More than 70% of Americans say their financial decisions only sometimes or rarely support their personal priorities, and this financial dissatisfaction is expected to increase as long as consumers’ concerns about the economy, potential recession and levels of personal debt remain fueled by economic uncertainty, according to a Thrivent survey.

The survey, conducted in June, asked 2,500 adults about their personal values, financial decisions, and financial management tactics.

“For this survey, ‘values’ means, ‘What’s important to you in your life? What’s at the top of your list?’” said Sara Juran, director of advice and client experience for the Minneapolis-headquartered financial services company. “We found that since the pandemic, many people have a lot of financial challenges, and often times when you’re under stress, under those different pressures, you have that misalignment between what you have to do with your money and what you’d like to do with your money.”

The survey found that Americans cite their top three values as family (76%), health and well-being (57%) and financial stability (39%), and while 65% of those surveyed said these priorities were important to them when making financial decisions, only 29% said their decisions usually or often hit the mark.

What this means for financial advisors, Juran continued, is it opens up an opportunity to take financial planning one step further and ensure their clients better align their values with their decisions.

When asked what they needed to do to close that gap, most respondents said that dramatically increasing their income was what was necessary. In fact, 42% of those surveyed said they’d need a 21% to 60% bump in income to live true to their values, and 22% said they’d need a 61% to 100% raise.

“That’s a pretty high percentage of Americans,” Juran said. “We saw that regardless of income, and it’s not going to get easier for consumers.”

But that not only could be considered unrealistic, it also skips over the other half of the cash-flow equation: spending.

“There’s a real lack of clear spending strategies, and poor understanding of how much they’re spending,” she said. “With most clients, we can prioritize their dollars so they’re paying for the fixed expenses and then making decisions about the rest that reflect what’s important to them. So maybe instead of going to Starbucks, they’d really rather put that money into something more valuable to them.”

In addition, there seems to be a disconnect between values and behavior. For example, 76% of participants said family was a top priority, yet 53% said they would have a job working longer hours in order to make more money versus 47% who said they would prefer to make less but have more time for their priorities.

“Extra income is always great, but that’s not the only solution,” Juran said. “You’re going to take that job, but at the cost of what? Will you be working so many hours you won’t see the family that’s so important to you? Will you be travelling all the time?”

Of course, if one’s career is top priority, then taking that higher-profile job might be just the ticket.

“Advisors can help clients figure this out, and the first thing is understanding what they value,” she said. “I had a client once who was a single woman, no children, and the thing she valued most and spent money on was her pet.”

There was dog day care, grooming and other expenses that made it clear what she valued, Juran said.

“She didn’t say this was a top priority, but because of the way she talked about her pet I made a note that it was important to her and we’d have to make adjustments elsewhere in her spending,” she said.

In order to get better alignment, she said, consumers will have to shift some of their behaviors and it’s up to the advisor to ask the deep, qualitative questions about values and goals that will help the advisor ultimately give better advice.

While Juran said that she doesn’t love the word “budget,” the concept is a key one: everyone should have buckets of money, know where it’s going and stay true to that commitment.

“When you’re under stress, trying to make a big financial decision, it’s easy to forget what you’re grounded in,” she said. “ But if it’s written down, the advisor can always say, ‘Remember when you said this was important to you? How does this decision impact that?’”

If given a choice, the survey respondents demonstrated some of the difficult decisions they’re making:

  • 53% would take a job working harder and longer hours, while 47% would make less but have more time to do what they love
  • 56% would save for their children’s college, while 44% would save for their own retirement
  • 73% said they’d invest bonus money for the future, while 27% would splurge on a vacation
  • 75% said they’d save for their own retirement, while 25% would fund their parents’ extended care

And should they receive an unexpected windfall, 42% of respondents said they would pay off their debt above all else, followed by 22% saying they’d invest for the future, 6% saying they’d make home improvements, 5% opting for travel and experiences, and 3% giving to charity.