Americans’ Financial Capability Growing Stronger, but Not for All Groups: FINRA Foundation Study

While Americans as a whole are feeling less financial stress, making ends meet remains a daily struggle for millions — particularly women, millennials, African-Americans, Hispanics, and those lacking a high school education. These findings come from the National Financial Capability Study (NFCS), released last month by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation (FINRA Foundation).

The study measures four key components of financial capability: making ends meet, planning ahead, managing financial products, and financial knowledge and decision making. Drawing on a data set comprising responses from more than 27,000 U.S. adults, the NFCS is one of the largest and most comprehensive financial capability studies in the country.

Among the study’s most significant findings: 

  • More than one in five Americans (21 percent) have unpaid medical debt, and women are more likely than men to put off medical services due to cost, such as seeing a doctor, buying needed prescriptions or undergoing a medical procedure;
  • Nearly half of respondents with a high school education or less could not come up with $2,000 in 30 days in the event of an emergency (45 percent) compared to only 18 percent for respondents with a college degree;
  • Twenty-nine percent of 18 to 34-year olds with a mortgage have been late with a mortgage payment, compared with 7 percent for the 55+ age group;
  • Hispanics and African-Americans are much more likely to use high-cost forms of borrowing like pawn shops and payday loans compared to whites—39 percent for African-Americans, 34 percent for Hispanics and 21 percent for whites; and
  • Only 37 percent of respondents are considered to have high financial literacy, meaning they could answer four or more questions on a five-question financial literacy quiz—down from 39 percent in 2012 and 42 percent in 2009.

However, the percentage of respondents reporting no difficulty in covering monthly expenses and bills has increased from just over a third in 2009 (36 percent) to nearly half in 2015 (48 percent), and the percentage of respondents with emergency funds has increased from 35 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2015.

“This research underscores the critical need for innovative strategies to equip consumers with the tools and education required to effectively manage their financial lives,” said FINRA Foundation Chairman Richard Ketchum. “My hope is that policymakers, researchers and advocates will use these findings to make more informed decisions about how to best reach underserved populations.”

“The National Financial Capability Study is one of most important sources of data to understand Americans' personal finances,” said GFLEC Academic Director Annamaria Lusardi. “It has advanced our knowledge of both financial literacy and financial capability and made it possible to study policy-relevant questions.”

The NCFS is part of a large-scale, multi-year project that provides an in-depth, comprehensive understanding of financial capability and behaviors in the United States. The first study was conducted in 2009, then in 2012 and in 2015, and boasts one of the nation’s most inclusive and in-depth representations of age, race, education and gender on these topics. In addition, the data set allows for state-by state comparisons of financial literacy, making it valuable to policy makers interested in better understanding the level of financial capability in their states.

The survey’s full data set, methodology and related questionnaire are available at

State-by-state results are available for all 50 states and the District of Columbia for the 2015, 2012 and 2009 survey years. 

The FINRA Foundation supports innovative research and educational projects that give underserved Americans the knowledge, skills and tools necessary for financial success throughout life. For more information about grant programs and other FINRA Foundation initiatives, visit