October 2012

Blame Aid Policies – Not Tuitions

Admissions policies and financial aid packages at individual colleges – not just tuitions and fees – are significant determinants of student loan levels, according to new research.

No wonder there’s a cottage industry of financial planners who specialize in counseling families on college admissions: this granular – and often invisible – information about financial aid is critical to whether your child carries a burdensome debt load with his diploma on graduation day.

The media and policymakers – and (Squared Away adds) parents – “have assumed that tuition and university sticker prices are the primary if not the sole factor driving the rise in student indebtedness,” James Monks, an economist in the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, concluded in an October paper. “This assumption ignores the substantial impact that college and university admissions and financial aid policies” have in determining debt levels.

Certainly parents should pay attention to tuition and fees. But Monk found that public college admission policies that are blind to students’ financial circumstances produce students with “a higher average debt upon graduation,” which tends to fall on their lower-income students. When a college says that it is “need-blind,” it is saying that it looks at each student’s financial situation only after deciding whether to admit him or her based on test scores, grades and letters – this policy is typically aimed at increasing enrollment of low-income students. After agreeing to accept a student, the institutions try to help those who need it most through their financial aid packages. But this aid often falls short, requiring heavy borrowing by students.

In contrast, the target of some private institutions is to maximize the number of students graduating with no debt or limited debt. At institutions with such policies, Monks found that students have significantly lower debt levels than institutions that lack this policy.

Danielle Schultz, a straight-talking Evanston, Illinois, financial planner said most public colleges claim to be need-blind in selecting their incoming freshman class. But at a time when state budgets are tight, far fewer now have the financial resources to back up such a policy, she said, which drives up borrowing by their students. As for private colleges, she said they’re also feeling financial pressure and believes that fewer institutions than in the past can afford to maintain generous no-debt policies.

Rising debt levels is the result. U.S. college graduates had $26,600 in student debt last year, up 45 percent from 2004, according to a new report by the Institute for College Access and Success.

Schultz, who just successfully shipped her daughter off to college – Bryn Mawr outside Philadelphia – describes college application as a treacherous process rife with pitfalls.

“Schools are in the business of forking over the least money possible to get the most motivated kids and the most diversity,” she said. The onus is increasingly on parents “to think hard about what kind of dollars they are willing to fork over.” These days, it’s about the major: can the student get a job after college? Her rule: don’t borrow more than the student can expect to earn the first year after graduation…Learn More

Photo: lineup of women

A Dozen Things Women Need to Know

While Squared Away’s goal is to increase everyone’s understanding of how their behavior affects their financial security, substantial attention has been paid to women.

Since going live in May 2011, this blog has posted numerous articles on women’s unique – and often more challenging – financial concerns. Women earn less, live longer, save less for retirement, and are more likely than men to take on the financial burdens associated with caring for children or elderly parents.

Click on “Learn More” for links to a dozen recent articles, from the concerns of young career women to widows. They include “He’s a Rabid Saver; She’s a Spender,” and “Boomer Moms: Take Care of Yourself For Once,” and “You Are Not Alone…”
Learn More

chart: how much should I save?

401(k)s “Top” Financial Priority. Really.

A large majority of people in a survey released last week identified saving for retirement as their top financial priority. If that’s the case, then why aren’t Americans saving enough?

Stuart Ritter, senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price, the mutual fund company that conducted the survey, has some theories about that. Squared Away is also interested in what readers have to say and encourages comments in the space provided at the end of this article.

But first the survey: about 72 percent of Americans identified saving for retirement as “their top financial goal,” with 42 percent saying that a contribution of at least 15 percent of their pay is “ideal.”

Yet 68 percent said they are saving 10 percent or less, which Ritter called “not very much.” The average contribution is about 8 percent of pay, according to Fidelity Investments, which tracks client contributions to the 401(k)s it manages.

The Internal Revenue Service last week increased the limit on contributions to 401(k) and 403(b) retirement plans from $16,500, to $17,000. The so-called “catch-up” contribution available to people who are age 50 or over remains unchanged at $5,500.

The question is: why do Americans give short shrift to their 401(k)s, even as people become increasingly aware that their dependence on them for retirement income grows? Ritter offered a few theories in a telephone interview last week:

  • The financial industry is partially to blame. “We have done a really good job of conveying to people how important saving for retirement is,” he said, “but what we haven’t done as good a job of is telling them how much to save.”

Employers may also share blame. Further confusing the issue, the savings rate depends on when the employee starts saving – the percent of pay is lower for those who start in their 20s than for someone who waits until they’re 45. …

College Educated Take On More Debt

Americans with college degrees are more likely to overuse their credit cards, home equity loans and other debts than are people who didn’t attend college, according to research in the latest International Journal of Consumer Studies.

