The State of Personal Finance: Cruel or Optimistic?

Updated: 20th Sep 2020
Written by Sarah Goldy-Brown
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What Search Trends Tell Us About the State of Personal Finance in America

A typical snapshot of the state of personal finances might just show you numbers like these from the New York Federal Reserve’s 2020Q2 report:

  • Student loan debt: $1.54 trillion
  • New mortgage debt: $846 billion
  • New bankruptcies: 135,600
  • Median credit score for auto loan origination: 707

Those numbers can tell you a lot, but for our analysis of the state of personal finance, we wanted to look beyond just household debt and median credit scores.

We wanted to find out what personal finance topics people care about.

How do we do this?

The Method: Using Exploding Topics & Google

For our analysis, we used data from Exploding Topics to see what personal finance topics are trending on Google.

Exploding Topics is a website that identifies emerging trends before they take off. It tracks search data and trend growth for keywords across 30 industries, including finance. The site analyzes Google search results to discover what topics are trending so award-winning journalist, educators, and marketers know what people want to read about. A search term needs to have a high monthly search volume and/or an increased—or exploding—growth rate to appear on Exploding Topics. It needs to be trendy.

A site like this is valuable not just to venture capitalist and entrepreneurs looking to get ahead of the curve. But also, for marketers, educators, government officials and brands to identify trends that are reshaping industry.

It also shows us what people care about and how their behaviors are changing. What’s trending in the finance category indicates what personal finance topics and strategies people want to learn more about more now than they used to.

We read through keywords in Exploding Topics’ finance category, focusing on anything related to personal finance in America. Then, we plugged those keywords into Google.

By plugging these keywords into Google, we then see the larger picture. We see the content that Google’s algorithm ranks highly for each keyword. In other words, we see the articles that Google thinks the person is searching for. This tells us even more about what that person wanted to learn.

Finally, we put what we found together, did additional research, and drew conclusions to paint a picture of what the state of personal finance looks like in America. Given the timing of the article, it also paints a picture of personal finance during the coronavirus pandemic.

Below, we’ll cover the eight trends we uncovered during our research and recap with an overview of COVID-19’s impact on personal finance in 2020.

1. People are increasingly concerned about not having enough money

This trend comes as no surprise, given the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting shutdowns.

Millions of Americans lost their jobs and many others had hours cut or had to adjust their work situation to accommodate watching or schooling their kids at home. The stock market also experienced wild ups and downs, affecting emergency funds, retirement savings, and college savings accounts.

In the past six months, global searches for the phrase “running out of money” have increased by 66% according to Exploding Topics. Going back six months places us near the start of widespread shutdowns in the United States.

A quick Google search for the same keywords reveals what people are looking for when they search.

We see:

The Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2019 echoes what the search trend showed us. Approximately 3 in 10 American adults reported not being able to pay their monthly bills or being “one modest financial setback away from failing to pay monthly bills in full.” A separate question found that 3 in 10 adults could not cover three months of expenses by any means—including selling assets or borrowing.

Those who did have savings in 2019 needed them in 2020. In fact, enough people needed regular access to their savings accounts that in April 2020, the Federal Reserve lifted the limit on savings account transfers. This gave savings account holders the ability to make unlimited transfers and withdrawals—a much-needed benefit for those without paychecks coming in.

Unfortunately, many Americans have now depleted their savings entirely. A September 2020 survey by CNBC and Acorns Invest In You found the following:

  • 14% of American adults used up their emergency savings during the pandemic
  • 11% of Americans had to borrow money to cover their expenses
  • 26% of older millennials (ages 25 to 35) reported they completely depleted their emergency fund

What about those who still have some savings left? Well, a separate survey by Bankrate found that 35% of Americans have less emergency savings since the pandemic began versus only 16% reporting that they have more.

We see this concern for running out of money echoed in other trending topics too:

HELOC: 49,500 monthly U.S. Google searches

A Home Equity Line of Credit, or HELOC, is a line of credit borrowed against your home’s equity to use for other purposes—daily living expenses, home renovations, paying off other loans, paying off credit cards, etc.

While some use HELOCs as a debt management tool, others rely on the funding to get them through a rough patch—like the coronavirus.

