American workers are more hopeful about 2012's economic outlook, with more than twice as many workers in the fourth quarter indicating they're optimistic about the future than there were in the previous quarter, according to a new edition of the Principal Financial Well-Being Index, released Thursday.

An estimated 27% of workers surveyed indicated an optimistic outlook for the future, up from just 12% in the third quarter of 2011. Overall pessimism is also dwindling among American workers, with only 17% indicating they are pessimistic in their outlook for the year, down from 28% in the third quarter of last year. But while workers are more bullish this year about an improving economy, they're still a tad cautious about making any large dollar expenditures, according to the survey.

The index, which surveys American workers at growing businesses with 10 to 1,000 workers, is released quarterly by the Principal Financial Group, the global investment management firm, and is conducted online by Harris Interactive. Between January 30 and February 6, Harris surveyed 1,109 U.S. employees.

An estimated 43% of workers surveyed indicated some level of confidence in their ability to achieve their financial dreams, a 10% rise from the previous quarter.
But while more workers see the economy and their financial future improving, an estimated 51% of those surveyed rate their personal financial situation as "about the same" as it was this time last year. Many are still holding back on major expenditures, with 41% reporting that they are delaying any long-term financial commitments-such as buying a home or car-because of economic uncertainty.

"Things are starting to look a little brighter for a growing number of Americans, but the economy still creates some hesitation, causing many to hold off making any long-term financial commitments," said Luke Vandermillen, vice president of retirement and investor services for The Principal. "While we share workers' optimism, it's also refreshing to see they're approaching their financial future with some caution."

Male workers are more confident than females that they are adequately preparing for retirement, the survey found. An estimated 43% of male workers believe they are saving enough money to live comfortably in retirement while only 26% of female workers said they were.

The gender disparity carries over to workers' confidence in their financial future: 49% of male workers report some level of confidence in their ability to achieve their dreams. Only 36% of female workers shared that confidence.

Americans who use financial professionals are more likely to have taken retirement planning steps than those who don't. Only 12% of workers who use a professional have not yet begun to plan for retirement saving. Meanwhile, 32% of workers without professional help have not planned.

"Many Americans find preparing for retirement challenging, even in the best of times, and often don't save. But it's clear that those who seek help from a financial professional feel they are in a better position to secure their financial future," Vandermillen said. "It's important to regularly evaluate where you are with your retirement planning and determine what you could be doing better."

Additional findings from the survey:

Workers plan to be responsible with income tax refunds:

Workers' top plans for income tax refunds include saving or investing the refund (44%), paying down or paying off short-term debts (37%) or paying down/paying off longer-term debts (25%).
Those who use a financial professional (53%) are more likely to say they will save or invest their refund than those who do not (41%).

Americans are more engaged in the 2012 presidential election:

An estimated 37% of Americans plan to be more involved in this election than in past elections given the current state of the economy.
An estimated 41% of males plan to be more involved in this upcoming presidential election compared with 32% of females.

To see the full report and past results got to

The Principal Financial Group had $335 billion in assets under management as of Dec. 31, 2011.

--Jim McConville