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Personal finances can be tricky territory. Even when we feel like we have a good grip on our money know-how, we might find at least some aspect of it daunting. According to a new NerdWallet study, while more than 2 in 5 Americans (41%) say they feel good about their personal finance knowledge, nearly 4 in 5 Americans (79%) say they find at least one financial topic intimidating.

The recent report, made up of two surveys with more than 2,000 U.S. adults in each, was conducted online by The Harris Poll. We asked Americans what money topics they might find daunting; where they learned money management skills; whom they trust for financial advice; and where their financial stress, if any, comes from.

Key findings

  • Most Americans find money topics intimidating. According to the study, 79% of Americans find at least one financial topic intimidating. Topping this list are cryptocurrency (32%), investing (30%) and creating/sticking to a budget (29%).

  • Many learned money management from parents/relatives; fewer discussed money growing up. The study found that half of Americans (50%) learned to manage their personal finances from their parents/relatives. But just 30% of Americans say their family talked about money when they were growing up.

  • Financial stress is nearly ubiquitous. Most Americans (84%) feel financial stress. The study found that the top two factors contributing to feelings of financial stress are the cost of food (50%) and housing (40%).

“There are so many negative emotions surrounding money — fear, guilt, shame. Part of what can bring up those feelings is a lack of money knowledge,” says Sara Rathner, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet. “When you know you need to handle your finances but you don’t know how to begin, there’s an uncomfortable disconnect there.”

Money is intimidating, particularly for Gen Zers

While we all have to use and manage money, many Americans likely didn’t receive a formal financial education. So it makes sense that a strong majority (79%) find at least some aspect of money daunting. Cryptocurrency (32%) and investing (30%) are among the most intimidating financial topics, according to our study.

Generation Z (ages 18-27) is more likely than older generations to find financial topics intimidating — 92%, vs. 82% of millennials (ages 28-43), 75% of Generation X (ages 44-59) and 73% of baby boomers (ages 60-78). As the youngest adult generation, this tracks. Some of the topics they find most intimidating are creating or sticking to a budget (45%), using a credit card without going into debt (37%) and filing income taxes (36%). Also, 22% of Gen Zers are intimidated about navigating student loan options.

Americans most likely to have learned money management from parents/relatives

Money can still be a taboo topic, and oftentimes children aren’t exposed to it much. According to our study, just 30% of Americans say their family talked about money when they were growing up. Still, half of Americans (50%) report learning to manage their personal finances from their parents/relatives. Just 18% say they learned how to manage their personal finances in school.

Around 1 in 8 Americans (13%) say they learned to manage their personal finances from social media. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — there’s great financial content on social media — but it’s important to vet your sources, as there can also be a lot of money misinformation out there. Be skeptical and fact-check assertions made by financial influencers to make sure they’re reputable.

While just 20% of Americans learned to manage their personal finances from a financial professional, financial advisors are the group Americans are most likely to trust for financial advice (41%), followed by their parents or other relatives (35%).

Just a small percentage of Americans (8%) say they trust social media influencers for financial advice, which may reflect that healthy skepticism we advise when scrolling. Again, there is good financial advice on social media, but not in all money-related content.

Most are stressed about finances

The majority of Americans (84%) experience financial stress, according to our study. Topping the list of financial stressors are the cost of food (50%), the cost of housing (40%) and lack of savings (36%).

Financial stressors can vary by generation. For instance, while 21% of Americans are stressed about being able to retire when they want to, 34% of Gen Xers — who are within a decade or two of traditional retirement age — feel this way. Likewise, while just 12% of Americans are stressed about paying for student loans, 26% of Gen Zers feel this financial stressor.

What you can do

Money can be stressful, and managing it may feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Here are some financial steps recommended for nearly everyone if they have the means to take them.

Save for a rainy day. According to the report, 7% of Americans think saving money is pointless. But even if you don’t plan on making a large purchase, like a house or car, or trekking around the world on your dream vacation, saving money can bring you much-needed peace of mind. Things happen — you might have an unexpected repair or illness, or maybe you need to travel out of state to help an ailing loved one. Putting aside money for life’s inevitable curveballs can help you avoid accruing high-interest debt or feeling the need to forgo important health procedures.

