Despite rising employment, a record-setting stock market and other signs of a healthier economy, Minnesotans still feel unsettled about their personal financial situation.
A new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll shows that 51 percent of Minnesotans rate their finances as fair or poor, a figure that hasn’t changed significantly in more than three years. Nearly three-quarters of Minnesotans expect their finances to stay the same or get worse over the next year.
Economists explain the numbers by pointing out that Minnesotans, like most of the country, haven’t forgotten how many jobs were lost in the downturn. The state has regained more jobs than the national average, but still has 16,000 fewer jobs now than in February 2008.
“Employment hasn’t come back nearly as fast as people hoped,” state economist Tom Stinson said.
The poll of 800 Minnesotans was taken Feb. 25-27, before signs of economic strengthening over the past week that included a new high for the Dow Jones industrial average and employment reports that showed solid growth for both the state and nation.
But Stinson said people’s views are also influenced by things such as the expiration of a payroll tax cut at the beginning of the year. Most people were shocked to notice a smaller paycheck in the new year at a time when their budgets were already scrunched after the holidays.
Scott Oeth, a certified financial adviser at Cahill Financial Advisors in Edina, said people have a lot of skepticism about the economy. Even folks who are doing well or pretty well wouldn’t be surprised by another downturn, Oeth said.
“I’m not seeing a lot of euphoria out there,” he said.
Economists think the lingering negative attitude is more fundamental this time. The recession was the deepest financial crisis seen by all but the oldest Americans, and even after the recession, much of the economic discussion has centered on the fiscal cliff and the sequester.
Troy Walters, an IHS Global Insight regional economist, pointed out that while employment in Minnesota is at 98 percent of pre-recession levels, many of the jobs pay less.
“Manufacturing jobs are being replaced with lower-paying service jobs, and they’re getting fewer hours,” Walters said.
Debra Zippel of Henderson, Minn., said that her family has been through several job losses, forcing them to economize.
She and her husband drive between 50 and 70 miles each way for their jobs now. Like many Minnesotans outstate, they find themselves struggling to stay employed.
“I’m as frugal as I can be — no Internet or cable,” she said.
Thirty-nine percent of outstate respondents to the poll rated their personal finances as excellent or good, compared with 51 percent of residents in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Impact of real estate
Walters said that while rising prices on gasoline and food haven’t helped, it’s the value of a person’s home that has the biggest impact on his or her personal balance sheet.
According to the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors, median prices in the Twin Cities metro peaked in June 2006 at $238,000 and fell 42 percent to $138,000 in February 2012.
“It will take a long time for people to feel better about their home values,” Walters said.
Still, the Twin Cities metro is faring better compared with other areas across the country, Stinson said.
“People don’t track it on a daily basis, but it will sink in when they hear that some of their neighbors are selling their homes for a lot more than they expected,” he said.
In the Twin Cities metro, median home prices have risen 15 percent to $170,000 in the last 12 months, but economists think lower unemployment is the only thing to soothe bruised financial egos.
When people are making more money, getting raises or bonuses, and those around them also have jobs, the mind-set will improve, said Toby Madden, regional economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. “It wouldn’t hurt to start seeing a few ‘help wanted’ signs either,” he said.
Stock market gains
Stinson said April 401(k) statements may also be a pleasant surprise. The stock market has done well since the beginning of the year, but most of us don’t pay much attention until we see it on our own balance sheets, he said.
Despite rising savings balances, most people getting close to retirement feel less confident. Investors aren’t comforted that it took the market five years to reach the record, said Bridget Handke, a certified financial planner at KLB Financial in Edina.
Investors remember how high their balances used to be before the recession and they feel they haven’t completely recovered. “Baby boomers have less time for a turnaround and that makes them nervous,” she said.
Mike Wesp of West St. Paul describes himself as comfortably retired, but with the current deficit, he is concerned about future cuts to programs that enable his comfort — Social Security and Medicare. “This kicking-the-can-down-the-road makes me worry we’ll end up like Greece,” he said.