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How Financial Experiences During the Pandemic Shape Future Outlook

Many working adults now say that their financial situation is worse today than it was a year ago, according to a recent AARP survey.

The survey asked working adults how their finances (including debt, emergency savings, and retirement savings) have changed over the past year and how they expect their finances will change over the next 12 months as well as their financial goals.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers, especially those in sectors that provide in-person services, lost jobs or faced reduced hours starting in early 2020. Unemployment rates rose sharply and some workers eventually stopped looking for work after many months of fruitless job searching.

Older workers, Hispanic workers, Black workers, and women were especially hard hit. Although many workers were fortunate enough to have jobs that enabled them to work from home, many who lost jobs endured — or are still enduring — especially long periods of unemployment that will likely have long-lasting effects on their financial security.

Key Findings

The pandemic has had a far greater financial impact on some than on others. Although 43% of respondents said that their overall financial situation today is the same as it was before the pandemic, 30% described their situation today as worse, and 27% described it as better. Hispanic respondents, lower-income respondents, and women were more likely than their counterparts to feel they are worse off today than a year ago.

  • Respondents cited job loss and furloughs as the key reasons they felt that their financial situation has worsened. Among respondents who said their financial situation is worse, half (50%) cite job loss as a “major" reason.
  • Among those who described their overall financial situation as worse today, the vast majority said their ability to save for retirement (73%) and emergencies (72%) is worse, and more than half (52%) said their ability to manage debt is worse. 

Adults surveyed said that top barriers to saving for the future are the pressures of dealing with current finances, such as debt payments and everyday expenses. 

  • Lack of money (55%) and debt payments (44%) are the top barriers to saving more for retirement. 
  • Nearly one in four (23%) prematurely dipped into their retirement savings or stopped contributing altogether during the COVID-19 pandemic, jeopardizing their retirement security. 

Debt (50%), expenses (44%), and retirement savings (44%) are the financial issues that working adults most commonly expect to tackle over the next 12 months. Of those who expect to work on their finances over the next 12 months, three in four (75%) expect to reach out for financial information or help, including 28% who expect to contact financial professionals and 26% who expect to talk to friends and family.

A majority (52%) of respondents said they believe their financial situation will be better a year from now, while 35% expect it to remain the same, and just a small share (13%) expect it to worsen. Black and Hispanic workers, younger workers, and those with lower incomes are especially likely to expect their overall situation to improve. Among respondents who expect their situation to improve next year, expectations of increased income from work (38%), a new job (35%), and reduced debt (31%) are the most common “major reasons."

Attitudes about retirement reveal a significant gap between retirement aspirations and expected reality. Roughly eight in 10 workers say that financial security in retirement (83%) and not being a burden to others (76%) are very important to them. However, fewer than four in 10 think they are very likely to actually achieve these common retirement goals.

Roughly nine in 10 working adults express support for the creation of workplace programs to help workers build their emergency cushions, similar to workplace retirement savings programs that help workers save for retirement.

Methodology

These findings are based on a survey of adults ages 25+ conducted January 13–February 8, 2021 to assess their financial experiences during the first 12 months of the pandemic (from roughly February 2020 to February 2021).

The sample included 5,430 adults who are working, looking for work, or who have worked or looked for work in the past 12 months, including oversamples of Hispanic workers and Black workers.

Data for the general sample were collected using NORC’s AmeriSpeak® Panel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. household population. In order to complete the oversamples, respondents from the Lucid nonprobability online opt-in panel were invited to reach 1,911 completes overall for African American/Black respondents and 1,991 completes overall for respondents of Hispanic origin. 

For more information, contact S. Kathi Brown at skbrown@aarp.org. For media inquiries, contact media@aarp.org.

 

Suggested citation:

Brown, S. Kathi. How Financial Experiences During the Pandemic Shape Future Outlook, Washington, DC: AARP Research, April 2021. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00450.001.