illustration of guy parachuting

A Modest Victory in Financial Education

With so many Americans in the dark about how to prepare for retirement, educating them about why it’s critical to save seems an obvious way to tackle this problem. But very few solid studies prove that financial education actually works.

This field research should be counted as a positive result for a modest, low-cost financial education program.

Carly Urban at Montana State found that tellers and other low-level employees working at 45 randomly selected credit unions around the country clearly made progress after spending just 10 hours in an online financial education program. The information-based program required the workers to do some reading and walked them through specific examples and scenarios they might face.

Their improvements weren’t limited to increasing their knowledge of finances and retirement saving either. They also saved more, Urban said while presenting her findings at a webinar sponsored by the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin.

In the fall of 2009, the credit union employees completed the online education on the basics of everything from financial planning and investment risk to saving for college and working with a financial adviser. They were allowed to choose how much time to spend on each of 10 modules, and their employers let them take the courses at work – rather than use up valuable free time. …Learn More

1 in 3 Can Barely Afford Medical Care

More American Are Worried About Healthcare CostsMore Americans have health insurance, but they’ve also become increasingly worried over the past two years about how to pay for every aspect of their medical care.

While the majority of insured adults still can afford their health care, the minority who say it’s “difficult” to pay their monthly premiums, doctor and prescription copayments, and deductibles is growing.

Potential explanations for these concerns, revealed in a new Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation poll, include rapidly rising prescription drug costs and the fact that employer-provided health insurance plans with high deductibles are far more common than they used to be.

To be sure, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has expanded Americans’ access to health insurance, and federal subsidies have made the premiums more affordable for millions of previously uninsured workers, who now purchase coverage through the ACA’s state health exchanges.  But the program hasn’t eliminated concerns about cost. …Learn More

False teeth

Get Dental Work Before You Retire

Caps, gum surgeries, implants, dental exotica – all kinds of things can and do go wrong in retirees’ mouths.

But dental coverage also drops sharply for older Americans, because when people retire, they give up their employer’s dental insurance. Without it, retirees needing dental work can face an unexpected, mini financial crisis.

Medicare does not cover routine dental procedures, a fact that a majority of working baby boomers are unaware of. But most seniors also aren’t covered through a spouse or under, say, a union dental insurance plan for retirees. The private dental insurance market is their only option for care, and very few purchase it.

Uninsured older Americans shell out $1,126 annually, on average, for dental work, which is $400 more than people with coverage spend. Out-of-pocket costs can be much higher in a year when extensive work is required. …Learn More

Long-term Care on a Boxed-wine Budget

The dangers of isolation in old age, the quest for a nice nursing home on “a boxed-wine wallet” – Annabelle Gurwitch approaches these issues with humor in a PBS NewsHour video that touches on themes previously covered in this blog.

When Gurwitch and her sister started grappling with finding a new home for their parents, one that would provide care for them, the sisters faced some tough decisions – and their parents had to make difficult compromises.

But when their father became very ill, something wonderful happened in their parents’ new community. …Learn More

Tax documents

Retirement, Saving and Your Taxes

Just one in four of the low-income workers eligible for the federal tax credit for retirement saving are even aware that it exists.

The IRS, as I said in a previous blog, practically “gives money away” through its Saver’s Tax Credit, which returns as much as half of the amount saved to the tax filer. The credit was designed to encourage the nation’s lowest-paid workers, who largely don’t save.

Yet a survey last year by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that people who are not eligible for the credit know more about it than people who are eligible. There was a pervasive lack of awareness in three groups in particular: workers earning under $50,000, women, and people with no more than a high school education.

We’re getting into the thick of the tax season, so we’ve assembled a list of our previous tax-oriented blogs – the first article explains the saver’s credit. The blogs, listed below, explore a variety of issues to consider when you’re doing your taxes: …Learn More

Dark tunnel

In the Dark about Retirement?

There’s new evidence to remind us that nothing much changes: we are still baffled by our DIY retirement system.

And no wonder!

