Study Shows Financial “Health” of Americans on the Rise

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New scale measures “coping” capabilities; InCharge will regularly measure financial stress levels of individuals, populations with new COPE(TM) Scale.

A new scale has been developed to quantify, for the first time, stress levels relating to personal finances. The “COPETM Scale” was developed by InCharge® Education Foundation, a national nonprofit organization specializing in personal finance education and research.

Researchers at InCharge Education Foundation, the education and research arm of InCharge® Institute of America, Inc., have determined that Americans’ stress level over their financial issues has been improving since the summer of August 2004, when the scale was first used. The average COPE Scale score in March 2006 was 6.7 on a scale of 1 to 10 – with “1” representing the greatest level of stress and worry relating to personal finances, and a “10” representing the least concern or stress over financial matters. Looking back to August 2004, the average national COPE score was only 5.7.

The questions that comprise the COPE Scale address real-life subjects like worrying about one’s ability to meet monthly expenses; the need to trim social activities because of financial pressures; the continual struggle of living paycheck to paycheck; and confidence level in finding $1,000 for an emergency.

“How Americans cope emotionally with their finances is an often-forgotten, but highly important aspect of personal financial management,” explains Rebecca Stiehl, president of InCharge Education Foundation. “It is often not the financial challenges themselves that break us, but rather our reaction to those challenges – the affect on our marriages, our careers, our health, how we deal with our children.

Each quarter, InCharge uses the COPE Scale to produce a quarterly analysis of U.S households. In analyzing the trends, which often change over time, there appears to be differences in coping abilities based on geography. In the 1st quarter of 2006, residents in the West coped the best (6.9), and those in the Northeast rated the lowest (6.5). This is despite the fact that average household income among residents in the West was lower than their Northeastern counterparts ($45,868 versus $46,550).

The COPE Scale was created to help employers assess the effect of debt distress on worker productivity. Additionally, InCharge has found the tool to be useful in assessing the impact

of, and improving upon, the education and credit counseling programs for debt-distressed clients of InCharge Debt Solutions, the credit counseling arm of InCharge. Another important application of the scale is to gauge the trend in the national level of financial wellness and stress. Each quarter data is collected from a randomly dialed sample of 1,000 adults from the general U.S. population (500 men and 500 women), aged 18 and over by the market research firm Ipsos-Insight. The COPE score for the entire country is then computed, together with associated demographics. Statistics are generated at the 95 percent confidence level.

To develop the scale, InCharge investigated more than 50 concepts for their relevance to financial stress. To increase the validity of the resulting scale, 50 personal finance college professors and 40 financial education experts in business were consulted. Eight concepts were finally chosen from a selection process that included both statistical analysis and, collectively, decades of first-hand experience from personal finance experts.

“In addition to its obvious uses with our credit counseling clients, we have been receiving inquiries from employers, community leaders, and educators about the seemingly endless possibilities for this scale’s uses,” says Stiehl. “For example, employers can use this to more effectively target employee assistance programs to improve workplace productivity; policymakers can assess their community’s financial stress, and measure it over time to determine the effectiveness of financial literacy programs. Nonprofit credit counselors can develop strong personal finance education programs targeted for their customers’ specific needs. Family therapists can help their clients identify problems and track improvement over time. This will change the way we all think about the impact of financial stress on our economy, and on our lives.”

Other findings from the general population survey:

1.    Men experience lower financial stress levels than women.

2.    The married and widowed are less stressed about money.

3.    Ability to cope with financial challenges increases with education.

4.    The retired are less financially stressed on average.

5.    Financial stress decreases with increases in income.

InCharge is also offering individuals the ability to assess their own COPE score, and comparing it to that of the general population. This tool can be found at http://www.inchargefoundation.org and click on “Financial Wellness Survey (COPE).”

InCharge will publicly release the COPE Scale results for the general population on a quarterly basis, and will also begin evaluating a number of metropolitan areas in the near future. For more information, and a copy of the full report, go to http://www.inchargefoundation.org/research/economic-analysis/special-reports/.

Headquartered in Orlando, Florida, InCharge® Institute of America, inc. is a national nonprofit organization with affiliates specializing in personal finance education and credit counseling. InCharge® Education Foundation, Inc. publishes YOUNG MONEY® magazine and Military Money® magazine and offers basic financial management education to clients and the general public. InCharge® Debt Solutions provides professional credit counseling and financial education services to consumers and is a member of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA). For additional information, visit http://www.incharge.org.

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Linda Daves

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