Over the past 12 months, we've seen banks charge customers new fees and then quickly cancel those fees; Congress fail to agree on a budget; and the stock market enjoy a slow rebound, only to fall and once again begin a slow ascent. In other words, it's been a tumultuous year for our money.
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As for our overall financial well-being, how we feel depends largely on our income level. A survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association found that among respondents who earn more than $100,000, about 1 in 3 say their financial situation has improved. Among those who earn less than $25,000, half say their financial situation has worsened.
If you're still trying to figure out how the year affected your own bank account, we've created a cheat sheet to make it a little easier. Here's a six-part guide to understanding what 2011 did to your money:
Bank fees: After a handful of banks implemented new debit-card fees this fall, consumers rebelled—and banks relented. But that doesn't mean the era of completely free banking has arrived. Banks still charge fees for a variety of reasons, from ordering checks to using an out-of-network ATM.
That means it's up to consumers to shop around and to find the best deal for their lifestyle. Frequent travelers often fare better with big banks that have ATMs in most cities, while people who get paid largely in cash will probably want to stick with bricks-and-mortar establishments as opposed to online-only banks.
The impact: neutral. Banks added new fees, then quickly retracted them. Not much has changed for consumers.
Taxes: Congress still hasn't agreed on whether to extend the payroll tax cut. If that gridlock continues, tax rates will rise for those earning more than $50,000 annually.
The impact: negative. In addition to the likelihood of paying more in taxes, many Americans are frustrated with Congress's inability to agree on budget policy, which has lead to general anxiety over the state of the economy.
Savings: Interest rates for money in bank accounts continue to hover at such low levels that storing money under a mattress wouldn't be much worse. Savers can do slightly better with online banks, which offer rates approaching 1 percent. Meanwhile, consumers appear to be ramping up their own savings rates. The average personal savings rate hovered between 4 and 5 percent this year, higher than the 2 and 3 percent averages in the mid-2000s, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
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The impact: neutral. Americans might be saving more, but they continue to earn very little interest on their savings.
Student loans: Thanks to a new executive order from President Obama, some student loan holders will have an easier time consolidating their loans as well as getting their remaining debt forgiven. That's because the changes lowered the maximum monthly payment for those with federal loans and also shortened the time they must wait for debt forgiveness from 25 years to 20 years. (To qualify, student loan carriers must earn below a certain income, which varies by state, and have federal loans. The Education Department's student loan website explains the details.)
The impact: positive. These changes can help loan carriers who are eligible for them.
The economy: Despite some positive economic signs at the end of the year, including a strong start to the holiday shopping season, 2011 has been rough: A flat housing market, tight job market, and consumer pessimism have defined the year. Still, the job market might be showing some signs of recovery, with the latest numbers showing a drop in the unemployment rate to 8.6 percent in November, which could help cheer up consumers and lead to stronger growth next year.
The impact: neutral to negative. After several years of sluggish economic growth, consumers seem to be settling in for the long haul.
The world: Political instability in parts of the Middle East as well as the European debt crisis contribute to the overall uncertainty many Americans feel. That feeling will only deepen if European countries such as Greece and Portugal default on their debt.
The impact: negative. As consumer confidence struggles to regain its footing, uncertainty around the globe doesn't help.
The bottom line: Consumers might have won the bank fee war, but trying to get ahead in the current economy can feel like swimming upstream. Here's to an easier time in 2012.