Published in: Research | Oct. 11, 2019
How Much Time Does the Average American Spend on Personal Finance?
By: The Ascent Staff
What's important to you? And how do you spend your time? You might think the answers to these questions would be closely related, but that's not necessarily the case -- and this disconnect could prove troublesome.
We delved into the numbers to see what's important to people and how they spend their time. We found that many people want to be financially prepared for the future -- but few people put in the work to make it happen. Even among those who say they're relatively disciplined financial planners.
Summary of key findings
- 48% of Americans want to be financially prepared for the future, but 97% aren't making time to do so.
- Only 3% of Americans spend time on household financial management on an average day.
- On average, Americans spend less than two minutes a day managing their household finances.
- In 2018, those that spent time on their finances spent an average of six hours and 35 minutes more per month than they did in 2016.
- The average American spends over 85 hours a month watching TV -- almost 100 times as much time as they spend on their household finances.
- When it comes to finances, people's good intentions aren't matched by their actions.
What's important to you?
To begin with, let's look at the question, "What's important to you?" Many people prioritize family, while others may think about work-life balance or spiritual fulfillment.
Northwestern Mutual's 2019 Planning & Progress Study asked respondents to pick five attributes that fit their definition of success. The two top answers were "Spending quality time with family" and "Being healthy (eating well, regular exercise, etc.)."
Of respondents, 48% chose "Being financially prepared for the future," making it the fourth-most popular answer. And in the same study, 92% of Americans age 18 and over agreed with the statement "Nothing makes me happier or more confident in life than feeling like my finances are in order," up from 87% the year before.
But here's where it gets complicated. While people may want to get their finances in order, their actions don't quite match their desires. In the same study, 48% of people also say that they're unclear on how much they can afford to spend now vs. how much they should be saving for later.
And there's a significant disconnect between the number of people who describe themselves as disciplined or highly disciplined when it comes to financial planning and the number of people who have a decent emergency fund to see them through in case things go wrong.
Approximately 59% of the people surveyed describe themselves as being disciplined or highly disciplined when it comes to financial planning, which is still an improvement on the 51% in 2015. But that planning isn't necessarily reflected in their savings. Only 21% of Americans are confident they can last more than three paychecks -- which is widely considered to be a solid emergency fund -- before having to borrow money or skip paying a bill.
How do you spend your days?
Nowhere is the disconnect between people's actions and their desire for financial security more apparent than the latest American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The 42.5% of the population that works spends an average of seven hours and 37 minutes working each day, which fits with the 45% of people who want to have a good work-life balance and the 26% of people who say they want to enjoy their career.
The 22% of people who engage in sports and physical recreation spend an average of 90 minutes doing so every day. Not bad, considering that 53% of Americans say they want to be healthy.
But even if you add the average time spent on household financial management and use of professional financial and banking services, it comes to just two minutes and 24 seconds a day -- one hour and 12 minutes a month. Which isn't a lot when you consider that 48% of people say they want to be financially prepared for the future. Or that people spend 85 hours and 12 minutes every month watching TV.
As you can see, the time spent on managing personal finances lags behind many other daily activities. According to the American Time Use Survey, people spend about 95 times as much time watching TV (two hours 50 minutes) as they do managing their household finances (less than two minutes).
If we look at these same activities by the percentage of people who engage in them every day, the numbers change significantly. While only 1.8% of Americans use professional financial services and banking each day, they spend about half an hour doing so (28 minutes and 12 seconds). The 2.9% of people who carry out financial management for the household spend an average of 51 minutes and 36 seconds on it. In both cases, women tend to be more active than men.
When it comes to finances, people were almost 30 times more likely to spend time watching TV than managing their finances. And they're about 50 times more likely to spend time watching TV than using financial or banking services.
Almost a fifth of the population engages in sporting activity, compared with 2.9% who spend time carrying out financial household management.
Looking back at how people have used their time over the past couple of years, the percentage of people who take time to manage their finances has gone down very slightly. The average amount of time people spend has stayed steady at 1 minute 48 seconds for financial management and just 36 seconds using professional and banking services.
However, those that do spend time on their finances are spending more time doing so -- up to a total of one hour and 20 minutes per day in 2018 on financial household management and financial/banking services combined. In 2016, that figure was 13 minutes lower. That's an extra six hours and 35 minutes every month.
Wrap-up: Make your money work harder
People who took part in Northwestern Mutual's 2019 Planning & Progress Study valued things like spending time with their families, being healthy, having good relationships and being financially prepared for the future.
However, when it comes down to it, there's often something more pressing than stopping to look after our finances. Whether it's working, doing chores like laundry, or relaxing in front of the TV, it can be difficult to make time for money management.
But this research shows that the average American spends almost 10 times more time working to make money than they do to manage it. Perhaps if we all spent a bit more time on our personal finances, we could make our money work harder. In the long run, that might mean more financial security -- and even allow us to work less and spend more time with loved ones.
The data in this article comes from two main sources: Northwestern Mutual's Planning & Progress Study and the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey. Both are annual reports and data from previous years was used where available.
2,003 people were surveyed for Northwestern Mutual's 2019 Planning & Progress Study in an online survey that was carried out between Feb. 20 and March 5, 2019.
Interviews for the American Time Use Survey are conducted continuously throughout the year. In 2018, approximately 9,600 individuals were interviewed.