data network concept

On the Web

Financial Data Brokers Have You Pegged

In the world of Big Data, do you fall into the industry’s Extra Needy category, or are you viewed as American Royalty? Perhaps Ethnic Second City Struggler or Small Town Shallow Pockets is a more apt description of you? Or how about Eager Senior Buyer or Tough Start: Young Single Parent?

While the media are focused on Facebook’s privacy breaches, a growing multibillion-dollar industry of data brokers is mining personal information online in order to sell our data dossiers to financial and other companies – sometimes to the detriment of our personal finances.

Big Data collection also can be innocuous, when it is used for marketing. In this form, it’s just the high-tech version of snail mail solicitations for credit cards, retail catalogs, or the services of a neighborhood real estate agent.

But Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said evidence is growing that some consumers are being exploited by the unfettered sharing of personal data. Further, individuals generally do not have a legal right to see their dossiers, which are proprietary – “and we don’t know what they’re being used for,” she said.

In one egregious case, brokers sold data on an elderly veteran, who was then victimized by a scam that stripped him of his life savings. Some brokers compile lists of people living in trailer parks to sell to companies making “predatory offers to those in financial trouble,” Dixon testified before the Senate. …Learn More

slot machine

On the Web

Squared Away at Year 7

Seven years ago this month, this personal finance and retirement blog debuted. How things have changed.

For one thing, back in 2011, a lot more people were reading blogs and newspapers on their clunky desktop computers. In recognition of the now-ubiquitous smart phone – more accurately, a computer that happens to have a phone – we just redesigned how Squared Away looks on phones to enlarge the type and make the articles easier to read.  Our older readers will appreciate this update.

Year 7 is also an opportunity to restate the blog’s mission, which, frankly, was not fully refined in the early years.  In some ways, our mission has not changed: we continue to emphasize retirement security and personal finance, with a bent toward the evidence-based research that provides a clearer understanding of the financial, economic, and behavioral issues that are critical to a high quality of life.

We regularly report on research by scholars around the country, including studies produced by members of the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Retirement Research Consortium: the NBER Retirement Research Center in Cambridge, Mass., the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, which also is the blog’s home.

But it’s natural for a new publication to find its sweet spot over time, and Squared Away is no different. One theme that has emerged very clearly is that the threads of retirement saving are shot through the fabric of our financial lives.

The predicament of Millennials is an obvious example. Immediately after beginning their careers, 20- and 30-somethings – so much more than their parents and grandparents – are under the gun to save for retirements that no longer are likely to include a pension. …Learn More

Field Work

Arcane but Shrewd Retirement Solution?

Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of King Louis XIV, courtesy of the Getty Open Content Program

Tontines might be a nifty idea for retirement income. Too bad they haven’t been legal here for a century.

Tontine is a fancy word for betting on how long you’ll live – in a good way. Here’s the concept in a nutshell: many people pool their money in return for guaranteed regular payouts for life, similar to an annuity.

The people who live to, say 90, will receive ever-increasing financial payoffs, because the number of participants in the pool will invariably shrink over time.  The catch is that the investors who die young won’t receive as much income as the men and women who live the longest – but they won’t need the money either.

A new study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) takes a close look at an idea that is tossed around among finance experts: modifying tontines to use them as a source of retirement income.

Some criticize them as a dubious investment, but they’ve stood the test of time. King Louis XIV of France was the first monarch to raise public funds using tontines, a 1650s creation of Italian financier Lorenzo Tonti. More than a century later, they caused financial hardship among middle-class investors, laying some of the groundwork for the French Revolution.

Tontines made it into American popular culture in the M*A*S*H* television show. Because Col. Potter was the last man standing among his World War I Army buddies, he got the only remaining bottle of brandy from a cache they’d found and drank while camped out in a French chateau. Tontines popped up again in an episode of The Simpsons: grandpa Abe Simpson and Mr. Burns fight over some valuable German paintings in a tontine their Army unit had created back in World War II.

Credit for the idea of a retirement tontine goes to a paper by two professors at York University in Toronto, Moshe A. Milevsky and Thomas S. Salisbury. In his new report, CRR researcher Gal Wettstein agrees that tontines might be a useful way to get regular retirement income – with modifications. …Learn More

Field Work

Pre-Retirement Financial Review is a Must

My husband has taught high school biology for 30 years in Boston and works hard for his students. But he’s nearly 64 and it’s time to think about retiring.

Can we afford it? When we retire, will we eventually run through our savings? Is retirement scary – or what?

Questions like these are also probably haunting millions of baby boomers in the middle of the night. One out of three boomers in a recent Transamerica survey said they are not confident they will have enough income to retire “comfortably” and another third concede that they are only “somewhat confident.”

To find the answer for ourselves, my husband and I hired a financial adviser. It was the best thing we could’ve done. The point of this blog is to encourage other boomers to take stock of their imminent retirement, whether it’s around the corner or still a decade away.

