Seeing Truth in US Financial Storytelling

Trends / Realness
MoMo Productions
Reya Sehgal
Dec 5, 2022
Financial storytelling often evokes aspiration: what dreams do people have for their financial futures? What worlds can they build thanks to their savings or investments? How can those hard‑earned bucks contribute to hard‑won goals? These motivating factors continue to live alongside real‑life struggles in a faltering economy rife with income inequality, new concerns over inflation, and the wariness over engaging with financial systems that have upheld systemic stratification. Importantly, our VisualGPS consumer research shows that 7 in 10 people prefer to support brands that reflect their real lifestyles, not just their aspirations. So how can financial institutions meet the moment, and show people as they really are?

As finance and financial services companies have adapted to new expectations regarding diversity and inclusion in their communications, they have increased representations of women, BIPOC people, and people living their daily lives, overall highlighting a wider range of consumers. However, they can do more to represent the complicated financial realities that people face, whether by generation, or by lived experiences.
Generational outlooks
Whether because of needs related to life stages or the social and political environments in which people grew up, different generations have different outlooks on wealth, financial security, and institutional trust.

While Baby Boomers, especially white Baby Boomers, gained unprecedented wealth through great financial booms and policies that made home ownership a middle‑class reality, they are aging into late adulthood at a time of great upheaval; diminishing social safety nets, changing family structures, and technological advancements often mean that romantic images of retirement may no longer ring true, particularly as more and more retirees are returning to work. 68% of people who retired over the course of the pandemic are now considering returning to work—but seniors are infrequently included in workplace visuals, and less likely than younger generations to be depicted proficiently using technology.1

Many Gen Xers, especially those who have aged into normative upwardly mobile lifestyles, are in the thrust of family‑rearing and/or asset accumulation. While 3 out of 4 Gen Xers have higher household incomes than their parents did, this generation also holds more debt than any other generation.In visuals, however, the realities of living with debt—including budgeting, saving for kids' educations, or managing everyday household expenditures—are rarely shown.

Younger Americans, Millennials and Gen Z, are far more skeptical of traditional institutions, having come of age in a post‑2008 financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street world, and are living with staggering levels of student debt. Despite countless stories of their involvement in precarious gig economy and creative jobs, and the low likelihood of them owning a home, they continue to be pictured primarily in white collar office spaces and upper‑middle class single‑family homes.3 Where are the apartments shared with roommates, the co‑working spaces and service sector jobs, and visions of student life?

With a visual landscape that emphasizes homogeneity rather than diverse realities, the nuances key to generations, across intersectional lines of difference, have yet to be explored in financial storytelling.
The age of anxiety
More than 3 in 4 Americans are anxious about their financial situation, and concerns related to inflation are impacting Americans on a daily basis.4  Our Visual GPS consumer research shows that 1 in 3 Americans say that managing their finances is a struggle, and even more report that money stresses are negatively impacting their mental health.5 This kind of anxiety not only shapes people’s outlooks—more than 2 in 3 believe that in the future the cost of living will exceed their means—but also what saving and spending looks like.

Half of Americans are in debt, and this factor can impact their goals and spending, turning major milestones into smaller or less tenable events, as more focus is put on smaller luxuries—a phenomenon known as the "lipstick index."6 Our VisualGPS consumer survey data shows that Americans are more likely to use even windfalls of money for basic expenses rather than large‑scale or luxury purchases. Accordingly, single‑family homes and extravagant vacations may no longer be so central to people’s thinking about what their money is for, and finance visuals can do a better job showing a wider range of life scenarios.

Inequality remains a major and growing concern in the US, and financial realities are often different depending on intersections of identity. For example, LGBTQ+ people are likely to face discrimination in financial settings, whether due to name changes, non‑normative family structures, or challenges with employment status. The racial wealth gap continues to widen, and VisualGPS consumer survey data shows that BIPOC people are 27% more likely than white people to have to work just to pay for their most basic expenses. Though visuals are becoming more inclusive of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, they continue to be depicted in stereotypical ways, and are less likely to be seen as people with power and agency living their daily lives. Even cisgender women, who make up a large swath of finance visuals, are likely to be shown as spenders and bad financial planners, rather than savvy savers, investors, or capital allocators. And despite the range of jobs and income streams reported on tax documents, white‑collar workers are seen in nearly 10x as many finance visuals as blue‑collar or service workers.7

While finance inspires a range of feelings, from excitement to social pressure, it can certainly cause confusion. Given that under a quarter of Millennials, our largest generation, are considered “financially literate,” there is clear opportunity for financial institutions to take on more responsibility in educating consumers about existing and emerging assets classes, savings mechanisms, and how to navigate the increasingly approachable world of investing.8 Selecting visuals that demystify ways of saving, spending, sharing, and building wealth can help empower their customers to make choices that, yes, contribute to aspirations, but also help them manage their daily lives and needs.
[1] 68% of recently retired workers would consider returning to work (CNBC)
[2] How Generation X Could Change the American Dream (Pew); Meet the typical Gen Xer (Business Insider)
[3] Decoding millennials in the gig economy (Deloitte)
[4] Big‑Picture Thinking Leads to the Right Money Mindset (Capital One)
[5] 42% of Americans say money has a negative impact on their mental health (CNBC)
[6] People are spending lots of money on makeup and beauty, and retailers are cashing in (CNBC)
[7] Freelance, side hustles, and gigs: Many more Americans have become independent workers (McKinsey); The Professional and Technical Workforce: By the Numbers (Department for Professional Employees)
[8] Only 24% of millennials are financially literate (Business Insider)
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