Valerie Elm isn't stressed about her finances anymore. In fact, the former executive benefits expert says she has no financial stress at all.
"Last year and back in 2010 it was mild. And when I say 'mild,' I mean we weren't saving as much as we'd like," says Elm, who has studied financial planning and is now the owner of Jack's Piggy Bank, a bridal shop in Wellington, Florida. "All mortgages and bills were always paid."
Elm says her family had a setback in 2010 when her husband was moved from captain to first officer for Atlanta-based United Parcel Service, which meant a 40 percent pay cut. He recently was told he soon will move back into the captain's seat, his wife says.
The salary reduction wasn't a huge hit to the Elm budget, thanks to Elm's financial savvy and income from her shop. Knowing what to do in a crisis also helped, Elm says.
"Like anything, lack of knowledge makes problems seem frightening and overwhelming," Elm says. "Knowledge helps give you a plan and sense of control."
Elm's experience is similar to those of an increasing number of workers who say that financial stress is not an issue for them. Some 16 percent of employees said in a May research report by financial education firm Financial Finesse that finances caused them no stress. The responses are down five percentage points from 21 percent the same time last year and 14 percentage points from 30 percent in 2010.
While 16 percent certainly is not an overwhelming figure, the financial-stress needle is tilting from sheer panic to heightened concern, says Liz Davidson, CEO and founder of Financial Finesse in El Segundo, California.
"We are having a very slow recovery, and as time goes by and we move further and further from the recession, people are recovering," Davidson says. "They are just feeling a little more stable."
Similar evidence is trickling in from employee assistance program providers. Kathleen Greer, president of human resource consulting group KGA Inc. in Framingham, Massachusetts, says the company's call center is receiving fewer financial questions from workers with employee assistance programs. Last year 9.3 percent of KGA calls were about financial issues, and this year it's down slightly to 8 percent, she says.
Debt management is the No. 1 reason employees call, Greer says, followed by financial planning.
"There are still a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck, but [financial calls] have slightly declined," Greer says. "Some things have settled down."
While stress levels appear to be easing with a slowly improving economy, experts agree financial stress isn't going away. Though the Financial Finesse's 2012 Financial Stress Research Report found that 16 percent of employees are worry-free financially, 84 percent of employees still deal with some level of financial stress.
Stability is good, but complacency in resolving financial issues is not, Davidson says. Certain money management responses from the Financial Finesse survey indicate that workers may not be as well off as they think. More than two-thirds, or 68 percent, of employees who report no financial stress also say they are unprepared for retirement and do not have a will or a trust. Half with no stress say they don't have enough life insurance.
"There is a backslide in money management issues, and given the numbers we are seeing, a large percentage of employees should have more financial stress," Davidson says. "Stress can motivate people to keep making improvements to their finances."
According to a recent Bank of America survey, employees are motivated to do something about their finances. Employers have an opportunity that will not only help employees but strengthen their workforces, says Kevin Crain, head of institutional retirement and benefit services for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
"Decisions by employees on what they need to do financially have not become easier," Crain says. "Employees have to think about retirement plans, health care expenses and college. Employers need to recognize that employees need help."
BofA's 2012 Workplace Benefits Report showed that 82 percent of the 1,000 employees surveyed said they would give up more than 5 percent of their salary to get a guaranteed retirement income. The June report showed 53 percent of respondents would contribute more to their 401(k) plans if they were given additional education, advice and guidance. Forty-three percent said they would feel more loyal to a company if they had access to solid financial education.
"These are no longer adjunct issues; they are front and center of employees' minds," Crain says. "I'm definitely seeing far more emphasis [from employers] around financial wellness and security."
Stratus Technologies, a Maynard, Massachusetts, computer monitoring company, uses KGA for its employee assistance program and offers a free consultation with a financial planner each year, says Donna Martin-Ellis, senior benefits specialist for Stratus.
The company's human resources surveys show that about half of the employees are looking for help with their finances. In providing financial health and other wellness programs, Martin-Ellis says the company has seen improvements in productivity and doesn't have a problem with absenteeism.
"We have always believed that any kind of stress can affect the work environment, and we do all we can to help our employees," Martin-Ellis says.
Patty Kujawa is a writer based in Milwaukee. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.