We’d been kicking around retirement scenarios inside our marriage bubble. My husband has not fixed a retirement date in his head but is talking about the next one to three years. To be conservative, we posed this simple question to our adviser: can Garret retire in 2018?

Garret Virchick and Kim Blanton

Her answer was in the half-inch packet, which she delivered to our front door. We sat around our dining room table as she walked us through her quantitative analysis of our financial profile.

Many financial advisers like to talk about how they’ll manage a baby boomer client’s investments. In truth, simple index funds do the trick for us. Our adviser, Wendy Weiss of Weiss Financial Advisors in Cambridge, Mass., used to be an investment adviser for large financial firms, but spent very little time on our investments. The most important thing for baby boomers who, like us, are not wealthy is knowing how much income will come in the door every single month to pay the bills in retirement.

“It’s more important for my clients to find out how to use that 401(k) in retirement than it is for me to try to manage the investments for you,” she said. …Learn More

Poker chips

Money Culture

Is Betting on Fantasy Sports Addicting?

“The best adrenaline rush ever,” says one of the barrage of fantasy sports commercials broadcast into living rooms this football season.

An adrenaline rush is known to be a hallmark of addiction to other types of gambling, which can trigger the brain’s pleasure center much like the triggers in a drug addict’s brain, according to University of Cambridge psychologists.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans are playing fantasy football and other sports online for money. The Internet has made this so accessible that it could facilitate the rapid-fire betting associated with problematic gambling.

Playing fantasy sports is “as easy as ordering a pizza online … [or] texting your friends,” a relapsed gambler told the New York Times. He said he lost nearly $20,000 on football, tennis, and Japanese basketball. And losing is easy but the odds of winning are long: an investigation by the New York State attorney general found that 1 percent of players “receive the vast majority of the winnings” paid out by two prominent sports fantasy websites. …Learn More

Field Work

What’s Up With Women?

The share of women enrolled in college is increasing, and more women are breaking into the top tier of business, government and non-profits.

But at the same time that women are achieving more status than at in any time in history, we still know much less than men about money and finance. What’s up with that?

Financial literacy is important to women, because they live longer and need more retirement savings. Another reason this matters is that women are, according to a recent federal report, more financially vulnerable than men, particularly when they become divorced, widowed, or retired.

Anyone who is not savvy “will have a much tougher time preparing themselves for retirement,” Roger Ferguson, the president of the TIAA-CREF retirement system, said at the retirement research conference in Washington.

In a now-famous survey designed by Annamaria Lusardi, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business, and Olivia Mitchell at The Wharton School, only one in five American women who were asked three simple financial questions got them all right.

And the problem of financially illiterate women is universal. Lusardi recently fielded her survey on a global scale and found the same abysmal results. “Whether you look at the Netherlands or Sweden or Italy or the U.S. – these are very different countries – women know less than men,” she said.

She is, nevertheless, optimistic, because women are also more likely to admit what they do not know. Half of women in a separate U.S. study said they didn’t know the survey answers, while only one-third of men did. This admission can be viewed as “a good thing for women,” Lusardi said.Learn More

Field Work

Middle Schools Vie in Video Contest

The Massachusetts Financial Education Collaborative (MFEC) had one big reason for targeting its video contest to middle school kids: advertising.

“Hey, you gotta have a cell phone. You gotta have these jeans. The contest seemed like a great way to bring awareness” to the issue of kids and our consumer culture, said Andrea Wrenn, mother of five, education consultant, and the MFEC volunteer who oversees the contest.

Two Massachusetts middle schools submitted videos exploring kid consumerism in the first year of MFEC’s contest: the Norwell Middle School and the Hill View Montessori Charter Public School in Haverhill.

Squared Away encourages readers to support the new effort by clicking here to vote for your favorite video! The voting deadline is April 27.

The contest is among the creative ways communities are encouraging children and teenagers to learn about the money issues they deal with – a play recently staged by Cambridge high school students was another.Learn More

Three pictures depiciting various scenes from the play "Money Matters"

Money Culture

Teen Play about Money is “Eye Opening!”

“Money Matters,” a play that opened last weekend in Cambridge, Mass., demonstrated the financial wit of its teenage actors at the same time that they – and the audience – embraced the complexities of money.

Credit versus debt, income differences among classmates, money and relationships, certificates of deposit, needs versus wants – this only scratches the surface of the subject matter in the Youth Underground theater production, which begins touring the Boston area in February.

The actors clearly were having fun, but their performance served as an educational tool that might be replicated. For example, the screenplay was based on the actors and other teenagers’ 80-some interviews of community residents about their financial viewpoints and mishaps. The stories generated ideas for the vignettes that were stitched into a screenplay.

“Very eye-opening!” audience member Cameron Netland, 16, said after the performance.

“I learned the difference between saving and spending and between debit and credit!” said Aaliyah Nathan, 14, who, wearing black suede boots to the performance, admitted a weakness for new shoes. …Learn More