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  • Writer's pictureBridget Sullivan Mermel CFP(R) CPA

Debunking Financial Myths: Savings and Debt Over Inflation and Economy

In this episode of Friends Talk Financial Planning, Bridget and John dive into a fascinating survey conducted by Northwestern Mutual, highlighting the top obstacles to financial security. From inflation and the economy to personal debt and savings, they offer insightful perspectives on how we can rethink these challenges and focus on actionable steps to achieve financial stability. Don’t miss their practical advice that can help you control your financial future!

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Bridget: Hey, John, our friends at Northwestern Mutual did a survey, and one of the things they asked was what are the biggest obstacles to financial security? The number one answer was inflation. And we'll talk about all the five top obstacles. But I think that people should think about this differently. That's what we're going to talk about today on Friends Talk Financial Planning. Hi, I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel. I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago, Illinois.

John: And I'm John Scherer. I've got a fee-only planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin. And before we dig into the obstacles to financial security, I want to remind everybody to hit that subscribe button right. When you subscribe, it helps other people find this information on YouTube. And with that, I'm really looking forward to talking about this. It was a really interesting study that Northwestern Mutual did. There were a lot of pieces to it. And I found this idea of what's keeping people from financial security, or what are the concerns about achieving financial security really interesting.

Bridget: Yeah. So I understand why people think that inflation is an obstacle. And I told John a long time ago I didn't like inflation, but now I think it's just part of life. And so now it's just a number on the spreadsheet. Inflation brings uncertainty with it. Things are changing. I don't know what they're going to cost. I don't like things costing more. I like getting things on sale. So I understand why people feel like it's an obstacle, because I also don't like it. That's inflation.

John: As I said before, this study had a lot of different things. We actually did an episode recently about the part of the study that talked about what people think they need to have saved up for retirement. We can put a link in the show notes to that. If you haven't seen that episode, check it out. But I thought maybe it'd be useful for us to pull up the top items that were of concern to folks. As we said, inflation was number one. Half the people thought inflation was going to be an obstacle for security. But look at the other ones that we have up there. Inflation and the economy were far and away the biggest concerns, then lack of savings and personal debt.

Only one in three, one in four people thought that was a concern. And as I looked at this, I sort of turned it on its head. And this is something I see, and I don't know if you see it, Bridget, but when new clients come in, or I'm just talking to the people at a cocktail party or whatever, the focus is on things that are important and that make a difference but that we can't control. What's that Venn diagram? Two circles, what's important and what we can control. And the only thing we need to focus on is that overlap of things. Inflation, is that a factor? Absolutely. What can an individual do about inflation? I mean, something, but not a ton, right?

Bridget: Pretty much zero.

John: The economy makes a difference, but what can I do about it? And oftentimes I'll have people who’ll ask, “What do you think about the economy or the presidential election or what's the market going to do?” Number one, I don't know. Number two, that doesn't really matter as much as those third and fourth things on this list here.

Bridget: Those are the things that actually matter.

John: What can I control? How much I save. That is 100% within my control. How much debt do I take on? I can control that. How much do I pay off versus take on more? And it's that feeling for me anyway of thinking, “Well, the world is against me. If it weren't for inflation, I'd be in good shape. If it weren't for the economy, things would look good.” As opposed to operating from a position of strength rather than weakness.

And you know what? What I can control is that I'm saving and maxing out my 401K contributions or at least getting the company match. And I've got enough liquidity. I'm saving money in the bank and I'm not racking up credit card debt. I can control that. And golly, that’s a much more powerful position to be in. And frankly, it's a bigger factor in financial success than what inflation is.

Bridget: And I think that what ends up happening is, like I admitted at the beginning, especially five years ago before it really kicked in, people think, “I don't like inflation.” But that's just part of my reptile brain, saying, “I don't like uncertainty. I like everything to be the same. Please stay the same. Don't change. Don't change in a way I don't like.”

John: Right.

Bridget: There're positive parts of inflation, too. A lot of people earn more, but we forget about that. We just think about what it's like at the grocery store. And I got to admit on the grocery store thing. There's inflation. True. But then there's the delivery. That's something I control. And where I buy groceries is another thing I can control. But part of me wants to focus on inflation. I recognize I have the reptile brain, but then I have the logical part. I recognize my emotions, but let's kick this up to upstairs where I'm doing some long-term thinking. And what I really control is how much I save and how much I've got in debt and to some degree, how much I make.

