing jobs or otherwise leaving a place of employment. If you cash out of a 401(k) account, ordinary taxes and a 10-percent penalty (if under age 59½) could whittle down your balance.

It’s better to roll over or transfer the money to another retirement account, especially a new IRA, to minimize or avoid the tax bite.

Reach Wiles at russ.wiles@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8616.

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