Cash-Out Refinancing:

Global searches up 152% in the past 2 years

Cash Out Refinancing
Source: Exploding Topics

With cash-out refinancing, your new mortgage is worth more than your old one, leaving you, the borrower, with cash in hand. You can use that cash as you wish—to pay off other debt, increase your emergency savings, cover daily living expenses, invest, etc.

2. There is a need for alternatives to student loans

Student loans, once viewed as a way to give more students access to college, have become a trillion-dollar industry. Current data from the Fed shows that 44.7 million borrowers owe a collective $1.54 trillion in private and federal student loans. That’s more than Americans owe for credit card debt or auto loan debt.

In the past 5 years, a student loan alternative has steadily gained some traction—income share agreements. Global search results for “income share agreement” have increased by 560% with approximately 2,400 U.S.-based Google searches each month. Those who search for the term see explanation articles and lists of colleges who offer them.

Income Share Agreement.
Source: Exploding Topics

An income share agreement (ISA) as a replacement for student loans works like this:

  1. A student borrows a fixed amount of money from their college or a financial institution to cover tuition or related college costs
  2. In doing so, the student agrees to repay the money after graduation by paying a fixed percentage of their salary for a set amount of time

ISAs as an alternative or supplement for student loans started up again recently in 2016 when Purdue University created its Back a Boiler ISA program. Other colleges soon got on board. As of December 2019, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reported that more than 40 colleges and universities plus other vocational programs offer ISAs. Each program has its own terms and stipulations like a minimum salary before repayment starts, a maximum repayment amount, qualifying majors or academic programs, etc.

Income share agreements are somewhat of a gamble. For example, if you secure a high-paying job, you could end up paying more overall than you might have with a traditional loan. On the flip side, if you fail to secure a job after graduation or enter a lower-paying field, you may end up paying back less money than you borrowed. It all depends on the terms of the ISA. Read through those carefully and evaluate your options before choosing an ISA over other financing options.

Ideally, a switch from loans to income share agreements would put more pressure on colleges to produce job-ready graduates. When colleges fund income share agreements, they are literally investing in their students. With the student loan model, colleges don’t have that same accountability.

Colleges need that accountability. Data from the New York Federal Reserve Bank as recently as November 2019 showed that young college graduates were more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than all workers.

3. People rely on mobile financial tools

Paying friends back with cash, opening a bank account at your local credit union, using checks. These tangible money actions are on the decline. We’re continuing to see a growing interest in online financial tools.

Look at some of the trends we saw on Exploding Topics:


Global searches up 76% in the past 2 years

550,000 Google searches in the U.S. each month

Zelle, a mobile P2P digital payment service, lets you transfer money to your friends, family, the babysitter, etc. for free. Some banks offer Zelle services on their banking apps, or you can use the Zelle app. To send money, you need the recipient’s email address or mobile number. Money transfers directly to their bank account in a few minutes.

Physical distancing restrictions and a push for mobile payments over cash due to COVID-19 have helped Zelle’s growth in 2020. Zelle reported a 17% increase in enrollment over the previous year. Many consumers use Zelle to send gifts, donate to charity, pay rent, split utility costs, and repay others for groceries.

Mobile Banking

Global searches up 360% in the past 10 years.

State of Personal Finance.
Source: Exploding Topics

201,000 Google searches in the U.S. each month.
Even before shutdowns and limiting essential travel, people wanted mobile banking. Mobile banking struggled to catch on at first. That is until the first iPhone came out in 2007.

By 2008, large and small banks offered mobile banking apps or at least mobile-friendly websites. A Business Insider survey from 2020 found that 89% of survey respondents reported using mobile banking.

Mobile banking not only limits nonessential trips during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s also good for the environment. Paperless options save trees and reduce clutter.

4. There’s a shift toward online-only banks

The first online-only bank popped up in 1999—First Internet Bank of Indiana. In recent years, online-only banks have gained substantial traction. Monthly U.S. search volume for “online bank” is 90,500. Add the name of a bank in front of those words, and you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of searches per month.

Online-only banks offer perks like no fees, early access to payday funds, free ATMs, no minimum balances, easy-to-use websites and apps, and high-yield savings accounts.

One online bank, Chime, has gained substantial traction. Global searches for “Chime Bank” are up 180% in the past two years with 135,000 Google searches conducted in the U.S. each month. Account holder numbers are up too. In February 2020, Chime reported having eight million accounts—up from three million the year before. The company’s CEO stated that Chime took millions of customers from bigger banks like Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Other popular online-only banks include Marcus by Goldman, Ally Online Bank, and Capital One 360.

