Personal Finance

Americans upbeat about their finances, despite election stress

You may be losing sleep over the presidential election, but at least you can breathe easy over your household finances.

Those were the findings of the third-quarter Personal Financial Satisfaction Index, released today by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

The index rose to 19.0, reflecting a 1.7 point gain from the second quarter and a 3.3 point increase from a year ago. This is the highest the index has been since 2007.

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AICPA's Personal Financial Satisfaction Index is based on the difference between a pair of underlying metrics: the Personal Financial Pleasure and the Personal Financial Pain indexes.

Economic items under "pleasure" include a proprietary index of the 750 largest companies by market capitalization trading in the U.S., the AICPA's CPA Outlook Index and home equity and job openings per capita. "Pain" takes into consideration personal taxes, inflation, underemployment and loan delinquencies.

The index may reassure folks, as more than half of American adults find the presidential election to be at least somewhat stressful.

"There's been a lot of bad news, and doom and gloom," said Kelley Long, a CPA and member of the AICPA Consumer Financial Education Advocates Group.

"If this election does cause some kind of disruption," she said, "we need to pay attention to when the times are good and make the most of it to shore up our resources."

A measure of pleasure

During the third quarter, improvements in just about every underlying component of the "pleasure" index boosted Americans' positive feelings about their finances.

For instance, firms in AICPA's index of the 750 largest companies — particularly those that focus on biotech and information technology — bounced back from poor performance in the second quarter.

Accountants are feeling pretty good, too.

The CPA Outlook Index, which measures accounting executives' expectations for their firms and the U.S. economy in the year ahead, reflected an increase of 2.1 percent from the previous quarter.

Further, employment metrics are strengthening. AICPA pointed to improvements in the professional and business services sector, which added 67,000 jobs in September and 582,000 positions over the course of the year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here comes the pain

The economic factors that account for financial "pain" are flat to down, as well.

Personal taxes are up slightly, a 0.6 point increase from the previous quarter. Still, they are about 30 percent lower than their height in late 1999 through the middle of 2000, according to AICPA.

Further, fewer people are missing their mortgage payments.

Loan delinquencies were down 6.3 percent in the third quarter versus second quarter, according to AICPA.

Overall, the number of people who are unable to make their mortgage payments has been falling since 2010, according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Keep positivity going

Don't let the uncertainty of the election get in the way of good financial habits.

Tax and economic policy affect consumers' sentiments about their finances. "Part of the reason for the increase in housing equity is that interest rates remain low and it's affordable to buy a home," said Long.

Take advantage of today's upbeat financial climate and prepare for future turmoil. An upset in the stock market could shake up consumers' financial security, and so could a sharp increase in interest rates, Long said.

"People always wish that they had tightened the belt," she added. "Set yourself up for success in the future: Put some protections in place, such as building an emergency fund and paying off your debt."

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