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Research

Social Security Credits for Moms?

Dramatic changes in the U.S. family structure over several decades – more divorce, single motherhood, and unmarried couples – could have a big impact on the financial security of baby boomer women as they march into retirement – and on future retirees.

A review of studies on Social Security spousal and survivor benefits by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, examines the difficulty of providing retirement security for the growing ranks of women and mothers who do not fit the traditional family mold.

Social Security’s benefits were designed for the typical family when the pension program was enacted in the 1930s, a family portrayed at the time by Henry Barbour and his wife, Fanny, in the popular radio soap opera, “One Man’s Family.” A spouse, usually the wife, is guaranteed half of her husband’s full retirement age benefit under the program when she reaches her full retirement age – whether she works or not.  When her husband dies, her survivor benefit equals his pension benefit.

Figure: Rise of the Single Mother

But women who marry and become divorced within 10 years are not eligible for these benefits.  Nor, of course, are single working women, who receive benefits based solely on their own work histories.  Increasing numbers of women reaching retirement age today either were in short-term marriages or never married and won’t receive a spousal or survivor benefit. The problem is that most of these women are mothers. …Learn More

Field Work

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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clutter

On the Web

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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Avoid scams

Field Work

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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Money Culture

Why US Workers Have Lost Leverage

A 1970 contract negotiation between GE and its unionized workforce is unimaginable today.

A strike then slowed production for months at 135 factories around the country. With inflation running at 6 percent annually, the company offered pay raises of 3 percent to 5 percent a year for three years. The union rejected the offer, and a federal mediator was brought in. GE eventually agreed to a minimum 25 percent pay raise over 40 months.

“They said we couldn’t, but we damn sure did it,” one staffer said about his union’s victory.

Former Wall Street Journal editor Rick Wartzman tells this story in his book about the rise and fall of American workers through the labor relations that have played out at corporate stalwarts like GE, General Motors, and Walmart.

FiguresCritics use examples like GE to argue that unions had it too good – and they have a point. But that’s old news. What’s relevant today is that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and blue-collar and middle-class Americans seem barely able to keep their heads above water even in a long-running economic boom.

New York University economist Edward Wolff in a January report estimated that workers lost much ground in the 2008 recession and never recovered. The typical family’s net worth, adjusted for inflation, is no higher than it was in 1983 and far below the pre-recession peak. Granted, workers’ wages have gone up recently, though barely faster than inflation, but they had been flat for 15 years. Workers are also funding more of their retirement and health insurance.

Wartzman’s theme in “The End of Loyalty: the Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America” is that the system no longer works for regular people, because companies have weakened or broken the social contract they once had with their workers.

The loss of employer loyalty is one way to look at the state of labor today. The loss of workers’ leverage against global corporations is another. …Learn More

race to the finish

Behavior

Americans With Small 401ks Worry

This blog has spilled plenty of ink over the problem of so many workers having inadequate retirement savings.

One theory is that they don’t understand the urgency. But a new survey makes clear that they not only are fully aware of the problem but are very worried about it.

The vast majority of the 1,000-plus baby boomers and Generation-Xers who conceded to being behind on their saving wish they could save more – Allianz, which conducted the survey, calls them “chasers.”

These chasers recognize that if they don’t make adjustments, it’ll be too late to repair their finances. Two out of three fear the worst: they’ll run out of money at some point in old age and will be forced to eke out a living on their Social Security checks alone.

Their fears are warranted. The typical boomer household approaching retirement who has a 401(k) has saved just $135,000 in its 401(k) and any IRAs combined. At retirement, this amount equates to only about $600 in monthly income

Half of the workers put the blame on a single culprit: “too many other expenses right now.”

This sentiment dovetails with mounting evidence that many workers are overwhelmed by the increasing costs of health insurance, college, and housing, which are far outpacing their pay raises. Low-paid workers are especially hard hit, according to 2017 research. If they save at all, they set aside only 3 percent of their paychecks – half of what top-paid people are able to save. …Learn More

family

Research

Mom-Dad Pay Gap Grows After First Child

Moms don’t need a research study to tell them that their earnings will never be high as dads’.

Nevertheless, a new study confirms this – and the pay gap may be larger than some suspect. In the two years surrounding the baby’s birth, mothers’ earnings fall by 12 percent, on average, as their careers stall or they take a hiatus from work to care for the child. Meanwhile, fathers’ careers clip along, with bonuses, pay raises, more hours, or better jobs bumping up their pay by 34 percent.

Mothers don’t get back to their pre-baby income levels until the child is 9 or 10 years old. The mom-dad wage gap will never be smaller than it was before the baby, because “the earnings of the male spouse do not undergo the initial shock” of childbirth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau researchers. They tracked wage changes starting in 1978, when baby boomer women were streaming into the labor force.

Their comparison of the husband-wife pay gap helps to overcome a big disadvantage of analyzing the popularized version of the gap: women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. This headline statistic applies to all men and all women.

It’s neater to compare spouses, because both of them experience the baby bump at the same time, allowing estimates of the changes in each one’s earnings during the same time period and life circumstances. Just as important, husbands and wives usually bring to a marriage similar levels of education, the major determinant of earnings throughout workers’ lives.

The big issue in this study, however, is that data limitations prevented the researchers from controlling for the hours each spouse works after the baby’s birth. There are several potential explanations for mothers’ smaller paychecks but reduced hours are a major reason.

Maternity leave can be the start of several years of part-time employment at lower pay or even a hiatus from work for childrearing. If new mothers do return to the labor force fairly quickly, prioritizing the child can mean a job with less responsibility and lower pay than they earned in the past.

The increasing pay gap illuminates the financial sacrifices that moms make. Here are other findings in the study: …Learn More

Abstract financial concept illustration

Behavior

Work v. Save Options Quantified

One of Americans’ biggest financial challenges is proper planning to ensure that their standard of living doesn’t drop after they retire and the regular paychecks stop.

A new study has practical implications for baby boomers in urgent need of improving their retirement finances: working a few additional years carries a lot more financial punch than a last-ditch effort to save some extra money in a 401(k).

This point is made dramatically in a simple example in the study: if a head of household who is 10 years away from retiring increases his 401(k) contributions from 6 percent to 7 percent of pay (with a 3 percent employer match) for the next decade, he would get no more benefit than if he instead had decided to work just one additional month before retiring.

Table showing how long to delay retirement in order to match a 1% increase in savings rate by age

Of course, this estimate should be taken only as illustrative.  To get their retirement finances into shape, many people should plan to work several more years than is typical today. Baby boomers tend to leave the labor force in their early- to mid-60s, even though more than four out of 10 boomers are on a path to a lower retirement standard of living. …Learn More

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