America’s Top Financial Frights – Emergencies and Retirement

A new survey reveals that emergencies and retirement are among the financial things that scare Americans most.
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Americans take a certain pleasure in horror at Halloween, going to great lengths to turn themselves into zombies, vampires, and other ghoulish creatures. Yet there is a realm in which they don’t seek horror at this time of year: their finances. There, the fear too often is real.

A new MoneyRates survey finds that roughly eight of 10 Americans have struggled with past financial scares, such as emergencies that left them short on cash. Additionally, nearly nine of 10 carry financial fears about the future, with the frightful challenge of saving enough for retirement ranking as their No. 1 fear.

Nightmare on your street

Classic horror movies were often set in strange, gothic locations: the vampire’s castle, the mad scientist’s laboratory, and so on. More modern movies tended to go in the opposite direction, having horror crop up in more mundane locations. After all, it is scarier when you are shown terror striking an ordinary American street that could be your neighborhood.

Apparently, terror does lurk in everyday towns and villages, in the form of financial fears. The MoneyRates survey found that most Americans are haunted by both past financial scares and fears for the future. Here are some of the gory details:

  1. Most people can point to a specific financial scare they have experienced. Nearly 79 percent of those surveyed could identify a specific incident as their biggest financial scare to date. So, if you can recall a chilling financial scare, you are not alone.
  2. The unexpected really frightens people. In horror movies, the things that seem to come out of nowhere really make people jump. It’s the same way with finances. The most common financial scare people cited having experienced is not having enough money for an emergency. The thing is, if you have seen enough horror movies, you learn to expect the unexpected. You should do the same with your finances by keeping enough in your savings account to weather unexpected financial crises.
  3. Borrowing money is scary. While watching a creepy movie, how often have you wondered why the victims went into that scary house or dark graveyard in the first place? It seems these characters often put themselves in a position to be terrorized, and the same often happens with people’s finances. Between large credit card balances and bills they could not afford to pay, 31 percent of those surveyed say they have been scared by some form of debt. If you are not careful, owing money can be like checking into the Bates Motel.
  4. One in 10 people frighten themselves. More than 10 percent of respondents have had a financial scare resulting from a forgotten or misplaced bill. If your own carelessness scares you, look into automated bill paying.
  5. Investments have not been that scary lately. Perhaps surprisingly, less than 7 percent of respondents said they had been frightened by a failing investment. Then again, stocks are more than five years into a bull market — long enough to lull people into a false sense of security.
  6. Bounced checks are three times more likely to haunt men than women. It’s not a chronic problem for either sex, but about three times as many men said bouncing a check has been their biggest financial scare.
  7. What people fear most is the future. Turning from past scares to present fears, what people worry about the most are not immediate concerns like paying debts or handling an emergency but future needs like retirement, children’s education, and leaving an inheritance. Forty-nine percent cited those distant future issues as their biggest financial fear, compared with 38 percent who were more troubled by immediate concerns. Overall, 87 percent of respondents said they have at least one financial worry for the future.
  8. People are more afraid for themselves than the next generation. While the future is what people worry about the most, it is typically their own future rather than the next generation’s. Nearly 36 percent are worried about being able to retire comfortably, compared with 13 percent who are concerned about funding college or leaving an inheritance.
  9. Men are more likely than women to have experienced a financial scare. In both cases, the vast majority of respondents could point to a specific financial scare, but the percentage was even higher for men than for women.
  10. Emergencies seem to rattle women more than men. Women are more likely to say that not having enough money for an emergency had been their biggest financial scare in the past, and to identify it as their biggest financial fear currently.

Confronting financial fears

So, what scares you most about your finances? Is it the memory of a past experience or a fear of the unknown that keeps you awake at night?

If you want to put your financial fears to bed, here’s a tip: Don’t shy away from them. Shine a light on those dark places by staying on top of your financial obligations, and confront the demons by doing something about them. Handling money will always be a little scary, but careful planning can tone it down to a mild suspense story — rather than a terrifying slasher flick.


This survey was conducted for MoneyRates by Op4G in June 2014. It surveyed 2,000 U.S. adults age 25 or older.

Richard Barrington, a Senior Financial Analyst at MoneyRates, brings over three decades of financial services expertise to the table. His insightful analyses and commentary have made him a sought-after voice in media, with appearances on Fox Business News, NPR, and quotes in major publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. His proficiency is further solidified by the prestigious Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, highlighting Richard’s depth of knowledge and commitment to financial excellence.
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