It's 3 a.m. and you are awake thinking about money. What exactly are you thinking about?
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Are you regretting the past, worrying about tomorrow or planning a better future? The answer may depend on whether you are a man or a woman, and especially on what choices you've made in the past.
On behalf of MoneyRates.com, survey company Op4G asked 1,500 adult Americans in July 2013 about some of their biggest money concerns of the past, present and future. The answers provide insights into the different ways people today think -- and worry -- about money.
Popular money worries, regrets and wishes
Focusing first on the present, when asked about their biggest current financial worry, the most common answers were split pretty evenly between trying to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and just trying to meet essential expenses. Each of those responses garnered about 31 percent of the total. In contrast, less than 18 percent were focused on saving for the future. It seems that while some Americans are able to live more comfortably than others, what most have in common is that they are more focused on today than on the years ahead.
It's interesting that such a relatively small percentage is focused on saving, because when the survey asked what people's biggest financial regret was, by far the most common response was not saving enough. Forty percent of respondents gave this answer, which was roughly twice as many as those citing the next most common regret, accumulating too much debt. It seems that people find it easier to look back and realize they should have saved more than to look ahead and recognize the importance of building a healthy savings account for the future.
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People are pretty practical about what they would do if a financial windfall came their way. When asked what they would do if they received $10,000, nearly 39 percent said they would use it to pay down debt, and 38 percent said they would put it into savings. In contrast, 11 percent said they would use it to buy things for themselves or a loved one, and just less than 10 percent said they would give some or all of it to charity.
Absent such a windfall, what would people like to change most about their financial behavior? The most common response, at about 40 percent, was to reduce spending and increase savings. Nineteen percent said they would like to make wiser investment decisions, and 16 percent wished they could make wiser purchasing decisions. Only 10 percent felt they needed to spend more freely and enjoy their money more.
Where men and women differ about money
When broken down between men and women, most of the response totals were fairly similar, but there were some significant differences. For example, women seem to feel they are having a little tougher time just getting by: While the most common response among men was that their immediate concern was maintaining a comfortable lifestyle, women most often said they were concerned with just meeting essential expenses.
Also, women seem more oriented toward saving then men. Men are more than twice as likely than women to regret not having spent more freely in the past, and roughly twice as likely to say they would buy things for themselves or others if given $10,000. Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to regret not having saved enough, to say they'd pay down debt if they received $10,000, and to cite reducing spending and increasing saving as the financial habits they'd most like to improve.
Concerns about money may be somewhat influenced by gender, but they seem particularly shaped by decisions people have made in the past. Among people whose biggest regret is accumulating too much debt, 47 percent say their biggest immediate concern is just meeting essential expenses, compared with 27 percent of the remaining respondents. Sixty-seven percent of those who regret accumulating debt say that a financial windfall would go to paying down debt, compared with about 32 percent of other respondents. Nearly 59 percent of people with debt regret wish they could spend less and save more, compared with 35 percent of other respondents.
The one problem people with debt regret don't have is feeling they are too cheap. Less than 3 percent of this group say they wish they could spend more freely, compared to 12 percent of other respondents.
The conclusion seems to be that people who are overly burdened with debt are scrambling to make up for the past, whereas people without that problem are more able to think about the present and the future.
So, do you lie awake thinking about money, or do you rest easily? And, when you do think about money, is it with hope for the future or regret about the past? In either case, it may be wisest to focus on the present. Controlling your money habits today is one of the surest paths to fewer regrets and a more hopeful financial outlook.