They have six-figure incomes, may own their own business, and have enough to occasionally splurge on luxury status goods like Fendi bags and Lexus sedans.
But unlike what many neighbors and co-workers shy of their income bracket might think, the 15 to 30 percent or so of Americans who hold between $100,000 and $250,000 in investable assets -- a demographic known as the "mass affluent" by the financial services industry -- are far from feeling wealthy. Many don't even feel financially secure.
That finding comes from recent surveys conducted by two of America's biggest financial institutions, Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and Wells Fargo & Co. (NYSE:WFC).
In the Bank of America survey, commissioned by brokerage unit Merrill Lynch and released in November, only 14 percent of the 1,004 respondents described themselves as "wealthy." Seventy-seven percent reported being in worse off or unchanged financial shape when compared with a year ago. Forty-three percent of respondents added that their investment strategies were more conservative than a year ago due to market volatility. (Merrill Lynch skirted around the edges of what is usually considered "mass affluent," including people whose investable assets were as little as $50,000.)
Not surprisingly, the combination of worsening finances and more conservative investing led 47 percent of respondents to say they now expect to retire later than planned even a year ago. Only the youngest of respondents, those aged between 18 and 34, maintained a highly positive view of their retirement prospects.
Retirement was the main focus of the Wells Fargo report, released Wednesday, which was headlined "Retirement Fears Jump the Wealth Gap to Strike Many Affluent Americans," and was decidedly more gloomy than the Merrill Lynch survey.
Among other things, the report found 19 percent of people in the "mass affluent" category felt they would need to work until "at least age 80" to be able to retire comfortably. In an earlier survey conducted among middle class respondents, that figure had been 25 percent. Forty-eight percent of the mass affluent also noted their day-to-day expenses were competing with their retirement savings, and something would have to give. A similar finding in the Merrill Lynch survey found a more moderate number, 27 percent, felt they were raiding "their long-term savings to meet short-term needs."
Wells Fargo and Bank of America, through its Merrill Lynch brokerage unit, are widely considered the most aggressive U.S. financial institutions in courting the business of what are colloquially known as "mass" clients. They seem to have their work cut out for them: the Merrill Lynch report found that, as the U.S. equity markets have become more volatile, more and more clients are seeking the guidance of financial advisers. Sixty-three percent of respondents reported seeking advice from a professional investment expert, up from 53 percent when the survey was last conducted in January.
"One of the things we talk about is all mass are not the same," Karen Wimbish, director of retail retirement for Wells Fargo & Co. told the International Business Times. Expanding on the importance of catering financial solutions to clients as they go through different life stages, she said "the challenge is to engage them while they're young."
Wimbish explained how the bank's Client Solutions Team is dedicated to making sure clients are not at a loss as to their investment opportunities. "Basically if you have an account with this group, you get advice," she said.
Bank of America, for its part, has recently gone on a hiring spree. Even as the bank has announced plans to lay off 30,000 employees over the next few years, it recently finished hiring 1,000 new financial advisers for its Merrill Edge program. It has also recently announced plans to hire 160 more advisers in the Southwestern United States.