MORE than half (52%) of middle-class South Africans fear they will never be financially free.

Almost 90% say they have average debt repayments of more than R7000 a month.

This was revealed by aWealth Worries 2013 survey conducted by global payments technology company Visa, which gauged the approach to money and wealth creation of middle-class South Africans - people who are employed and earn R7000 or more a month.

"South Africa, and indeed the whole world, has gone through a very tough time over the past few years. We wanted to assess attitudes to money, flag areas where people are putting themselves at risk and help people to grow and protect their wealth," said Mandy Lamb, South African country manager of Visa.

The report surveyed 2000 people who make household financial decisions.

Of those who thought they would one day be financially free, 68% said they would achieve this only after the age of 50. Almost 30% said debt levels were the biggest threat to their wealth and 89% of respondents admitted they had average debt repayments of R7283 a month. "Excessive debt is without doubt the biggest hurdle to wealth creation and is often the main reason people are unable to save. Unfortunately, debt accumulation is often a matter of hindsight; most people over the age of 40 will tell you that if there was something they would redo, it would be to take on less debt," said personal finance expert Maya Fisher-French.

Nineteen percent cited inflation, currently at 5.7%, as the biggest threat to their wealth, 16% said the global economy was a hindrance to wealth creation and 14% blamed political uncertainty.

Asked what assets they owned, 52% said property, 37% had fixed-income deposits and 25% held shares. Nine percent had bonds and 8% held investments in private equity. Other investments included commodities (6%), alternative investments such as art (3%) and hedge funds (2%).

However, 20% said they had no investments at all.

"It is an interesting perception that residential property is a better long-term investment. Apart from the mid-to-late 2000s, residential property has not performed particularly well relative to shares. It is an illiquid asset and difficult to fairly value," said Fisher-French.

Unit trusts were the most popular vehicle for investing in shares and 47% of respondents used them; 36% used online platforms to invest directly in shares and 26% had a portfolio fully managed by a stockbroker. Only 16% invested through an exchange-traded fund.

"The relatively low take-up of exchange-traded funds suggests that South Africans still believe in active fund management, despite higher fees and the fact that many fund managers fail to outperform the index," said Fisher-French.

As many as 53% of the respondents predicted that the rand, which hit a four-year low against the dollar this week, would lose more value over the next five years.

In terms of retirement, 15% said they would never retire, 13% said they would retire at 50 and 41% said they would retire at 65 or older. The majority (87%) said they would retire in South Africa, whereas 13% favoured retirement abroad.

"While 81% of respondents are saving for retirement, research suggests that many South Africans are saving too little for retirement. One needs to do a proper assessment of whether your retirement savings are sufficient before it is too late," said Fisher-French.

One in 10 respondents said they would like to leave an inheritance to their children but could not afford to.

*This article was first published in Sunday Times: Money & Careers