Author Archives: macksb

‘Retire Rich!’ Don’t Believe the Sales Pitch

If an alien were to drop in to study earthlings’ retirement, it would have to conclude that saving is either nearly hopeless or super easy.

Many Americans approach retirement planning with dread – hardly surprising, given that only about half of working-age adults are on track to have sufficient savings to retire in the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to while working.

But there purports to be an easier way – and it’s on YouTube. Googling “retirement” turns up all kinds of outlandish promises of nirvana for regular folks.  Examples of YouTube titles are: “Retire Young. Retire Rich.” “Guaranteed Ways to Retire Rich.” “How to Retire in 10 Years – Much Easier Than You Think.” You get the picture.

Don’t be fooled. In a 401(k) world, what workers need is determination, planning, and persistence to ensure they’ll be prepared for old age.  YouTube offers only magic bullets.

Many of these exploitative videos are targeted to 20-somethings new to the financial world, who may be more vulnerable and persuadable. But perhaps they are also able to attract hundreds or even thousands of viewers because they offer easy solutions to what may be our most anxiety-producing financial challenge: Will I ever be able to afford to retire?

Yes, one video claims. Retire at age 40! The self-appointed retirement expert in this video, who does not identify himself, hides behind cartoon illustrations on a white board to display his mathematical comparisons of workers who started saving at different ages. The point of this exercise is that people who start early will wind up with a better-funded retirement, due to compounding investment returns, than those who start in their 40s or 50s. So far so good.

But things quickly go downhill when he claims that it’s possible for a 23-year-old to retire in 17 years. You “don’t have to work another day in your life, and you’re still able to do the things you want to do,” he says, allowing this tantalizing prospect to sink in with the audience. But his retire-at-40 scheme has a catch – and it’s a big one. To achieve this goal, a 23-year-old would have to save half of his or her income. Young adults are trying to achieve independence – not move back in with their parents to follow his financial prescription. …Learn More

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Medicaid Expansion Reduces Unpaid Debt

One in five Americans is burdened by unpaid medical bills that have been sent to a collection agency. Medical debt is the most common type of debt in collections.

This burden falls hardest on lower-paid people, who have little money to spare between paychecks.  These are the same people the 2014 Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was designed to help.  Some 6.5 million additional low-income workers were getting insurance coverage just two years after Medicaid’s expansion, which increased the program’s income ceiling for eligibility in the states that chose to adopt the expansion.

mapThe evidence mounts that this major policy has improved the precarious finances of vulnerable households.

A new study of the regions of the country with the largest percentage of low-income residents found that putting more people on Medicaid has reduced the number of unpaid bills of all kinds that go to collection agencies and cut by $1,000 the amounts that individuals had in collections.

The impact in states that did not expand Medicaid is apparent in Urban Institute data. Five of the 10 states with the highest share of residents owing money for medical bills – North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas – decided against expanding their Medicaid-covered populations under the ACA option. About one in four of their residents have medical debt in collections.

That’s in contrast to Minnesota, which has one of the most generous Medicaid programs in the country and the lowest rate of medical debt collection of any state (3 percent of residents), said Urban Institute economist Signe-Mary McKernan.

“Past due medical debt is a big problem,” she said.  “When [people] have high-quality health care, it makes a difference not only in their physical health but in their financial health.” …
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Americans’ Compulsion for Clutter

Anthropologists took a deep dive into Middle America’s clutter a few years ago, and here’s what they found:

A wall of shelves holding hundreds and hundreds of Beanie Babies and dolls. Giant packs of multiple paper towels, cleaning fluids, Gatorade, and Dixie cups piled high in the garage or laundry room. Frozen prepared foods jam-packed into twin refrigerators in the kitchen and garage – enough to feed a family for weeks.

I write frequently about the financial challenges facing the middle class today and their perception that the American Dream is slowly and inexorably eroding. This feeling is very real.

But surely hyper-consumerism has something to do with our financial stress. U.S. households have more possessions than in any other country, UCLA anthropologists said in this video:

Money spent unnecessarily to stock our own personal Big Box store in the garage leaves much less for long-term goals like savings, retirement, and college tuition – the same expenses middle class families struggle to afford.  “We buy stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have,” summed up one commenter on the video’s YouTube page.

The United States has long been a prosperous and material culture. But anthropologist Anthony Graesch argues that the magnitude of consumption has grown by leaps and bounds. This trend has probably been encouraged by the proliferation of inexpensive imports from countries with lower wages. Over a lifetime, these small expenses add up to boatloads of money.

“The sheer diversity and availability and fairly inexpensive array of objects that are out there – this has significantly changed over the years,” Graesch said. Toys are a prime example. “We’re perhaps spending more on kids’ material culture than ever before.”

