Photo of construction demolition

Field Work

How Melanie Paid Off Her Student Debt

Sitting at her computer in the oversized studio apartment she shares with her boyfriend in Portland, Oregon, Melanie Lockert received confirmation on Dec. 10 that her ordeal was over: $81,000 in college and graduate school loans were finally paid off.

She had two reactions. The first was an existential panic. “Who am I without debt?” the 31-year-old asked herself. Then a grin spread across her face. “I started dancing and screaming in my apartment. It was such an amazing moment, and I felt incredibly happy to be done with this,” she said.

Recent college graduates might despair that their day of liberation is far away or might never come. But Lockert’s single-minded focus on demolishing her debt, particularly by accelerating her payments recently, provides a roadmap – and some hard lessons – for those facing a seemingly endless string of monthly payments.

Melanie Lockert

Lockert’s path followed a zigzag pattern, which she documented in a Dear Debt blog that she started writing in 2013. Being debt-free was not her first priority when she packed up her undergraduate loans and moved from California to New York in 2010 to attend graduate school – a decision that would more than triple her total student debt. Paying off her loans required a lot of patience and sacrifice, some risk-taking, and brutal self-honesty. She concluded that she couldn’t accomplish her financial goal if she pursued a career in the field she had studied in college. … Learn More

Money Culture

Prime-Age Job Market Still Weak

Job Market chart

The job market appears in fine form. August’s unemployment rate, at 5.1 percent, is now at half of its Great Recession levels.

But while the media latch on to the unemployment rate in the federal government’s monthly jobs reports, economists like Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution are interested in a different number that’s also part of the monthly update: labor force participation among people in their prime working years, ages 25 through 54.

They are the heart of the labor market, and the trend in their participation rate paints a bleaker picture of the job market, Burtless noted in a recent report. In August, the rate was just 80.7 percent – and still below the 83 percent level prior to the 2008-2009 recession.

Labor force participation is the percentage of Americans working or looking for work. It’s critical to how the job market’s faring, because when it declines it means that even people in their prime working years are giving up on finding a job, indicating underlying weakness in the job market.

On a brighter note, the percentage of prime-age workers who have jobs is rising, though this also remains below pre-recession levels.

Burtless concludes, “The labor market is healing, but the sustained drop in participation is an indicator that the job market is still some way from robust good health.”Learn More

Social Security poster

Research

Misconceptions About Social Security

It is the most important source of retirement income for most workers. Yet too many older Americans lack a basic understanding of certain aspects of Social Security benefits.

In fairness, many people got some key questions right in a survey that quizzed them about the program’s rules and incentives. But a significant minority, and sometimes a majority, revealed a poor understanding of several major features of the program. As the researchers note, misunderstanding Social Security benefits could lead to poor financial decisions about retirement.

They analyzed responses by more than 2,300 people – all between ages 50 and 70 – to a nationally representative survey administered online in 2008. The survey, which took about half an hour, started with basic demographic questions before moving to various questions about components of the Social Security program.

Brief explanations of some program features appear below, followed by the percentage of survey respondents who provided incorrect answers, according to the researcher’s analysis of the results:

  • The U.S. Social Security Administration calculates pensions using a formula based on the average of a worker’s 35 highest years of earnings. This information is important, because each additional year of work could substitute current earnings for an early year of low earnings – or even zero earnings prior to the worker’s entry into the labor force.

68 percent were incorrect in their responses to a multiple choice question that included the correct calculation as one of four options.

  • A married person who has never worked is eligible for a pension equal to half of her spouse’s “full retirement age” benefit if the non-working spouse claims at her own full retirement age, and a reduced benefit if she claims earlier. …

Learn More

On the Web

Avoid Medicare Enrollment Mistakes

Mistakes made during initial Medicare enrollment can be costly.

Someone with on-the-job health care coverage who enrolls at age 65 may be paying Medicare premiums unnecessarily. Even worse, retirees who sign up too late incur a penalty for life.

“If you’re actively working, that’s the only reason you can enroll late in Medicare” without paying the penalty, Medicare trainer Andy Tartella says in the above video, “The ABCD’s of Medicare,” produced by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Medicare has been around for exactly 50 years. But enrolling in the program is a new experience for every single American who turns 65.   To navigate Medicare enrollment and the alphabet soup of Medicare programs, the following are other video tutorials produced by the federal government and other reliable sources – links are embedded at the end of the title: …Learn More

Field Work

New Books of Note

Several new books are pertinent to topics frequently covered by this blog. Three worth noting are about low-income savers, older workers, and small employers with retirement plans that are overdue for an upgrade.

