Are You Financially Secure? CNBC Survey Reveals What Americans Think That Means

If you spend enough time on social media, you’ll find them: the financial security bros. They’ll tell you how to become more financially secure with their 14-point plans, but they never really tell you what financial security means.

This is probably, in part, because financial security can mean a lot of different things to different people, depending on their income and financial situation. But unlike trying to define “financial independence” or “wealth,” “financial security” is a term that many people have some idea about what that means to them.

Recently, CNBC conducted a survey to find out what financial security meant to its viewers, and the results might surprise you.

1. Financial security means having no outstanding debts

Of those surveyed, 59% agreed that having no outstanding debts was the most important element of financial security. The average consumer debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, was 5.78% of disposable personal income as of Q4 2023.

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Consumer debt doesn’t include mortgage payments, just things like credit cards and installment loans. When mortgages are figured in, household debt service payments as a percentage of disposable income topped 9.79%, in Q4 2023.

But that’s an average, so households with zero outstanding debt will tug the number down, while households with incredibly high debt that might include educational debt or new mortgages, will pull it upward, and both will cause some distortion.

2. Financial security means high levels of savings

The second most important element of financial security, according to CNBC, was having a high level of savings — 47% of those surveyed said this was vital. Considering that the personal savings rate as a percentage of disposable income in May 2024 was just 3.9%, it feels like this may be one of the harder items to achieve on the path to financial security.

Of course, high levels of savings are much easier to achieve if you have no debt, so the first two on the list kind of go hand in hand.

3. Financial security means owning your own home

It’s not exactly surprising that CNBC respondents put homeownership up there in the top three elements of financial security. In fact, 45% thought that owning your own home was vital to being financially secure. As a former Realtor, I can’t really disagree with this idea. Owning a home means a certain amount of your housing budget is fixed, making it easier to plan for the future.

The current homeownership rate in the United States, despite all the press about how no one can buy a house these days and how nothing is affordable, was sitting at a respectable 65.6% as of Q1 2024. The highest it’s ever been since records started being kept in 1965 was 69.2% in both Q2 2004 and Q4 2004, and the lowest was 62.9% at several points along the way.

4. Financial security means having a good-paying job

I think it’s interesting that a well-paying job in a secure field ranked fourth for CNBC survey respondents, since this is what it takes to easily ensure the top three on the list. But 38% of those surveyed also agree that earning a decent income is vital to financial security. I think a lot of Americans would agree with that, even if they weren’t being surveyed.

This one is a lot harder to achieve, it would seem, based on economic data. The median personal income in the US in 2022 was $40,480, which is about $3,373 per month. But the median home sales price as of Q1 2024 was $420,800. Even if you had put 10% down on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with a 7.188% rate, you’d be paying $2,568 per month for that house. That math just doesn’t math.

If you consider median household income, which was $74,580 per year in 2022, you’re closer to achieving that house, the savings, the payment-free life on an income of $6,215 per month — but that’s for everyone in the household who works. And more people means more expenses, and the need for things like child care. It gets complicated, and the benefits of that additional income may be wiped out.

Financial security is what you make it

Being financially secure can mean a lot of different things to different people, but I’d definitely agree that the top three on CNBC’s list are must-haves. But what do you do if you work in a field where high incomes just don’t happen (think social work, teaching, or law enforcement)?

Well, you do the best you can. There are homes cheaper than the median almost anywhere, though they are usually highly competitive to purchase. There are ways to get out from under debt, though it will take much longer. But once you do that, you’ll be able to put savings in an emergency fund that will support your lifestyle should something go awry.

So, while it may be harder to achieve some semblance of financial security without a six-figure income, it’s all relative, really. The real question is, do you feel safe financially? That’s all that really matters at the end of the day.

These surveys are interesting, but they’re only ever a starting point and never a reason to beat yourself up for not keeping up with someone whose life is utterly and entirely different from your own. Success is what you make it.

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