We’ve heard a lot lately about the shrinking middle class. Despite an economy with the highest level of corporate profits in years and record employment levels, many people are struggling financially. Economic gains have mostly gone to those already well-off. Many of the newly created jobs boosting employment numbers are in low-paying service and retail positions. Wages overall have largely remained stagnant.
Associated with these trends is the rising level of credit card debt held by consumers. According to Nerdwallet.com, the total amount of credit card debt held by Americans this year is $420.22 billion dollars, a 5% increase over 2017’s total. The average household amount is $6,929. And the cost of servicing that debt is expensive: interest payments on revolving credit card debt will average $1,141 per household this year. That’s money that could be going into retirement savings instead. No wonder that that roughly one third of Americans have saved $0 for retirement.
So it’s not surprising that this year’s annual Financial Stress Survey showed that 69% of employees are experiencing moderate to extreme stress over their financial situation, a 3% increase over 2017. And many of these hard-working Americans have nonprime credit scores, defined as less than 700.
In the US alone, over 160 million people are included in this category. While ‘middle class’ has historically referred to people who work in blue collar or labor jobs, today the term includes white-collar workers such as nurses, teachers, allied health care providers, and government employees. Almost half (45%) of these employees are considered non-prime.
Credit scores have become a potential barrier in achieving and maintaining financial stability for many Americans, especially for those with lower incomes. Originally used to determine creditworthiness for a mortgage or loan, credit scores are increasingly being used to determine not only pricing premiums for credit, insurance, and utilities, but to predict character and future behavior in screening potential tenants and employees. A low credit score now has the potential to deny an individual access to housing, employment, or insurance.
In fact, people with a nonprime credit score are 6 times more likely to have been denied a job, 9 times more likely to be denied credit, and 12 times more likely to have been denied an apartment in the prior 12-month period, according to a study conducted by Elevate.
Many of these employees watch their finances closely, have a budget, and are working to rebuild their credit. It’s often a combination of factors such as medical bills, car repairs, and other financial emergencies that have tipped them into nonprime territory. In other words, they are not in their financial situation because of poor spending habits, ignorance, or carelessness. Compared to those with prime credit scores, nonprime Americans are 52% more likely to deny themselves basic comforts to save money. The problem is often lack of credit, such as a ‘thin’ credit file and lack of opportunity to demonstrate creditworthiness. And of course, the higher interest rates and fees nonprime consumers pay don’t help. It’s a challenging, chicken-and-egg type of problem.
How can people escape from the downward spiral of nonprime credit? Recognizing that not all nonprime credit scores are the same is one place to start. Better regulation of payday lenders and unsecured credit cards is also needed, along with better access to credit products that help consumers build and improve their credit scores. Free credit monitoring is helpful, as is technology coupled with human guidance, which can provide the digital experience that most consumers find attractive.
That’s where a comprehensive financial wellness program can help plan advisors, sponsors, and participants. A holistic solution should address areas such as emergency savings, debt reduction, risk reduction, and how to improve credit scores as well as saving for retirement. An effective program needs to offer more than education because education alone fails to change financial behavior. Scalable digital engagement is a plus to provide the online and mobile experience participants have learned to expect from all of their other financial services.
What’s the benefit for advisors? Besides the satisfaction of helping people while retaining existing business, including financial wellness as part of a plan offers strong growth opportunities. Transparency fueled by digital programs gives advisors opportunities to bring in more assets and build loyalty as participants improve their financial situation. Remember that Gen X and Y are poised to inherit some part of the roughly $30 trillion estimated wealth currently held by Boomers, so developing relationships now can pay off later.