"The economic scenario has played out over the past several years, and more than half of affluent people believe it is what life will be like going forward," says John Thiel, head of U.S. Wealth Management and Private Banking and Investment Group for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. "People are adapting -- just as we as a country have done throughout our history."
In the new reality, even affluent families -- which Merrill Lynch defined as having $250,000 or more in investable assets -- realize that they cannot buy now and pay later. Instead, they are doing a better job at sticking to a budget, living more within their means and setting tangible goals, Thiel says.
Wealthy Americans have a greater sense of security, and many of them are feeling cautiously optimistic about their financial situation in 2013, the survey says. Among the reasons:
* 45 percent can take advantage of investment opportunities
* 32 percent will have less debt or have lowered their debt
* 26 percent expect career advancement
After years of worrying about the market's volatility, affluent Americans are more willing to accept investment risk. This year, only 30 percent of them consider themselves conservative investors, down from 50 percent in 2010, according to the Merrill Lynch survey.
Affluent Americans are more comfortable about investing in the stock market because wealth suggests investment experience, says a report by Hearts & Wallets, a retirement and savings research firm. And this year, investors with more than $100,000 in assets say that their anxiety has dropped dramatically and they are more likely to be risk-takers, H&W says.
In comparison, middle-class families continue to be more risk-averse because they live closer to the financial edge, says the Consumer Federation of America. Only 21 percent of middle-class Americans are willing to invest their retirement savings in stocks, bonds and/or mutual funds, vs. 48 percent of higher-income people, according to a recent study by CFA and Primerica.
Not just low-income Americans are worried about health care cost. This year, 77 percent of affluent Americans are highly concerned about rising health care costs -- and 44 percent consider it the No. 1 threat to reaching their financial goals.
But while they are surrounded by problems that they cannot solve, they are trying to control what they can. "There are real things that could make someone feel better, such as refinancing your mortgage," Thiel says. "If your savings are beginning to grow again, that is where the optimism begins to come."