First, saving must start at a young age, when retirement is an abstraction. Saving is further stymied by two big questions: how much to save and how to invest it?  It’s also smart to anticipate how one’s compensation arc might affect Social Security – taking into account, for example, that women withdraw temporarily from the labor force to have children and that earnings can decline when workers hit their 50s.  As we fly past middle age and retirement appears on the horizon, it’s a little late to figure this retirement thing out.  And there’s no plan for long-term care when we’re very old.

The evidence: Start with Merrill Lynch’s new survey in which 81 percent of Americans do not know how much money they’ll need in retirement.  This makes it very difficult to know how much to deduct from one’s paycheck for retirement savings. Employers, frankly, could do more to help us figure this out. (Some answers appear at the end of this blog.)

Being in the dark now about how much to save is a cousin of being afraid of running out of money later, in retirement. More than 70 percent of accountants say this fear of running out is their clients’ top concern – followed by whether they can maintain their current lifestyle and afford medical care in retirement – according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Our inclination to avoid difficult issues does not go away with age.  Yes, we’ve gotten wiser, but advanced old age means death, and who wants to think about that?

The upshot: seven in 10 adults have not planned for their own long-term care needs in the future, Northwestern Mutual reports.  Even among a smaller group who anticipate having to take care of an elderly parent, one in three of them “have taken no steps to plan” for their own care.

“You would think that would prompt them to action,” said Kamilah Williams-Kemp, Northwestern’s vice president of long-term care. And while the constant barrage of news and statistics is making Americans more aware of their rising longevity, Williams-Kemp said, caregivers are often more interested in talking about their emotional and physical challenges and the rewards of caregiving than about its substantial financial toll.

There is a “disconnect between general awareness and prompting people to take action,” she said.

The potential for dementia or diminished capacity late in life isn’t on our radar either, the survey of CPAs found: the vast majority of people either choose to ignore the issue, wait and react to it, or are confused.

Squared Away exists in part to educate people about retirement essentials, based on facts and high-quality research. The following blogs might help you:

How Much for the 401(k)? Depends. …Learn More

emergency

Some Insured Workers Delay Healthcare

Stark differences are emerging in the ways that workers, depending on how much they earn, are using the medical services covered by their employer health plans.

While higher-income workers gravitate toward preventive and maintenance care, lower-wage workers visit emergency rooms far more often, according to a study published last month in Health Affairs.  The researchers pointed to one major culprit: a 67 percent increase in average deductibles for employer health plans since 2010.

Employers usually offer the same health plans to all their employees. But the growing prevalence of high-deductible plans could be making making some low-wage workers think twice before seeing a doctor if they’ll have to pay the entire bill because they haven’t hit their yearly deductibles yet. Health insurance premiums and other out-of-pocket medical costs in high-deductible plans together consumed about 21 percent of pretax earnings for the low-wage workers studied.

Many of these workers, apparently trying to contain their out-of-pocket costs, might “avoid or delay health care services, despite having coverage,” said the researchers.

They analyzed four employers that covered some 43,000 workers through a common private health insurance exchange in 2014.  The researchers adjusted the data so they could compare the employees, controlling for, among other things, health insurance plan design, deductible levels, employee characteristics, and the size of their households.

An analysis of insurance claims data found that lower-paid workers were more likely to see a doctor after medical problems develop, while higher-paid workers were more diligent about preventing problems.

For example, workers in the top two wage categories ($44,000-$70,000 and over $70,001) received preventive care during visits to the doctor’s office far more often than workers earning under $30,000.  Screenings for breast, cervical and colon cancer were also more frequent among high-paid employees, who also adhered more closely to the drug regimens prescribed by their doctors.

Not surprisingly, hospital admission rates for lower-wage workers were nearly double the rates of the highest-paid workers – and four times higher for avoidable medical problems that landed them in the hospital. Low-paid workers visited emergency rooms about three times more often.

There are many potential reasons for these differences, including low-paid workers’ generally lower education levels and less access to paid time off from work to see a doctor. But the researchers said financial constraints certainly played a role: …Learn More

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