The typical guideline is reserving three to six months’ worth of expenses, but less is better than nothing. You can start smaller and aim to save $500 or $1,000, followed by a celebration when you hit your goal. You don’t have to attain financial perfection to set yourself up for success.

“If you have some money saved, those surprise costs won’t throw you off of your financial path as much,” Rathner says. “You’re more likely to be able to handle an emergency without having to take on credit card debt. That can save you a lot of money, not to mention spare you from stress.”

Pay off high-interest debt. The study found that 13% of Americans hide their debt balances from loved ones, and 7% of Americans ignore their debt balances altogether. Not all debt is created equal, and sometimes it makes sense to slow down debt payoff to invest or save more. But for high-interest debt — like credit card balances — the minimum payments can keep you in debt for decades, racking up thousands of dollars in interest.

Following a plan to pay off high-interest debt faster can help you save money and time, and can also contribute to a good credit score. The best way to pay down debts — whether in order of their interest rates or balance sizes — is the method you’ll stick to. If you can, pay more than the minimum toward your debts.

“Whatever debt repayment method you use, the important thing is getting started in the first place,” Rathner says. “Reviewing your spending is also a helpful first step, since there may be some easy budget cuts you can make that will free up more cash to put toward debt payments.”

Invest for the future. According to the study, nearly 3 in 5 Americans (57%) say investing in the stock market is too risky. And 16% are too scared to invest their money. The stock market feels intimidating for many, but it’s arguably riskier to forgo investing due to the loss of compounding returns.

Let’s say you start with a $1,000 investment, then invest $500 a month for 40 years. At a 7% return — the average annual stock market return, adjusted for inflation — you would retire with more than $1.3 million. If you instead put that money under your mattress, you’d retire with $241,000. Depositing the money in a savings account would put you somewhere in the middle, but even if rates stayed as high as they are now for decades — highly unlikely — you’re looking at a return of around 4% and retirement funds of less than half of what you’d have if you had invested.

“When it comes to investing, being unfamiliar with it breeds a sense of fear,” Rathner says. “This is especially true if you were raised by people who distrusted the stock market or, on the other hand, lost money in risky investments. But there are lots of ways to invest and remain true to your appetite for risk, or lack thereof.”

Spend on what matters to you. The study found that 28% of Americans are anxious about their finances, even though they have enough to live comfortably and save for the future. For many, money is tight, but for others, financial scarcity can be self-imposed, and spending guilt and worries can be uncorrelated with the amount of money they have. To combat this, make sure that in addition to paying for necessities and saving for the future, you’re also spending money on the things you value if you can afford them. Money may not buy happiness, but it can contribute to your happiness when used for the things that mean a lot to you.

“Many money fears are valid and can keep you from making a costly mistake, but other fears are based on emotions, bad advice or a misunderstanding of a financial concept,” Rathner says. “It’s worth looking into the origins of your fears, and seeking out trustworthy sources of information. That way, you can make decisions going forward that make you feel comfortable and more financially secure.”

Study methodology

This study is made up of two surveys conducted online within the U.S. by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet. The first survey was fielded from Jan. 18-22, 2024, among 2,085 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. The second was fielded from Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2024, among 2,092 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 2.5 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodologies, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, contact [email protected].

NerdWallet disclaims, expressly and impliedly, all warranties of any kind, including those of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose or whether the article’s information is accurate, reliable or free of errors. Use or reliance on this information is at your own risk, and its completeness and accuracy are not guaranteed. The contents in this article should not be relied upon or associated with the future performance of NerdWallet or any of its affiliates or subsidiaries. Statements that are not historical facts are forward-looking statements that involve risks and uncertainties as indicated by words such as “believes,” “expects,” “estimates,” “may,” “will,” “should” or “anticipates” or similar expressions. These forward-looking statements may materially differ from NerdWallet’s presentation of information to analysts and its actual operational and financial results.

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