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Americans' top financial priority isn't investing

Personal finance reviewing bills
Mark Bowden | Getty Images

Investing in an effective and tax-efficient manner isn't the No. 1 financial goal for most Americans.

That's the findings from a new report by BMO Wealth Management. The bank polled 1,018 adults online, asking them about their financial priorities and anxieties.

When asked "What is the single financial priority that is most important to you?" 31 percent — the largest share of participants — said debt reduction was their top financial goal.

Twenty-six percent cited increasing their savings, while only 21 percent ranked "investing effectively and tax efficiently" as their primary concern.

"The 2008 market shift caused many people to understand that debt caused some of that unwinding," said Richard Kollauf, director of wealth services at BMO.

"To the extent individuals can deleverage, they will be stronger," he said.

Conversations about cash flow

The focus on saving over investing may have to do with participants' own priorities. "If the next step is saving rather than investing you're thinking short term," said Kollauf. "People equate the investment component with long-term needs."

Advisors, however, say that clients these days are generally more mindful of debt management, savings and cash flow. Strong equity markets and low interest rates have given them the breathing room to focus on debt repayment.

"The markets have played into the mindset of focusing on cash flow," said Shon Anderson, president of Anderson Financial Strategies in Dayton, Ohio.

"People who are in the accumulation phase are able to focus on things they can control, especially since they don't have to worry about their portfolio as much," he said. "With lower interest rates on liabilities, it's easier to focus on paying it down."

Indeed, nearly a quarter of the people BMO polled said their chief borrowing concern was having more debt than they can repay.

Even in retirement, there is a heightened awareness of cash flow and debt management, advisors say. Some individuals want to clear the decks of any mortgages before they stop working, because they've realized that debt repayments will eat into their income for years to come.

"They have a different appreciation of how critical debt payments will be to the quality of life in retirement," said Carrie Turcotte, senior financial advisor at RiverCrest Wealth Advisors in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

"If you start planning years out, you can make some significant commitments to pay down your debt and save for retirement, or decide that you're OK with carrying it into retirement," she said.

Emergency savings still matter

Regardless of age, surprise costs are a major worry for many Americans. Forty-four percent said they've paid unexpected out-of-pocket health-care costs for either themselves or a family member.

Don't forget that close to half of Americans don't have $400 saved to cover an emergency. In a pinch, individuals will pull cash from their 401(k) plans, be it in the form of a loan or a hardship withdrawal.

For what it's worth, respondents are taking steps toward shoring up their balance sheets. Fifty-one percent of the participants in the BMO poll said that they're setting aside some money for an emergency fund. Nearly half of those polled also said they're using a continuous or automatic savings program to do so.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of Anderson Financial Strategies.