By Colin Barr
January 24, 2011

The mass affluent aren’t as affluent as they’re cracked up to be.

That’s one conclusion you might draw from a Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey released Monday. The bank is pushing a Web-based trading and advice service called Merrill Edge. It’s pitched at educated, online-savvy customers with investable assets of between $100,000 and $250,000.

That sounds like a decent-size nest egg and, by extension, a potential gold mine for BofA’s wealth managers. BofA says it has between 11 million and 12 million mass affluent customers on its rolls already, between its consumer banking and Global Wealth and Investment Management units.

“This is one of the fastest growing segments of the marketplace,” consumer banking chief Joe Price on a conference call Monday. “We’re trying to bring all the capabilities to bear on this from both sides of the house.”

But many customers aren’t keeping their investable assets invested, which could complicate the bank’s long-running effort to push more advice and financial planning services to this segment.

BofA said 29% of those surveyed tapped into their long-term savings last year to pay bills or buy groceries. That depressing finding meshes with a survey released this summer by Fidelity that found nearly a third of parents had tapped into their kids’ college funds to pay daily expenses.

Fully 41% of BofA respondents report expecting to retire later than they did a year ago, while 63% expect it to be harder to save in five years than it is now. The nationwide survey of 1,000 consumers took place over three weeks in the fall.

Upselling these people is a key goal of the bank, which has something of a captive audience thanks to the large number of customers on its rolls and respondents’ favorable take on banks.

Roughly half of those surveyed consider both banks and financial professionals trustworthy, BofA said, which lines up reasonably well with the latest results of the Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Financial Trust index (see chart, right).

That compares with trust scores down in the mid-20s for news outlets and the government, and could make these customers more amenable to buying more services from BofA.

Even so, these products are not an easy sell at a time of tightening purse strings. BofA says its results show that show half of mass affluent customers lack a written financial plan now and almost a third have never had one.

BofA is targeting customers who “haven’t shown a fondness for financial planning,” said Sallie Krawcheck, who runs the global wealth business for BofA.

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