Americans across age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds experienced sharp declines in satisfaction with their personal finances in the second half of 2013, according to CEB’s bi-annual Consumer Financial Monitor research.

The survey of 1,000 American consumers found that the gradual economic recovery has not impacted most consumers’ perceptions of their financial situations.

The survey also noted a significant rise in levels of proactive financial management – highlighting a potential risk for financial institutions – as unhappy consumers look to make changes to their providers regardless of customer experience.

The drop in satisfaction across most age and economic groups also correlated to a uniform drop in confidence among consumers’ feelings about their financial providers, and a sharp decline in their satisfaction with financial products.

The survey found that pessimism about personal income levels was the single biggest driver of the overall decline in consumers’ feelings about their finances.

The findings showed a 12 percentage point decline in consumers’ feelings about their incomes. The drop in overall consumer sentiment was particularly steep among mass-market consumers, falling 8 percentage points from the previous survey, while younger Americans’ sentiment continued to fall, down 9 percentage points from the same time last year.

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By GlobalData

The Consumer Financial Monitor also found a uniform rise among different consumer groups in levels of proactive financial management, suggesting consumers are motivated to make changes to their approaches. These activities include working with a financial advisor, keeping a formal budget and setting long-term goals.

Peter Aykens, managing director, CEB, said: "Seeing such a large portion of American consumers unhappy with their finances and actively seeking change is a bad combination for mainstream financial services providers. Surprisingly, customer service issues and negative headlines impact consumers much less than their perception of their own personal financial situations. Without a substantial improvement in the overall economic picture for the average American, financial institutions should continue to expect an uphill battle in keeping their customers and growing their profits."

In this challenging environment for much of its customer base, additional CEB analysis suggests bank executives’ best bets are likely to be small ones. Employing staff capable of empathizing with customers and offering them basic, practical advice is likely to lead to better retention outcomes than new product launches or marketing initiatives.

Progressive financial institutions are already formalizing guidelines for their staff to initiate customer conversations in an attempt to help relieve financial stressors.

The Consumer Financial Monitor survey draws from the results of 17,500 consumers across 24 key global markets with results available in the first and third quarters of the year.

The US survey measures and compares sentiment by three key age demographics: 18-29, 30-46 and 47-65 and divides by wealth along the mass affluent (more than US$100,000 in investable assets) and mass market consumer (less than US$100,000).