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Top money priorities: Bills and debt

(MoneyWatch) A tough job market and stagnant real wages have caused Americans to focus on basic needs when citing their top money priorities, according to the third annual Bankrate.com Financial Security survey.

Some 36 percent of those surveyed said their top goal was just to pay the monthly bills, which is up four percentage points from last year. Their second-most pressing economic goal this year would be to pay down debt, with 20 percent of respondents citing it as their biggest priority.

These two issues were also the top priorities last year, though their weights may reflect slightly worsening perceptions of the economy. In 2012, only 32 percent of those surveyed listed their top priority as paying monthly bills and 23 percent were focused on paying down debt. In 2012, 20 percent were focused on boosting their savings compared with just 18 percent this year.

"Americans' financial priorities reflect the difficult economic realities of high unemployment, stagnant income and the absence of new high-paying jobs," said Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate.com's senior financial analyst.

This pessimistic view was mirrored in another recent poll. The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, released last Friday, found that the majority of Americans (53 percent) believe the nation is still in a recession today -- some four years after the recession officially ended.

And nearly one third report that they rarely have any money left over after paying bills each month. Just 23 percent say the country is headed in the right direction, a two-year low.

Indeed, Bankrate says that Americans feel less secure today than they did a year ago -- a turn-around from earlier this year, when consumers were more optimistic. The negativity is largely blamed on feelings about job security and savings, which have both declined.

The percentage of those who feel less secure about their jobs this year than last rose to 20 percent; those feeling more secure dipped to 17 percent. That ratio turned negative in October, during the government shutdown and has remained negative through November, after spending the first eight months of the year in positive territory.

The one bright spot is net worth. With the stock market soaring and housing prices on the mend, 29 percent of those surveyed said their net worth had improved in the past year, compared with just 16 percent saying that it had deteriorated.

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