saving money, pay off debtAmericans today continue to be disciplined with their spending habits. Saving money continues to be one of consumers’ top financial goals, but many have taken on more risk than they would prefer in order to play catch-up and pay off debt, according to a recent study from Northwestern Mutual.

The 2013 Planning and Progress Study, which examines the current state of financial planning, found that almost a quarter of U.S. adults aged 25 or older said they would like to be more cautious with their money but have a lot of catching up to do. Additionally, 22 percent said they’ve tapped into their retirement or savings in the last three years.

The survey also found that the most popular approach to saving money and investing, reported by 34 percent of adults, was “slow and steady wins the race.”

“It’s good to see that, on balance, people are not looking for shortcuts or slipping back into bad habits—especially now that we’re seeing tangible signs of a slowly recovering economy,” Greg Oberland, executive vice president of Northwestern Mutual, said in a statement. “Still, too many people are trying to play catch-up, which can lead to risky decision-making.”

More than half of the Americans trying to recover their finances said they fell behind due to unexpected expenses, while 47 percent said they were playing catch-up because of debts like mortgages, student loans, car loans, or credit cards. Ineffective long-term planning and anxiety about job security and employment also contributed to delays in saving.

People with assets below $25,000, as well as parents with children under the age of 18 and those in the Generation X cohort (aged 33 to 46) were the most likely to report that they had a lot of catching up to do, according to the study.

“Our hope is that, over time, [the number of people playing catch-up] will decline as a result of not just an improving economic landscape, but also the widespread adoption of a more practical planning approach toward achieving financial goals,” Oberland said.

Even though a number of Americans have been forced to take on more financial risk than desired, there has still been a strong emphasis on saving money. When asked how saving and spending habits have changed over the last three years, for example, 30 percent of adults said they saved more money—the most commonly cited response.

“There has been some recovery since 2009,” Mark McLennon, vice president of advisory services at Northwestern Mutual, said in a phone interview. “It’s a combination of seeing the bad but understanding that there is some good now, and it might be the time to start acting on it.”

The youngest generations surveyed—Generation Y (aged 25 to 32) and Generation X—were the most likely to say that they would save more money in the next 12 months.

“Generation X and Generation Y are seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel,” McLennon said. “They have the ability to save, and they are going to start doing it.”

The fact that Generations X and Y are planning to increase their savings over the next 12 months could be a sign that they are not relying on the market to bring financial relief, according to McLennon.

“Generation X and Generation Y still have time before retirement to meet their objectives if they are starting now,” he said.

Conversely, Boomers (aged 47 to 66) and those in the survey’s “Mature” category (over 67) are more likely to save the same amount or less in the next 12 months. As individuals in these older cohorts are nearing retirement, they may be unlikely to report that they have more catching up to do, McLennon said.

Joslin Woods is a researcher, writer, and Web producer at Think Glink Publishing, with a background in print and digital media. Previously, Joslin worked as a news reporter for the international news agency Agence France-Presse and as a freelance reporter for the Sun-Times News Group. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University, where she received a master’s degree in journalism.

 

Joslin Woods is a researcher, writer, and Web producer at Think Glink Publishing, with a background in print and digital media. Previously, Joslin worked as a news reporter for the international news agency Agence France-Presse and as a freelance reporter for the Sun-Times News Group. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University, where she received a master’s degree in journalism.