Minimalism goes in and out of vogue, but there are few minimalists among us – this takes work, self-control, and a willingness to part ways with sentimentality. For the rest of us, there’s a personal finance lesson in this video. …
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US Fertility Falls in Midst of Recovery

fertilityWhen the economy is expanding and more people are working and earning more, they can afford to have more babies.

But that time-tested connection between the economy and fertility seems to be broken. During the recovery that followed the 2008-2009 recession and continues today, the U.S. fertility rate has dropped quite a bit.

Lower fertility is of interest to retirement experts because it has serious implications for our aging population.  AARP’s Public Policy Institute predicts a decline in the number of family members and friends available in the future to care for the elderly. Fewer babies also mean fewer workers will be paying into Social Security, in the absence of an increase in immigration.

Of course, fertility rates in developed countries like the United States, Germany, and Japan are far below the post-World War II baby boom. But the very recent decline in this country is striking. The total fertility rate, the best measure of current fertility, is 1.76 births per woman. This is well below the rate of 2 births per woman a decade ago.

A study by researchers at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College identified four structural changes that are pulling the birth rate down. …Learn More

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Scam Alert: Student Debt ‘Relief’

Despite numerous state efforts to crack down on fly-by-night firms falsely claiming to reduce or eliminate young adults’ student loans, new firms keep popping up.

Their social media pitches and websites promise borrowers things the companies can’t possibly deliver on. They appeal to potential customers struggling to pay student loans with slogans like “Get Rid of Your Student Loans Today!” or “$17,500 in Up Front Forgiveness” – “100 percent guaranteed!”

In a high-stakes game of Whac-a-Mole, attorneys general in numerous states have repeatedly brought legal actions against these so-called “debt relief” companies in cases going back at least four years. Massachusetts resolved one case this past summer, and Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit last fall.  Florida has aggressively pursued several debt relief companies recently. The Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have also gotten involved.

Student loan borrowers “are desperate for help, which is how these companies are able to grab them,” said Betsy Mayotte, founder of the Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a Boston-area non-profit she founded to provide free help to people wrestling with college loan payments.

Mayotte described egregious fraud against a client who came to her organization and had been paying her student loans for years, whittling down the amount she owed to $5,000 – but it ballooned to $12,000 after she got involved with a debt-relief firm that took over her loan payments. The company put the loan into the federal government’s forbearance program, where it went unpaid while accruing interest for two years. After the forbearance period expired, the debt relief company neglected to resume the loan payments, despite continuing to collect its monthly fee. The customer defaulted on her debt unwittingly – but never got a notice because her contact information on the loans had been changed. … Learn More

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College Debt Can Limit 401(k) Saving

college loans chartThe share of students borrowing money to pay for college increases year after year, and they’re borrowing more every year.  Total student debt, adjusted for inflation, has tripled in just over a decade.

The loan payments, which can be a few hundred dollars a month, take a big bite out of young adults’ still-low levels of disposable income. The debt makes them more prone to bankruptcy and lower homeownership rates.

A key question is whether this pressing financial obligation might affect their preparation for a retirement that is several decades away.  Here’s what researchers Matt Rutledge, Geoff Sanzenbacher, and Francis Vitagliano of the Center for Retirement Research learned about student debt:

  • By age 30, the college graduates who are loan-free have saved two times more in their retirement plans than the graduates who are paying off debt. (Perhaps surprisingly, the presence of student loans do not seem to affect the amount saved by students who didn’t graduate, though they do have substantially less in their 401(k)s than the graduates.)
  • The amount owed by college graduates with loans does not matter. The mere existence of the debt is enough to constrain saving. …

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Personality Influences Path to Retirement

Only about a third of the older people who are working full-time will go straight into retirement. Most take zigzag paths.

These paths include gradually reducing their hours, occasional consulting, or finding a new job or an Uber stint that is only part-time. Other people “unretire,” meaning that they retire temporarily from a full-time job only to decide to return to work for a while.

A new study finds that the paths older workers choose are influenced by their personality and by how well they’re able to hold the line against the natural cognitive decline that accompanies aging.

Researchers at RAND in the United States and a think tank in The Netherlands uncovered interesting connections between retirement and cognitive acuity and, separately, and a variety of personality traits. To do this, they followed older Americans’ work and retirement decisions over 14 years through a survey, which also administered a personality and a cognition test.

Here’s what they found:

  • Cognitive ability.  The people in the study who had higher levels of what’s known as fluid cognitive function – the ability to recall things, learn fast, and think on one’s feet – are much more likely to follow the paths of either working full-time or part-time past age 70.

    The probable reason is simply that more job options are available to people with higher cognitive ability – whether fluidity or sheer intelligence – so they have an easier time remaining in the labor force even though they’re getting older. …

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