June 2011

The Big Freeze Immobilizes Boomers

“The Big Chill” was the iconic movie for baby boomers in their prime in 1983.  Perhaps The Big Freeze is the best way to describe where we’ve ended up.

 
Two recent reports based on in-depth interviews with retirees and pre-retirees arrived at the same conclusion about how we are approaching the dreaded retirement: paralysis.

A report commissioned by Boston College’s Financial Security Project, which sponsors the Squared Away blog, found that the baby boomers and pre-retirees felt “immobilized in retirement planning efforts by a combination of practical and emotional factors.”

These emotions include fear and confusion about not having enough money, not knowing how much they’ll need, and not knowing how or where to get information or help.Learn More

Five raised hands.

Hubris Hampers Education Efforts

Most people think they’re above average when it comes to financial knowledge. And it’s not easy to educate people who think they know more than they actually do.

But hubris – or something like it – is what financial educators are up against, indicates research by professors Annamaria Lusardi at the George Washington School of Business and Olivia Mitchell at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Their paper used data from 1,200 respondents to a survey they conducted for the Investor Education Foundation or FINRA, the self-regulatory agency for the securities industry. It may be the most comprehensive study on Americans’ financial literacy.

Seventy percent of the survey’s respondents believe they know more about basic financial concepts than most other people. But they scored poorly on the survey’s three rudimentary financial literacy questions. One-third to one-half of them answered the questions incorrectly or indicated they didn’t know the answers.

The results “paint a troubling picture of the current state of financial knowledge in the United States,” the authors said.

Further, this low level of knowledge, when combined with overconfidence about that knowledge, does not bode well for attempts to educate people about money and their personal finances.

Before I provide more detail about Lusardi and Mitchell’s findings, take the quiz yourself. Here are the questions1:
Learn More

A lit lightbulb floating in front of a blue sky with a large puffy white cloud.

Finding Motivation to Control Spending

In a May 5 Squared Away blog post, I provided a list of financial planners’ five favorite tools for helping people control their spending. In this post, I’m providing their motivational suggestions.

Here are the five tips, based on my informal survey of planners. Each tip includes the psychological rationale behind it.

Find the “Aha! Moment.”

Some clients respond when they see, in detail, how much they’re spending and what they’re buying. Bonnie A. Hughes, a northern Virginia planner, is a big believer in mild shock therapy. She’s had great success by showing clients how much their income would fall if they were laid off, divorced, or dropped out of the workforce. Or she shows them just how much they’ll need in retirement, and it’s usually a big number.

Reason: The Aha! Moment provides the self-motivation that clients must possess and that planners can’t provide. …Learn More

Unseen Risks Challenge Consumers

Financial-product complexity isn’t talked about on Capitol Hill, where Congress is arming itself for battle royale over the appointment of Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

But some economics and business professors are sticking up for the financial consumer, who they say faces an “ever-widening set of financial options” and “dizzying amount of information.”

“Households are expected to make decisions about pension plan contributions and payouts, to choose from a wide array of credit instruments to fund everything from home purchase to short-term cash needs, and more generally to assume a greater level of responsibility for their financial well-being,” Harvard economists Brigitte Madrian and John Campbell, Harvard Law professor Howell Jackson, and Peter Tufano at the Harvard Business School wrote in a recent paper.

“There is growing evidence that consumers make avoidable financial mistakes” with “nontrivial financial consequences,” they said.

Published in the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the paper used three case studies to support their call for more creative regulation: mortgages, payday loans, and 401(k)s. …Learn More

Identical cartoon men looking confused, all are in black and white except one.

Complexity Dogs Financial Consumers

There is a race between financial companies and their consumers, and the consumer is dead last.

It has become virtually impossible for regular folks to keep pace with Wall Street’s increasingly complex financial products or the confusing bells and whistles being attached to once-familiar products. Look no further than the “basic” checking account, which is no longer basic, according to a recent study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. And forget about deciphering “universal variable life insurance.”

Evidence of this complexity abounds in the personal finance section of The Wall Street Journal, which recently ran an article about the profusion of “draw-down” products to help retirees use their 401(k)s to lock in a steady stream of income. The newspaper also warned about the banking industry’s new push to sell “professional credit cards,” which aren’t subject to regulations that limit controversial billing practices.

Even with checking accounts, the devil is in the details. In “Hidden Risks: The Case for Safe and Transparent Checking Accounts,” Pew analyzed fees in 250 checking accounts – that’s how many were offered just by the nation’s 10 largest banking companies. Learn More

Are you a STOCK or a BOND? Book Cover.

Nature of Job is Key to Investing

Toronto finance professor Moshe Milevsky has written a new book, so this seemed like a good excuse to revisit his favorite question: are you a stock or a bond?

Milevsky believes financial advisors should ask their clients this question before making any asset-allocation decisions. If someone has a risky job, he argues – if they are a stock – then their portfolio should emphasize bonds.

“If a financial advisor says you have a lot of stocks [in your investment portfolio] and should buy bonds, the response should be, ‘My job is a bond,’ “ he said.

Milevsky is adding another layer to the risk formula usually promoted by financial planners, who typically advise clients to lower their risk as they age. Milevsky wants people to avoid the double jeopardy dramatized by Enron Corp. employees, who had high-risk jobs in energy speculation and put their money into high-risk stocks – even worse, they were Enron stocks.

In a recent interview, he rated a few professions on the stock-bond continuum to demonstrate how his theory works. …Learn More

A woman sitting on a mountain top bench.

Wives Learn Finances as Husbands Age

A 29-year-old Ph.D. candidate is challenging the belief that elderly women don’t prepare to take over the household finances after their husbands die and leave the task to them.

The stereotype about older women probably springs from pervasive evidence that women generally have lower levels of financial literacy than men.

But Joanne Hsu at the University of Michigan found that women prepare for the high likelihood that their husbands will die first by beginning to acquire financial knowledge.  Some 80 percent of the women in her sample are on track to catch up with their husband’s level of financial knowledge.  Her study controlled for low cognition, so her findings measure the wife’s improvements that are above and beyond her husband’s. …Learn More

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