A macro image of US Savings Bonds.

Nudge to Save Doesn’t Work

The popular strategy of automatically enrolling people in savings plans didn’t work so well among low-income people.

Researchers found that when a tax preparation service slated 10 percent of filers’ tax refunds to purchase a savings bond, many balked and opted out of the program. The likely reason: they already had plans for how they were going to spend the windfall, including a pressing need to pay bills.

Automatic enrollment in 401(k)s, a strategy pioneered by behavioral economists, is gaining popularity in U.S. workplaces, largely because it works so well: a record 51 percent of U.S. employers used auto enrollment in 2010, according to Callan Associates, a benefits consultant.

Workers can still opt out, but employers have found that most of them remained in the 401(k) plan. This is due to inertia and also because employees know that saving for retirement is the right thing to do – they just needed a push.

But an experiment by economists at Swarthmore College and the University of Virginia, published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “raises questions about the power of defaults.” …Learn More

Expert Offers Advice About Advisors

J. Michael Collins, faculty director of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

People often have a tough time deciding whether they would benefit from hiring a financial advisor.

J. Michael Collins, who specializes in consumer decisionmaking in the financial marketplace at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, attempted to answer some questions on the topic in an online interview by a Chicago money manager.

Most agree that fee-based advisors are preferable to those who earn commissions by selling products to their clients – being a broker or a salesman conflicts with giving advice. This troublesome conflict is eliminated by paying an advisor a fee for his or her work.

But even the prospect of hiring a fee-based advisor typically raises more questions than answers. What do advisors do? Is the service worth the fee an advisor charges? What exactly am I paying for?

Read here what Collins had to say on the topic.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

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

Retirees: Focus on the Monthly Check

To help retirees choose the best way to spend down the 401(k) savings they have built up over a lifetime, Nobel Prize laureate William Sharpe urged them to focus on a single outcome: the size of their monthly check.


This video was created by Professor William Sharpe of Stanford University.

Financial advisors should say to their clients, “Don’t worry about the strategy or model. Look at the outcomes that matter: what you can spend year by year in retirement,” he said.

Speaking at a conference this week at Boston University’s School of Management, which brought financial practitioners together with top minds in academic finance and Washington think tanks, Sharpe said advisors should present clients with various payout schedules and then explain the probability of success for each one they’re considering. Learn More

A cartoon child holding money standing below the title: I Got Bank! What my grandad taught me about money.

Kids’ Book Teaches Bankable Lessons

Young readers have given a thumbs-up to the new children’s book, “I Got Bank!”

The book is about 10-year-old Jazz Elliott, who follows the frugality lesson his late granddad taught him: he has saved $2,000 in a bank account.

class

Beverly Moss’ after-school reading of “I Got Bank!” The students, counter-clockwise, are: Jaida, Saba, Kevin, Ellen, Anthony, Yaovi, Jepherson, Carlos, and Kent.

On Friday afternoons in May, eight- to 12-year-olds take turns reading the book aloud during the after-school program at the Mission Park Apartments in Boston. It elicits all kinds of discussion.

One of the readers, Ellen, had a Eureka moment after librarian Beverly Moss explains how regular savings accounts work.

“Oh, that’s an interest rate!” Ellen said.

The book’s author, Teri Williams, is also president of a bank that is giving away free copies of “I Got Bank!” to grade schools and after-school programs. Williams, who grew up in a low-income housing project in Bridgeport, Connecticut, said she wrote the book to help children who have similar backgrounds start learning financial skills. …Learn More

Conference Will Guide Financial Advisors

At a dinner next Monday night, finance professor Zvi Bodie at Boston University and his co-hosts will kick off their third conference geared toward educating financial professionals about cutting-edge thinking in the field. “The Future of Life Cycle Saving and Investing” will focus on serving low-income individuals. However, Bodie said in this recent interview that the conference lessons apply to all financial consumers.

Zvi BodieSQUARED AWAY: Is this an annual conference?
BODIE: No. The first one was in 2006, the second in 2008. Truthfully, what inspired me to have these conferences, among other things, was the strong support of MIT economics professor Paul Samuelson. I decided I was sick of the baloney about personal investing that is served up on websites, brochures, etc. – all of which is designed for the benefit of the service providers rather than the customers. So much of it flatly contradicts what I teach. We’re dedicating the dinner to the memory of Paul Samuelson, who died last year.

SQUARED AWAY: What baloney?
BODIE: Say you’re a beginning investor. You go to any website – go to investor.gov. It’s a really nice looking website. This is the Securities and Exchange Commission, so you’d think, ‘Wow, I can trust this.’ But, actually, all this material was fed to the government by the investment industry. …
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