5. A regular 9-to-5 is no longer enough

Several trending Exploding Topics made it clear that Google users want to make money outside of or in place of a traditional 9-to-5 job. We weren’t too surprised at this finding given the steep cost of daycare, high unemployment rates, the rising cost of college, and stagnant federal minimum wage.

Side Hustle

Global searches up 1214% in the past five years.

Side Hustle is a rising Google Search term.
Source: Exploding Topics

49,500 Google searches in the U.S. each month

Despite the word being part of the English language since the 1950s, “side hustle” didn’t take off until recently. In 2017, it entered mainstream media, referring to freelancing or selling crafts.

A side hustle is a job or activity done on the side in addition to being a regular employee, full-time student, full-time caretaker, etc. It brings in supplemental income. Think Uber or DoorDash driver, Airbnb host, freelance writer or graphic designer, Etsy shop owner, Instagram influencer. Some people turn their side hustle into a primary income stream.

Most recently, side hustles have experienced a “renaissance” due to the pandemic. People, especially those who suddenly lost their jobs, need a way to bring in extra cash fast.

Passive Income

Global searches up 138% in the past 5 years
60,500 Google searches in the U.S. each month

Interest in passive income is on the rise too. Colloquially, passive income is an income stream earned with minimal effort. Examples include rent from a real estate investment, patent royalties, royalties from creative works, dividend-paying stocks, peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, pensions, and interest from stocks, bonds, CDs, and money market accounts. Ongoing ad revenue from a blog post on your website or a YouTube video counts too.


Global searches up 493% in the past 5 years
60,500 Google searches in the U.S. each a month

Monetize means to convert something into money. A quick Google search for monetization shows us that individuals and business owners want to know how to convert their YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram content into money. Monetization can turn someone’s hobby or passion into a viable income stream. You can monetize a personal blog or website, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and more. It’s a way to earn money beyond just a 9-to-5.

6. People are making big purchases online

In 2016, Forbes reported that customers preferred to conduct product research online, and then, instead of purchasing the product online, go to the store to make the purchase. In 2020, we are seeing that change—in large part due to the coronavirus. Adobe’s Digital Economy Index (DEI) shows that an unexpected extra $93.9 billion were spent online from March 2020 to July 2020. For a lot of people, buying nonessential items online was their only item due to shutdowns.

However, the move toward purchasing expensive items online—like cars and workout equipment—might be here to stay.

Carvana, an online used-car-buying platform, announced in May 2020 that it would expand to 100 more markets. It owed this surge in business to the coronavirus. Many car dealers had to close due to COVID-19-related restrictions. Many customers who could purchase in-person preferred the safe, contactless options provided by Carvana. In fact, ExplodingTopics reports a 136% increase in global searches in the past two years with 2.74 million monthly U.S.-based Google searches.

We also saw increased interest in the search terms Afterpay, Affirm, and Sezzle. All three provide “buy now, pay later” financing to consumers looking to buy expensive items online. They help consumers purchase products they otherwise couldn’t afford—a helpful tool amidst a global pandemic.

Afterpay has captured American’s interest with 550,000 Google searches in the U.S. each month. With these financing options now readily available, it only follows that we’ll see consumers continue to make larger purchases online rather than in stores.

7. People are actively trying to build their credit

Your credit score determines whether you will get approved for an apartment, a mortgage, a car lease, a new credit card, and sometimes even a job. A high enough score can shave full percentage points off a loan interest rate, saving you thousands of dollars. It can help you get some of the best rewards credit cards too.

Opening a line of credit usually requires a credit history and a decent credit score. So, if you want to lease a car or buy a home, you need to build credit in advance. This requires intentional action. A credit builder cards can help. These specially designed credit cards help those with no or poor credit build credit.

State of Personal Finance: Credit Builder Cards.
Source: Exploding Topics

In the past year, global searches for “credit builder cards” increased by 327% with 9,900 Google searches in the U.S. each month. Searchers are likely those who have poor or no credit and want to boost their score so they can secure funding for a new house, lease a car, or meet other financial goals. These are people trying to actively—rather than passively—improve their credit score.

We’re seeing another credit-related trend too that’s worth making note of: VantageScore.