“I was really expecting the reverse,” Sherman Hanna, a professor of consumer sciences at Ohio State University in Columbus, said about the results of his research, conducted in conjunction with Ewha Womans University in Seoul and the University of Georgia in Athens.

The study also reveals the increasing fragility of Americans’ finances, particularly in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis when overall debt levels surged amid what Hanna called a “democratization of credit” that made it easier – critics said too easy – to borrow.

The percent of all U.S. households with monthly debt payments exceeding 40 percent of their pretax income rose from 18 percent in 1992 to 27 percent in 2007. (Consumers have slashed their debt during the recent recession.)

Based on education levels, Americans with a bachelor’s or graduate degree had more than a 32 percent likelihood of being heavily in debt. That compared with 24.5 percent for people who graduated from high school and did not attend college, according to the study, which tracked U.S. households from 1992 through 2007. To make their comparison, the researchers controlled for the effect of incomes.

The researchers designated households in their sample as being heavily in debt if their monthly loan payments and other debt obligations exceeded 40 percent of their pretax income. That is a high share of income to devote every month to paying off loans, rather than buying groceries, saving for retirement, or utilities…Learn More

20-Somethings Buck Pressure to Spend

Newlyweds Erin and Michael Gallagher

Michael and Erin Gallagher are just 26 years old but have made a strong start financially, socking away $50,000 by maxing out their 401(k)s while honoring a $20,000 budget for their October 5 wedding in downstate Illinois.

Jennifer and John Lucido, both 32 years old, now have $250,000 in the bank and have built a 2,500-square-foot home near Detroit.

By comparison, the typical U.S. household had saved $42,000 for retirement in 2010, according to the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.

Both couples are members of that rare species of 20-something super savers, spurning intense peer pressure to spend money on consumer items, go out for dinner a lot, and run up their credit cards. Neither couple got where they did the easy way either. They worked hard, but they were also quick to catch on to important lessons about being frugal and saving – from their parents or from each other.

“I have clients in their 30s and 40s who don’t even have $200,000 in their 401k,” said Naomi Myhaver, a financial planner at Baystate Financial Services in Worcester, Massachusetts.

An August article in The Journal of Consumer Affairs suggests one reason people like them are so hard to find. Young adults are extremely vulnerable to peer pressure to run up credit card debt so they can support a high lifestyle and social life.

In the study, 225 college students were asked questions such as whether they have “very strong” connections to their friends or “feel the need to spend as much as [friends] do on activities we do together.” College students have an average of 4.6 credit cards and $4,100 in debt…
Learn More

Baby boomer moms

Boomer Moms, Here’s A Radical Idea

Research shows that when children leave the nest, married couples spend 50 percent more on discretionary spending like eating out and vacations.  But whether you’re ready or not, retirement is bearing down hardest on women.

Here’s a radical concept for moms whose children have suddenly grown up: focus on your own financial needs. Women usually out-live their husbands and need to be on top of the situation. So getting a handle on your financial priorities should be at the top of your list.

Squared Away interviewed financial experts to come up with five priorities for baby boomer women whose kids have flown the coop.

Get Smart. If you haven’t had time to pay attention to the household finances, start simple.  Financial expert Wendy Weiss, on her blog, Hot Flash Financial, said the first thing to do is track down and inventory the types of accounts and the financial institutions that hold your money: savings, retirement plans, insurance documents, your and your husband’s latest Social Security statements – add them up and determine what you’ve got.  Then get a handle on the size of the credit card debts and mortgage.

“Just find out what you have,” Weiss says.  “There are questions you can ask later.”

Talk to Your Kids. You’ve poured your heart into nurturing your offspring.  So turn the tables and ask them to have a conversation about your needs once you retire.

Financial advisers swear by these wide-ranging discussions, the content of which reflects the diversity in families.  The children will be reassured if you’ve saved enough or will share your concern if you haven’t.  Perhaps they’ll have opinions about whether you should purchase long-term care insurance.  They should also know the beneficiaries on your financial and pension accounts and insurance…Learn More

401(k) Education Missing A Target

Dennis Ackley says he doesn’t get a lot of holiday cards from the mutual fund industry.

The Kansas City, Missouri, consultant has become a well-known critic of the 401(k) materials that funds provide to employers, which usually leave the complex job of retirement planning to the workers to figure out. When speaking to a room full of 401(k) plan sponsors, he has a unique way of getting his point across. Ackley hands out sheets of paper similar to what’s shown here and asks them to wad them up and throw them at the target.

The problem – for the plan sponsors in the audience – is that Ackley doesn’t give them a target.

“Most of them are just kind of befuddled by the whole thing.” Befuddlement, he tells is audience, “is what young employees experience sitting in a 401(k) meeting.” …Learn More

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