Why Most Elderly Pay No Federal Tax

Chart: Tax pieA March blog post pointing out that a large majority of America’s older population pay no federal income tax seemed to surprise some readers – particularly retirees who must send checks to the IRS at this time of year.

“[M]y annual tax liability is and will continue to be greater than when I was employed,” said one such retiree.

Readers’ comments are always welcome, and this time they’ve thrown a spotlight on a shortcoming of the article.  It did not fully explore why most retirees – roughly two-thirds of 70 year olds – pay no federal income tax.

According to a Tax Policy Center report, “Why Some Tax Units Pay No Income Tax,” tax filers over age 65 are the largest single group to benefit from special provisions of the tax code designed to help various types of people. The elderly receiving tax preferences make up 44 percent of filers of all ages who are moved off the tax rolls by these tax breaks, said the Center, a joint effort of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.

Of course, retirees pay all sorts of other taxes, including property tax and state sales and income taxes.  But it’s essential for baby boomers to understand this federal income tax issue as they plan for retirement. …Learn More

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White-Collar Jobs Age-Sensitive Too

Skills that decline with age:It’s widely recognized that blue-collar workers retire relatively early, when their bodies start wearing out. But the assumption has been that people in less physically demanding white-collar jobs can carry on.

However, that does not hold true for all white-collar occupations, according to a newly released study by the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog. This finding is especially relevant amid renewed discussions about again increasing the age when workers can claim their full Social Security benefits.

This would effectively reduce everyone’s benefits by about 7 percent for each year the age is raised.  Benefits are reduced either because individuals must wait longer to claim their full monthly benefit (which means receiving the benefit for a shorter period of time) or because they would receive a smaller monthly benefit if they don’t wait.  The reduced monthly benefit would affect people who might be pushed into an earlier retirement due to age-related limitations on what they can do.

Factory or construction workers are classic examples: critical attributes, such as strength and flexibility, atrophy with age. But so do many cognitive and other requirements common to both white- and blue-collar jobs. Memory slips, eyesight blurs, and reaction times are no longer as sharp as they used to be. …Learn More

Our Blind Spots Cut Retirement Savings

Our personal biases can play havoc with how we handle our finances.

Two such biases have long been suspected as obstacles to saving for retirement. The first is a tendency to procrastinate on decisions that may benefit an individual in the long run, but also involve short-term costs, like saving for retirement – economists call this “present bias.”

The second bias is a failure to perceive the power of compounding investment returns and how this can build wealth over decades of saving.

But the impact of these biases on how much people actually save wasn’t really understood – until now.  A new study by a team of economists from Stanford University, the University of Minnesota, the London School of Economics, and Claremont Graduate University finds that people who are not blinded by these two biases in particular have saved significantly more for retirement, largely because they start putting money away earlier in life.

The researchers based their findings on a big sample of nearly 2,500 people in online surveys in 2014 and 2015; the average age was about 49. To determine the consistency with which they value the present over the future, the survey asked the participants a series of questions about whether they would, for example, rather have $100 now or a larger amount on some future date – people who want their money now are a bit like Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons, who became famous for wanting a hamburger now but offering to pay for it later. The survey questions about compounding revolved around estimating an account’s future value, using a variety of different interest rates and time periods. … Learn More

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Black Americans Give More to Relatives

Giving money to relatives.

Oprah has done it – in the form of a $490,000 house for her newly discovered sister. Former NFL cornerback Phillip Buchanon just wrote a book complaining about it. And Charles Barkley is characteristically blunt about it.

“When you continually come to me for money, that’s what ruins relationships,” Barkley explained on NBA TV. “I probably got $4-5 million I lent to friends and family I’ll never see again.”

No one is immune to a relative’s appeals for financial help. But this is a perennial and far more prevalent issue among black Americans – and not just the ultra-rich like Oprah and Barkley – according to Rourke O’Brien at the University of Wisconsin.

What O’Brien calls “informal assistance” exists, in part, because giving bestows non-monetary benefits on the givers as they foster emotional support and solidarity among their kin. But as a personal financial issue, the expectations and feelings of obligation are very challenging – and a topic of conversation in the black community.

One woman commenting online said she was looking for some useful advice about how “to be more comfortable with saying ‘no’ ” to her loved ones. …Learn More

401ks: an Employer-Employee Disconnect

Chart: How Their Views Diverge

A survey throws a new spotlight on the employer-employee disconnect over 401(k)s that has also been well-documented in research studies.

The survey of 1,000 employees reveals that workers lack confidence in their ability to navigate basic aspects of their retirement plans, while the 200 employers also surveyed have a more optimistic view of how workers are doing.

Consider the most basic question of how much to put away for retirement. Two-thirds of employers believe their workers know how much to save, while only one-third of employees feel they know, according to BlackRock. And while nearly two-thirds of employers believe the majority of workers save enough, a minority of workers does.

Most employers also believe their workers understand their investment options. Yet less than half of the workers say they do – and only 30 percent feel like they’ve made the right investment choices, according to the BlackRock survey. (Full disclosure: BlackRock is a corporate partner of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, which supports this blog).

Squared Away has written numerous blogs over the years about what academic research and other data reveal about the employer-employee relationship. Summaries of past articles continue on the next page, with links to the specific blogs mentioned: …Learn More

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Work Absenteeism Tied to Money Stress

Most of us know how distracting and stressful it is when our credit card balance creeps up or there’s a gap between a bill’s due date and when our paycheck gets deposited.

But financial stress can also create serious problems at work like absenteeism, problems that can turn around and compound the financial problems.

More than one in four employees who said they deal with “financial stress” admit that it interferes with how well they do their jobs, says a new survey of 5,000-plus workers by the consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

It also increases absenteeism. The study found that workers stressed about their finances are absent from work 3.5 days per year, on average – nearly double the absenteeism of people who are not stressed. And when the worriers are at work, they are “highly distracted” – this distraction can gobble up 12 additional days per year, interfering with how well they do their jobs, the survey found.

The workers expressed broader concerns than their unpaid bills, too, said Steve Nyce, a senior Willis Towers Watson economist. Many are very concerned about their long-term financial future and retirement. …Learn More

Illustration: Debt

Americans Are on a Credit Card Binge

Rising levels of credit card debt are a good thing and a bad thing.

And they are definitely rising: during the final three months of 2015, Americans added $52.4 billion to what they owe on their credit cards, according to a new CardHub report based on Federal Reserve Board data.

For context, that is nearly as much as was added to cards in all of 2014.

Spending rises when consumers have jobs or get better jobs and when the economy is growing, as it is now, said Lowell Ricketts, an analyst with the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. With incomes increasing, he said, “they’re in a stronger position to make those investments like purchasing a new home or renovating their existing homes.” The surge in credit card debt indicates that people are using plastic to pay for things like the furniture for the new house.

The bad part is what happens to over-leveraged spenders when the economy suddenly turns down, which is what WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez is concerned about. “We are starting to get into scary territory here,” she said. The fourth-quarter binge “was much larger than usual.”

During all of 2015, credit card balances, net of payments, increased by nearly $71 billion, substantially higher than the $57.4 billion increase in 2014. Last year’s fourth-quarter binge was only part of the story, Gonzalez said. …Learn More

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