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Prosperity Creeps Back, but Financial Security Lags

Luis Alvarez | E+ | Getty Images

The good news: Americans are feeling more optimistic about their finances. The bad news: that doesn't necessarily mean they're better at handling their finances.

According to the 2012 National Financial Capability Study, out earlier this week from the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, Americans' financial habits have improved from the last time FINRA conducted its study in 2009. Still, they show a lack of financial literacy and a greater tendency to use products with high fees, including payday loans and check cashing centers.

The survey of more than 25,000 adults shows that the slowly recovering economy has had at least some positive impact on Americans' financial outlook. Nearly a quarter said they were satisfied with the condition of their current personal finances, vs. 16 percent who said the same in 2009. And more reported an easier time covering monthly expenses — 40 percent compared with 36 percent in 2009.

Yet even the areas that saw improvement need more work, says Gerri Walsh, president of the foundation.

"We still need to see better financial behavior," she says. "Too many Americans are unable to withstand a financial shock."

The number of people with emergency funds increased from 35 percent in 2009 to 40 percent in 2012, but there are more people who don't have one than those who do.

And without "rainy day" savings, people often turn to credit cards or payday loans to cover expenses, which is concerning not only for the debt they're taking on but for the high fees consumers can find themselves paying, Walsh says.

Millennials and minorities in particular demonstrate poor financial habits: They're more likely to use check cashing services, carry a balance on their credit card and pay late, and engage in alternative borrowing methods such as pawn shops or tax refund advances.

The survey shows that Americans also appear to think they have more financial savvy than they actually do. Nearly three quarters of respondents gave themselves a high score when asked to evaluate their own financial knowledge.

But on a set of five questions testing financial literacy, just 14 percent of respondents answered all five correctly.

Still, Walsh doesn't want to downplay the fact that people are feeling better about their financial situations. The question that remains is how much their mindset parallels their financial behavior.

"It's important that people have hope because then they can make positive changes," she says. "What we don't know is whether this question reflects hope in the (economic) recovery or a sense of, 'OK, now I can spend more again.'"

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