In the past five years, we see a 400% growth in global searches for VantageScore with 6,600 monthly U.S. Google searches. VantageScore is an alternative to FICO that was created by Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion in 2007. Compared to FICO, it provides a more detailed explanation of a person’s credit score. VantageScore also calculates and assigns scores for 30 to 35 million adults who didn’t previously have a credit score. The fact that VantageScore is trending tells us that it’s gaining popularity and more widespread acceptance amongst individuals and lenders.

8. An increased interest in sustainable investing

From new tools that make buying and trading stocks on your phone simple to new ways to think about where you invest your money, the way we engage with and think about investing is changing. Investing is becoming more popular too. Global searches for the word “investing” have grown 214% in the past 5 years.

One notable investment trend, which is especially popular amongst women according to the financial magazine Millie, is socially responsible investing. Socially responsible investing (SRI) involves more than just picking the funds or stocks that will likely have the highest rate of return. Instead, you focus your search on companies and funds with a positive social impact. You invest your money in companies whose values and business practices align with your own values.

Other terms for SRI are sustainable investing, ethical investing, and values-based investing.

A 2019 survey by Morgan Stanley found that 85% of individual investors showed interest in sustainable investing. Google users are showing increasing interest too. Global searches for “socially responsible investing” grew by 450% in the past five years with 3,600 U.S.-based Google searches per month.

Another form of sustainable investing—ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investing—has also gained traction in recent years.

ESG investing involves not just focusing on a positive financial return for you, but also considering:

  • Environmental risks—the impact on land, water, air, human health, and ecosystems
  • Social risks—the impact of the business on society, including workers
  • Governance risks—the impact of the governing body on the company itself

For example, an ESG investment might be a carbon-neutral company that protects human rights and has a diverse board of directors with high transparency.

In the past two years, there has been 163% global search growth for ESG investing with 18,100 monthly searches. We see an increased interest when we look beyond just search data too. In July 2020, JP Morgan’s research division released a report on what COVID-19 means for ESG investing. Their conclusions? That the pandemic is “a major turning point for ESG investing.”

Summary: A Snapshot of the State of Personal Finances in 2020

Personal finances in 2020 look far different than anything we could have predicted one or two years ago. The global pandemic, which increased unemployment numbers to 20.5 million in May 2020, changed not only what money people had access too, but how they could spend the money they had.

Americans—large numbers of Americans—are struggling. A recent September 2020 report by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that at least 50% of households in America’s largest cities “report facing serious financial problems during the coronavirus outbreak.”

Many of the personal-finance trends we noted above stem out of situations caused by the coronavirus and our nation’s response to it:

  • Unemployed Americans need money, so they are seeking out new ways to make money or refinancing with a cash-out loan.
  • Due to statewide closures or personal safety concerns, people could not go to stores, so they adopted mobile banking tools and made purchases online.
  • Most online-only banks offer no fees and no minimum balances or activity, a better option for families or individuals who no longer have direct deposits coming in or who have little money to put in the bank.
  • The government halted federal student loan payments and interest rates to give borrowers a break during high levels of unemployment. In doing so, it kept the student debt crisis in the spotlight, increasing interest in alternatives like income share agreements.

For many Americans in 2020, their financial situation looks bleak.

Payments might be paused for now, but student loan debt is still there. The job market does show some improvement,—with an additional 1.4 million nonfarm payroll employment in August—but it’s far from where it was in February. Some companies have found their footing in coronavirus America, while others continue to lay off workers or close completely.

Even as the job market turns around and the unemployed return to their old jobs or find new ones, the financial ramifications of the pandemic will live on. For some, it might be unexpected medical costs from falling ill with the coronavirus. Others—even those still working—have lost retirement contributions. Decisions made during the pandemic to make up for lost income—early withdrawal from a 401K, refinancing your house to a longer term, racking up credit card debt—will have lasting effects too.

We can only hope that 2021 will be better.

Sarah Goldy-Brown
Sarah Goldy-Brown
Sarah Goldy-Brown has six years of experience as a freelance content writer, specializing in personal finance, student loans, and higher education. While paying off more than $50,000 of student debt, she found her passion for helping others learn how to take control of their finances and pay off debt. Sarah is a graduate of Messiah University and resides in the Harrisburg, PA area with her husband.