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Why some people feel good about their bank accounts but bad about the economy

<i>Ash Ponders/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>A recent poll showed that voters in swing states found that while people think the national economy is in bad shape
Ash Ponders/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
A recent poll showed that voters in swing states found that while people think the national economy is in bad shape

By Nicole Goodkind, CNN

New York (CNN) — Nathan Frederiksen is doing pretty well for himself.

He turns 40 this year and is on track to retire by 60. It takes some sacrifice — he drives the “unsexiest car ever,” takes a DIY approach to home repairs and doesn’t eat out much — but he’s able to save 10% of his income for retirement and maintain an emergency savings fund while supporting his wife and four children in the suburbs of Boise, Idaho.

“I understand that I’ve been lucky with some of my job prospects, but I don’t make a crazy amount of money,” he told CNN. “I have a solidly middle-class income.”

Frederiksen, who manages a small team of financial analysts, thinks his bank account is in good shape. But he doesn’t feel the same way about the larger economy.

“It’s definitely gotten tough for the last couple of years,” he said. “We’ve felt inflation in our budget and our expenses, but I’ve got some peace of mind knowing that if something comes up, we’re in a pretty good place, financially.”

He’s not alone. A recent Wall Street Journal poll of American voters in swing states found that while people think the national economy is in bad shape, they feel good about their personal finances.

The vast majority of those surveyed — 68% — said it was becoming harder for the average person to get ahead, while nearly half of respondents said their own finances were moving in the right direction.

Just one-quarter of registered voters in seven key states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — said the economy has improved in the past two years, according to the Journal’s poll.

This isn’t a new dynamic. In Gallup polling from last April, just 16% rated the economy as “good” or “excellent,” but 45% said their personal finances were “good” or “excellent.”

But according to available data the economy has improved.

When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the unemployment rate was 6.3%. Today, it’s 3.8%.

In 2022, US inflation (as measured by the consumer price index) spiked to 9.1%, a level not seen in four decades. Today, it’s at a much more reasonable 3.2%.

US gross domestic product — a broad measure of the economy — grew by 2.5% in 2023, outpacing other developed economies. Financial markets closed out an excellent first three months of the year, with the S&P 500 alone hitting 22 record highs.

There’s a growing disconnect between economic sentiment and economic data in the United States that has been well-documented.

But the dichotomy between how people feel about their own finances and the economy at large presents a different conundrum.

“It all comes down to where people are getting their information,” said Ben Harris, director of the Economic Studies program at Brookings. “I can assess, without anyone else’s help, how I’m doing financially. But I need other people’s help when I want to assess a $20 trillion economy. And I have a PhD in economics.”

Harris looks toward official data sources, “but, you know, I don’t think the average American is going to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” he said.

So where do they get their information?

“I think the answer is increasingly, unfortunately, social media and biased cable news sources,” said Harris. “So if you’re going to TikTok or Facebook to get information about the macroeconomy, the chances are very good that it’s going to be wrong.”

Reality bites

Jonathon Barricklow and his family are in a good place, financially.

Barricklow, a director at an automotive company in Bowling Green, Ohio, even made a nice chunk of cash by investing in the stock market during the pandemic. But he was well aware that elevated inflation was still taking a big bite out of other people’s paychecks.

Or so he thought.

Barricklow recently volunteered to run a concession stand during a gymnastics meet. This was his second year doing it and he expected that he’d have to raise prices because of sky-high inflation rates. But only two items had gone up in price since last year.

“It was a shocking realization to us,” he said. “That the rate is really only trending at 3.5%, which is not astronomical.”

That inspired Barricklow to take a closer look at his own grocery bills.

“It’s tough to track your grocery bill when you have kids that are growing up, your costs are always going up on everything. So we’d been seeing our grocery bill creeping up,” he said. But when he did a year-over-year comparison, he found that his costs had remained nearly the same between 2022 and 2023.

“It was an eye opener. It’s not that bad. But it’s only the extreme stories that get the publicity,” he said.

It’s important to look at consumer behavior and not just sentiment when determining how Americans feel about the economy, said Harris.

Here’s how consumers are actually behaving: They’re continuing to spend money at high rates, quitting jobs because they think they can find something better and investing in the stock market. Those behaviors signal that Americans, overall, actually feel pretty good about their economy.

A low pain threshold

Americans are still reeling from the effects of a pandemic that suddenly shut down much of the US economy. Many near-retirees told CNN that the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis — and its impact on their savings — still haunts their perception of the economy.

Plus, geopolitical conflict in the Middle East and Europe, confusion over the housing market and election-year jitters worry even the most prepared savers, creating an unnerving sense of uncertainty.

The potential for a stock market crash is what keeps Dave Koloskee, a 60-year-old building and home inspector in Erie, Pennsylvania, up at night.

“If half of our retirement savings disappeared overnight for a year or two, that would really hurt,” he said. He thinks he’ll be able to retire at 65, but still has financial anxiety. He worries about stagnating income and inflation.

So why do those worries about the future feel so real in the present?

When people live with chronic pain their pain tolerance actually decreases, said Megan McCoy, a professor of financial therapy at Kansas State University. “All your nerves are highly agitated and ready to react. So you actually get worse at managing pain,” she said.

The same can be said for financial pain.

“We have been living in ambiguity for the last four or five years,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop and that kind of anticipatory anxiety makes us less capable of managing day-to-day stressors or small anxieties. We might react strongly to any economic news because we’re already primed to react.”

McCoy recently ran a survey of financial planning clients, who tend to skew older with a higher net worth. Even with a financial steward guiding them forward, 72% of those clients said they were experiencing financial anxiety.

Gone bowling

Julie Levitch, a single mom who turns 55 this week, works at a tech company in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The 2008 recession and subsequent medical bills “devastated” her finances, and for some time she was struggling to stay afloat. “I used to have disturbing dreams that I was retired and living in a box on the street,” she said.

But about a decade ago, she got serious about her finances. She watched Suze Orman, subscribed to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and began making big concessions so that she could put 20% of her salary into her 401(k) account.

She managed to purchase a home at a 2.5% interest rate. It has increased significantly in value. “Now my mortgage is less than what a one-bedroom apartment would rent for in the same area,” she said.

But she’s still worried. She sees friends in her industry discussing their layoffs and looking for work on LinkedIn and isn’t sure what the artificial intelligence boom will do to her industry.

She sees people around her who are struggling.

Levitch is part of a local bowling league in Arizona. Every Tuesday evening she joins with about 100 other people at her alley. “A lot of those people are living financially on the edge. And I think they’re struggling,” she said.

“I don’t even discuss my personal finances because I think it would make them feel uncomfortable if I told them, ‘Hey, I’m doing well,’” said Levitch.

“I think a lot of people that I know, that I’m friends with, are really struggling,” she said. “I get that there’s this conversation of ‘everything’s great,’ this elitist discussion of finance. It pisses people off when they hear that and they’re not doing well.”

But some Americans are finding themselves in the same position as Levitch — with a sudden windfall due to a boom in housing and stock prices, said Harris.

“This isn’t like prior wealth booms that happened mostly for the top 20% of households,” he said. “You’re seeing real inflation-adjusted wealth gains, across the whole income distribution, including those at the bottom. You’re seeing the wage growth is strongest for those at the bottom.”

Middle class or wealthier people may feel guilty, said Harris, “but I can say that inequality has been declining.”

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