Study: 33% of Americans have no financial plan

If you think you need to put your financial house in order but haven't taken any steps to follow through, you're not alone.

Some 58 percent of Americans believe their financial-planning efforts need improvement, but 34 percent of us have done nothing to plan for our financial futures, according to a newly released study by Northwestern Mutual.


Savings piggy bank
Daniel Grill | Getty Images

The study is based on an online survey of 5,474 American adults ages 18 and older, conducted earlier this year by Harris Poll on behalf of Northwestern Mutual. The survey results were weighted to U.S. Census Bureau targets for education, age and gender, race and ethnicity, and region and household.

According to Northwestern Mutual, the findings demonstrate that there is a deep disconnect between what Americans know they should do when it comes to their finances and what they're actually doing. For instance, two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) consider themselves "savers," but more than half of us (54 percent) have a level of debt that is equal to or exceeds our savings.

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Although many Americans are worried about having enough money during retirement, it appears that only a fraction of us are seeking help when it comes to planning for retirement.

Two in five Americans (43 percent) have not "spoken to anyone," friends and family included, about retirement planning, according to the study. What's more, 21 percent of Americans are "not at all confident" that they will be able to reach their financial goals.

To some financial advisors, the study's findings are distressing but not exactly surprising. Sean Michael Pearson, a certified financial planner and advisor at Ameriprise Financial Services, said many Americans are overwhelmed by the glut of financial information they must sift through in order to make decisions for themselves.

Setting priorities is key

"People often feel there is too much information available because of the Internet," he said. "The overabundance of information makes many people nervous that they'll get something wrong."

One way to overcome such skittishness, according to Pearson, is to first define your financial priorities—for instance, setting goals when it comes to saving and paying off debt. Then, determine what steps you need to work toward those goals.

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"Nobody walks into Home Depot and tries to find the best tool without first knowing what kind of project they're doing," he said. "People typically say, 'Here's my project, and what's the best tool to get it done?'

"That's the same premise you should use when it comes to financial planning," he explained.

Americans are busy people, said Pearson, and many of us feel we have already fallen short when it comes to saving money and taking other steps to improve our finances. As a result, some of us develop a fatalistic attitude.

Pearson added that "if people feel they are behind, that can be very deflating, and they may feel 'Why start now?'"

"My response to that question is that the best time to plant the tree was 20 years ago, but the second-best time is today."

"There is always a positive way forward," he said. "Any decisions people make, if they are following a plan, are better than decisions left unmade."

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Yet a growing number of Americans are content to simply hope for the best.

According to the Northwestern Mutual survey, the number of Americans ages 25 and older who identify themselves as "non-planners" and as having "no established financial goals" doubled to 14 percent between 2012 and 2015.

The survey found that "an unplanned financial emergency" is what Americans fear most when it comes to money matters. Yet those who believe their financial-planning efforts need improvement would be most motivated by "a cash windfall" to take action, according to the survey.

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"That is sad news for us all," said Micky Reeves, a CFP and wealth advisor at Buckingham Asset Management.

'Too many people think you need wealth first and financial planning second," he added. "This is completely backwards. Proper financial planning will lead people to wealth creation."

"If we, as advisors, are going to help clients improve on their financial security, we need to be really good educators and motivators." -Micky Reeves, wealth advisor at Buckingham Asset Management

Many Americans who already have financial plans aren't exactly confident that those plans will hold up over the long haul. According to the survey, nearly 1 in 4 Americans don't believe their financial plans can weather the inevitable ups and downs of the economy.

That finding, said Reeves, demonstrates how important it is for advisors to get buy-in from their clients when it comes to financial plans. After all, even well-crafted financial plans aren't exactly useful if clients don't stick with them, said Reeves, who coaches other advisors.

"There are many advisors who are brilliant from a technical standpoint, but they talk over their clients and thus aren't doing much to move the ball forward in terms of helping clients to make progress," he said. "If we, as advisors, are going to help clients improve on their financial security, we need to be really good educators and motivators."

—By Anna Robaton, special to CNBC.com