More Than Snakes, Blood and Other Halloween Frights, Financial Phobias Haunt Many Americans

Ghouls, Ghosts and Goblins are so yesterday.

If you want to scare the bejesus out of home dwellers this Halloween, trying dressing up as an IRS auditor or a foreclosure process server.

In fact, an exclusive nationwide online survey conducted this month by my company,  Bank On Yourself, finds that by a margin of almost four-to-one, many Americans would rather die than outlive their money.

The results are neither trick nor treat: They’re a sad commentary on the financial condition and current state of mind of so many of our family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues.

More than 500 adults took part in our Bank On Yourself Fear Factors Challenge: Personal Finance Edition. Like the popular television contest that inspired us, we presented players with some icky, gross, terrifying or truly embarrassing scenarios. We then quizzed them on what makes their flesh crawl more: Our scares or the frights associated with personal finance failures?

Snakes, blood, public nudity and eating fire-hot peppers caused far fewer trembles among many of our respondents than did the terrifying prospect of winding up in a serious financial jam.

While our challenge and its results do not constitute a scientific poll, they do unquestionably underscore the depths of anxiety that so many Americans harbor over the economy and its potential impact on their lives.

Blind dates versus incompetent retirement plan administrators

Blind dates are nerve-wracking experiences for almost all people: “Will my date like me?” “Will I like my date?” “What will we talk about?” “What if my date is unattractive or unpleasant?”

Yet, in our Bank on Yourself Fear Factors Challenge, fully nine out of every ten players said they prefer facing 12, once-a-month blind dates with a companion selected at random, to entrusting their retirement portfolios to an anonymous plan administrator.

What’s so surprising about that response is how many millions of Americans, in real life, hand over the selection and responsibility for their retirement portfolio – especially 401(k) plans – to others, who may or may not have any special education or training.

Because there are no mandated standards for who is permitted to administer the majority of company-sponsored retirement plans, nothing prevents employees from unwittingly entrusting the most important financial decision of their lifetime to their boss’s dunderhead brother-in-law.

Now that really is chilling. (See: More than 15 Million “Zombie Investors” Unwittingly Allow Others to Feed Off Their Retirement Savings)

We offered our contestants this creepy choice: Rent an extended-stay room in the Bates Motel (from the 1960 classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho) and share a shower with Anthony Perkins (who starred as the mommy-dominated slasher). Or, lose your job and live off only your current savings for a year.

Well make way Janet Leigh, two out of every three of our challenge participants would rather bunk with you and Tony than face the blood-curdling prospect of having to get by for a year on their savings alone.

What could be more mortifying?

42% of our challengers find the prospect of having to explain to their family or other loved ones that they’ve lost their home to foreclosure an unbearable horror. In fact, they’d opt for sitting 30 minutes in a tub of live snakes ahead of having to break the bad news to those closest to them.

While I don’t know how many Americans actually bathed with squirming serpents last year, RealtyTrac, which monitors nationwide filings, reported that a record 2.9 million homes received foreclosure filings in 2010. This year is well on its way to being another gory one for homeowners.

Wall Street and the mutual fund industry often tout their annual breakout performers. But our challenge-takers know from experience that picking the winners from the losers can be a waking nightmare.

Almost half of those who participated in our Bank on Yourself Fear Factors Challenge equated the pain of trying to single out the one mutual fund that will outperform all others in a given year to bobbing for a 10oz gold bar in a vat containing 50 gallons of cow’s blood. To both options, all I can say is, “yuck.”

What would you rather do: Walk naked down a fashion runway while being photographed or see your dumbest financial decisions published for everyone to gawk at in your local newspaper?

Will it be naked or exposed for you?

Just shy of 30% of our survey-takers think they’ve got the abs and pecks to strut their buff stuff before the paparazzi. Either that – or, more likely – they’d be absolutely humiliated if the people around them ever knew just how poorly they’ve handled their investment and savings decisions.

Indeed, watching their stock portfolios nosedive 40% in only a few weeks – as happened to so many investors during the 2008 crash – is less appetizing to almost two-thirds of our contestants than would be munching down 40 fiery-hot habanero peppers within 24 hours. Both scenarios are guaranteed to induce a serious case of heartburn. Only the peppers don’t require you to rethink all your life’s goals and retirement plans.

On the topic of retirement, most respondents view Social Security as an apparition that is most likely to haunt them, not help them in their golden years.

Just over 70% of those who took our survey say they’d rather be strapped atop a vintage stunt plane while it performs a typical aerobatics routine than be tied to the Social Security program as their sole source of retirement income.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and other reliable sources indicate that roughly one-in-five Americans rely strictly on the financially troubled government benefits program for all of their financial needs.

In the 1998 Tim Burton film, Beetlejuice, the title character, a freelance bio-exorcist ghost played by Michael Keaton, stashes bugs, snakes and an entire menagerie of creepy-crawlies in his musty overcoat pockets. Most viewers probably assumed that Beetlejuice had odd epicurean tastes and was merely collecting snacks to keep on hand.

But our Bank on Yourself Fear Factors Challenge revealed another possible explanation: The head-spinning bio-exorcist was simply trying to avoid an IRS audit, himself.

You see, fully 64% of our challenge-takers said they’d rather walk around for a week wearing pants overflowing with live worms than have their personal tax returns scrutinized by the government.

Word from Hollywood is it that Warner Brothers is in the process of producing a remake or sequel to Beetlejuice. Details about the possible reboot are still sketchy.

But perhaps, instead of setting the horror-comedy in another idyllic New England country manor, the producers will give the next iteration an extra dose of realism and set it in an a typical American household spooked by fears of job loss, portfolio volatility, foreclosure and – worst of all – Social Security dependency.

As for casting, take your pick. There are millions of us who qualify to play ourselves.

Compare your money fears to other scares

If you’d like to participate in the Bank on Yourself Fear Factors Challenge and see how your answers compare with the rest of the country, you can do that here. There are ten fun and thought-provoking challenges which take only a couple minutes total to complete.

Check out the full results of the survey here… and how your Fear Factors choices compare to the rest of America!

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