To date, I have blogged about three of the four demographic segments identified in a recent CFP Board consumer survey: Confident Savers, Tentative Savers and Concerned Strivers.  What has primarily differentiated these three groups are the financial choices made by each segment on matters of saving and spending.

The key word here is CHOICE.

But what about those Americans who believe they have no choice as to what to save and what to spend?  Very little, if any, of their spending is discretionary. Each month they struggle to pay what is currently owed, or pay back money they have borrowed for past spending. Saving in such circumstances is a luxury they feel they cannot afford.

Meet the “Stretched Worriers,” the fourth, final, and most financially fearfulStretched Worrier segment of the CFP Board’s survey.  Beyond their inability to save, they stand apart from the other groups in a number of ways: they are predominantly female, and significantly more likely to be unemployed, never married, or divorced.  Approximately 60 percent of Stretched Worrier households make $50,000 or less annually – for the other groups, the majority are comfortably above $50,000 in income. Only one in four of Stretched Worriers have a retirement plan at work: compare this to two in three in the other groups.

Clearly this singular demographic is aptly named:  they’re worried and stuck between rocks and hard places when it comes to their financial choices.  From my point of view as a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, it just is not sufficient or helpful to offer the usual “spend-less-save-more” prescriptions to cure their financial ills. 

This is not to say that there are no solutions for this group. Rather it is to emphasize that the solutions are much more difficult to implement than the advice that might work for Tentative Savers or Concerned Strivers.   But for those in the worried and stretched demographic who are willing to evolve from “Worriers” into “Warriors” – in other words, to do the hard work of rebuilding their financial lives, there is hope for escaping the vicious cycle of never getting ahead.

Here is their battle plan:

  1. Work to acquire higher job skills, which in turn involves training and education. If it is now impossible to save anything at your current income level, the only feasible way out is increasing your income.
  2. Become familiar with all available community resources that may provide this job training, or workplace reentry skills.  If you have a community college near by, or adult education programs offered through the public school system, take advantage of their proximity and low cost.
  3. If debt is a major problem, seek out the help of non-profit credit counseling agencies. You can find such agencies at NFCC.org; one of their member agencies in your area can help you budget, whittle down debt, and plan for the future at a very reasonable cost.  You may be attracted by radio or billboard offers for debt settlement, but be warned that these are legally risky strategies that can do more harm than good.
  4. Take care of your health. It costs nothing to exercise, apart from the price of good shoes, and it does not necessarily cost more to eat well.  Preventative care is generally fully covered by insurance.  Make sure you have that insurance, as it now costs money to be uninsured.  Be mindful that unexpected medical costs are a major cause of insolvency.
  5. Stay connected with others. It’s tempting to isolate when you are worried about money, but make friendships and community a priority.  The benefits are many: social connections can improve your health, introduce you to job opportunities and community resources, and build for you a network of individuals who can help when there is need – i.e., child care, home repairs, transportation. All these connections – which economists call “social capital” – are a form of wealth that is important when financial capital is lacking.
  6. For women in particular, get informed about how Social Security benefits work and what you are entitled to.  For those unable to save much in workplace or individual retirement plans, Social Security retirement benefits will provide the lion share of your income in your later years.  Get familiar with the rules pertaining to spousal benefits for divorced and widowed individuals, to the “penalties” for taking benefits too early, and to the reduction in benefits that is attributable to taking your retirement benefit early while you are still working.  The Social Security administration has an excellent consumer website and publications to help you understand what and when you can collect.
  7. Take advantage of cost-free ways to learn more about personal financial management.  Every fall, select cities around the country hold a Financial Planning Day open to the public where you can meet with CFP® professionals for a free, one-on-one consultation. Learn more at FinancialPlanningDays.org .

Last but not least, starting planning for the future. It is impossible to move forward when you are always feeling behind.  Set goals and determine what is necessary to meet them.  And stay positive about what can be accomplished over time.