Here are brief descriptions:

  • A Fragile Balance: Emergency Savings and Liquid Resources for Low-Income Consumers:”:

a fragile balanceFor low-wage workers in fast food, retail, and similar jobs, just finding enough money for living expenses is like squeezing blood from a turnip. Research shows that many want to save, and the absence of this backstop only increases their financial fragility. The default is often to resort to high-cost debt, which further confounds their ability to pay the bills, much less weather the next emergency such as a car repair.

Finding effective savings interventions to help low-wage workers may be the toughest personal finance challenge there is. It’s also the mission of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and its director, Michael Collins. In this volume, edited by Collins, leading researchers review various interventions and policies – from mortgage reserve accounts and impulse saving to programs that encourage low-income workers to save their tax refunds. [Watch for future blogs about specific findings in this volume.] …

Money Culture

Around 50, U.S. Workers’ Earnings Fall

Here’s a sobering thought: by the time most workers get into their 50s, their earnings are declining.

Although older workers don’t necessarily see smaller paychecks, their earnings are effectively shrinking, because they no longer keep up with inflation, according to a study charting the inflation-adjusted, or “real,” earnings of some 5 million U.S. workers over their lifetimes.

The first decade in the labor force, between ages 25 to 35, is crucial – that’s where the wage gains are concentrated, the researchers find. Real earnings plateau sometime between 35 and 45, and this plateau occurs earlier than previous research had indicated. By the time most people move into the oldest age group in the sample – 45 to 55 – their earnings are falling.

The chart below shows the percentage changes during three discrete decades in the labor force for people whose earnings are in the middle of all U.S. workers’ earnings. For the 45-55 age group, other data in the study pinpoint the earnings decline as actually beginning around 50.

Economists have been refining their analyses of lifetime earnings patterns for decades. The researchers’ methodology improves on past techniques and then applies it to an extremely robust data set: the Social Security Administration’s earnings records for U.S. workers from the 1970s through 2011.

When they looked at all workers, they found that earnings, adjusted for inflation, rise by 38 percent over a typical person’s lifetime. But these lifetime patterns vary dramatically by a worker’s income bracket. …Learn More

Geometric pattern

Research

Strange Influences on Financial Decisions

It would be nice to think that careful financial planning is behind the critical decision of when to start collecting Social Security benefits.

But psychological traits – perhaps impatience or one’s fear of losing money – can also affect whether an individual claims his benefits right at age 62 or waits a few years to increase his monthly income from Social Security.  A new study reveals another powerful influence that can jeopardize financial security: how a person’s dollar benefits might appear on the printed Social Security statement.

Business professors Suzanne Shu at UCLA and John Payne and Namika Sagara at Duke University tested this on people over age 40, controlling for psychological influences on the research subjects, such as their impatience, loss aversion, and expectations of how long they’ll live.

In the first experiment, some people were shown tables presenting their monthly Social Security benefits for each claiming age from 62 to 70 – this layout highlights the significant benefit increases that come with each year of delay.

A second set of subjects saw more complex tables displaying their total potential benefits accumulated over their entire time in retirement, which depends on both the age they first claimed and on how long they’ll live. This presentation emphasized a different aspect of the decision: the later someone claims and the longer he lives, the more money he’ll receive over many years. Die young, however, and the accumulated benefits are higher for those claiming at 62.

The experiment’s outcome was significant. The cumulative tables “make people want to claim earlier” – six months earlier than people shown the tables with monthly benefits – Shu said during a recent presentation. …Learn More

Field Work

How Much For the 401(k)? Depends.

How much must 30-somethings save in their 401(k)s to prevent a decline in their living standard after they retire?

No two people are alike, but the Center for Retirement Research estimates the typical 35 year old who hopes to retire at 65 should sock away 15 percent of his earnings, starting now.  Prefer to retire at 62?  Hike that to 24 percent.  To get the percent deducted from one’s paycheck down into the single digits, young adults should start saving in their mid-20s and think about retiring at 67.

These retirement savings rates are taken from the table below showing the Center’s recent estimates of how much workers of various ages should save to achieve a comfortable retirement; they represent the worker’s contribution plus the employer’s contribution on their worker’s behalf. Expressed as a percent of their earnings, they also vary depending when a worker retires.

How Much to Save: Table

To derive these savings rates, the Center’s economists assumed that a retired household with mid-level earnings needs 70 percent of its past earnings.  They then subtracted out the household’s anticipated Social Security benefits. The rest has to come from employer retirement savings plans, which determine the percent of pay required to reach the 70 percent “replacement rate.” …Learn More

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