John: Yeah.

Bridget: If I focus on those things, that's what's really helped me be successful.

John: Yeah. And I would argue the same thing for our clients. Helping people focus on the controllables, those internal factors, what I can take action on, as opposed to the external factors. Do they make a difference? Yeah. Who would argue that inflation doesn't make a difference? But it's not actionable. I tend to be really action focused. What can we do about this, whatever this is? I'll tell you the other thing. As I was thinking about this, I was wondering about the recency bias. The study came out in early 2024, and I did not get a chance to look back.

They've been doing this survey for a few years now. I wonder what it looked like four or five years ago. And maybe that'll be some homework for me to dig into. But in the past two or three years, inflation has been above 5% for the first time in 20 years, in decades. And historically, the inflation we've seen recently is not out of the norm, but the recent decade or two certainly is. And I wonder about that. It's this fear factor. And I really appreciate you talking about the reptile versus the limbic, the logical, or whatever the other side of the brain is called.

But I've got this internal fear of saying, “Oh, this just happened now I should be afraid of inflation.” Is that part of the issue? We've had some recent upheaval in the economy. Is that part of the issue? And not that it's not “right,” right in air quotes, but it’s just the feeling of people today, because we had a couple of kicks at inflation that were really painful. Now I'm projecting forward, thinking, “Inflation was an issue the last two years, now it's going to be an issue for the next 20. I need to focus on that.” And this is all distracts from the bigger picture thing.

Bridget: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. And I did dig through the numbers that were available to the general public, and they didn't get into the particular question about what are your five biggest obstacles? and publish the yearly data. But they did ask, “What did people think last year?”

And they asked people if they thought there would be a recession in the next year? And I think it was about 67% in 2023 said yes. And now in 2024 it's 50%. So that's some improvement on the question of whether there is going to be a recession. If you're in recession, you're not going to get a recession. So that's just asking, “Are things going to get worse?”

John: Right.

Bridget: How many people are worried about things getting worse? And it sounds like half of the people are worried about things getting worse.

John: The other part about this (and we talked about in our last episode on the retirement specific side of things, on the dollar amount) is that this is not saying that these are the obstacles to financial security.

Bridget: Right.

John: And not even the obstacles that the individuals are facing, but what do they think are the biggest obstacles. It’s the difference between what I think and feel versus what the reality is. That's an ongoing battle. The reptile brain side of things tells me what I think and feel, but what are the facts? And it's really helpful for me and clients to think about, okay, I've got this feeling, let's acknowledge that, but then what are the facts about this? I'm nervous about the stock market. And yeah, it goes up and down, but you know what, three out of four times, historically speaking, it's been positive.

Oh, that helps me to think about this. And I'm concerned about inflation, but then to be able to look at some of the facts. Oh yeah, but the facts are that how much you save has a way bigger impact on financial success than what the inflation rate is. And how much debt I take on is much more meaningful than how the economy is doing for my personal financial success. So I think some of it can be that feeling versus reality side of things.

Bridget: Yeah. And I think that our brains are programmed, if we're going to use that type of metaphor, to look for the problems, to try to anticipate problems, and to say, “I had a problem with this in the past, I might have a problem with this in the future.” Meanwhile we ignore the fact that a lot of times things get better. But we spend very little time and energy thinking about that. And this is just the way it is. This is reptile brain at work.

And so, the fact that we're scanning for the problems is just the way it goes. But being able to identify the problems that we control is what we're urging people to do. With that, I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel. I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago, Illinois.

John: And I'm John Scherer. I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin. Both Bridget and I are taking on new clients. We'd love to hear from you if you're interested in talking, but we're also both members of the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners, which is a nationwide group of planners who think similarly to the way that we do. So if you'd like to find an advisor that's local to your area, you can check out

Bridget: And please subscribe.

At Sullivan Mermel, Inc., we are fee-only financial planners located in Chicago, Illinois serving clients in Chicago and throughout the nation. We meet both in-person in our Chicago office and virtually through video conferencing and secure file transfer.

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