Two-faced woman

Financial Distress is Set Early in Life

Young adulthood is the staging ground for financial success later in life, and today the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.  Young adults are managing the burden of paying back student loans or feeling an urgency to save – and many are trying to do both.

According to a study linking economics and psychology, what most strongly separates young adults who start out on the right foot from those already experiencing financial distress is whether they are conscientious or neurotic individuals.

University of Illinois researchers followed more than 13,000 teenagers and young adults between 1994 and 2008 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.  The survey asked questions about both their psychology and finances.  The six measures of financial distress in this study were determined by survey questions such as whether the respondents were keeping up with their rent and utility bills, whether they were worried about having enough food, and whether their net worth was positive or negative.

The personality measures were based on the Big Five traits widely used in psychology research: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to new experiences, and extroversion (known collectively as CANOE).  The survey respondents were grouped in this way based on the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with various statements. Examples included “I get chores done right away (conscientious),” and “I get upset easily (neurotic).”

The researchers found clear links between two of the Big Five traits and financial distress.  Being conscientious – following through, controlling one’s impulses, and being organized – strongly reduced the likelihood of having all six of the study’s financial distress outcomes. …Learn More

Housing Bust Still Plagues Pre-Retirees

NRRI Housing figuresIn 2013, almost 40 percent of all households ages 55 and over had not paid off their mortgages, up from 32 percent in 2001. These borrowers were also carrying a lot more housing debt by 2013.

During that time span, the housing boom first encouraged homeowners to borrow against their newfound home equity.  Then the 2008 bust hammered house prices from Miami to Seattle, reducing home equity and leaving many people holding relatively large mortgages.

By 2013, these two factors had combined to exacerbate Americans’ poor preparation for retirement, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog.

The researchers analyzed the impact of the bursting of the housing bubble on the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) through its effect on home equity, the largest store of non-pension wealth for most retirees.  The baseline NRRI estimate, using 2013 data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, was that 51.6 percent of working-age households were at risk of having a lower standard of living in retirement. Housing is part of the index, because retirees are assumed to convert their home equity into income by taking out a reverse mortgage.

The 2013 NRRI baseline was adjusted to see what would’ve happened if households had not run up their housing debt during the bubble and if house prices, rather than jump up and then plunge in 2008, had kept up their historic pace of increases since the 1980s. In that case, the researchers found, the share of households at risk would have been 44.2 percent – not 51.6 percent.

In other words, had the housing bubble and subsequent crash not occurred, fewer households would be at risk of having insufficient retirement income.

The middle-class was hardest hit by the crisis, probably because they’re more likely to own homes than people with low incomes and because housing wealth is more important to them than it is to wealthy people. …Learn More

Parent and child holding hands

Parents Pass (Bad) Money Habits to Kids

When people are asked why they are stressed, money – or the lack of it – is often at the top of the list.

Ask psychologists why this is so, and many would point to a deeper explanation: our parents.

How and whether our parents talked about money, as well as the emotional tenor of these conversations – or silences – are critical to how we manage money as adults.

Sonya Britt, a certified financial planner and associate professor at Kansas State University, explained how these family dynamics play out in a research summary written for financial planners, under a contract with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Britt describes a two-way street between parent and child.  Parents signal their attitudes about money, either through purposeful and explicit messages or in unconscious ways.  Meanwhile, children learn the behaviors that take them into adulthood by observing what parents do.  These observations can override financial knowledge in shaping behavior.

For example, college students who remember that their parents had healthy credit card practices, such as living within their means, are more successful at keeping their college debt under control.  Generally, parents are advised to talk about financial matters with their children – it’s known as parental financial socialization.  Avoiding such conversations has a negative effect that can “wreak havoc on children as they age.” In extreme cases, silence can lead some to hoard money as adults and others to be careless spenders.

Financial dependence in post-adolescence is an emerging issue as young adults extend the amount of time they live in their parents’ homes, often to cope with college debts and inadequate employment options.  Young adults whose parents provide financial help tend to develop dependency. In contrast, the offspring of people with fewer financial resources – who can’t help their children – learn more quickly to become financially independent. …
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Latino Labor Force’s Retirement Burden


As the U.S. Department of Labor video above makes clear, the population of Latino workers is exploding.

By 2024, nearly 33 million Latinos will be working in this country – they will have doubled their labor force share to 20 percent, from just 10 percent in 1995.

Despite their expanding presence in the labor market, Latino-Americans face significant retirement challenges.

Chief among them is that they don’t have the same access to traditional pensions and retirement savings plans that white Americans have, primarily because of where Latinos tend to work.  Two out of three Latino workers – many people prefer the term Hispanic – lack a 401(k)-style plan in their jobs, the U.S. Social Security Administration and other sources report.

The National Hispanic Council on Aging recently called the older Hispanic population “the least prepared for retirement of any ethnic group.”

One reason cited is that they are more likely to work for small businesses, which often don’t set up a plan.  Latinos are also disproportionately employed in low-paid cleaning, landscaping, and food services occupations, and a mere 12 percent of all low-income older individuals are saving for retirement. Median earnings for Latino-Americans, at $45,000 per year, are about one-third lower than median earnings for whites, according to the U.S. Census.

Things are rapidly changing, however: more Latino-Americans than ever are attending college and completing their degrees, which will improve financial security for this college-bound group and their families.

But while Latinos have, like past waves of immigrants, fully integrated into American society in recent decades, many have not yet integrated into the mainstream institutional structures that support retirement.   Until that happens, the lack of access will create greater financial challenges for the Latino community.Learn More

Guy in front of chalkboard with equations

Your Social Security: 35 Years of Work

This blog is for a part-time Macy’s saleswoman and immigrant whom I met in a hospital waiting room – she’d never heard of Social Security.

It is also for a 22-year-old contingent worker I know who lacks steady employment and isn’t regularly accruing credit toward the Social Security pension he will probably need when he retires.

And it is for a 62-year-old eager to claim his benefit right away, possibly short-changing his retirement.

A substantial share of retirees would fall into poverty were it not for the Social Security program passed during the Great Depression.  It’s especially important for two groups of people to understand how Social Security calculates their pension benefits: young adults making employment decisions that will impact them decades from now and older people figuring out when to retire.

Yet research shows that many people do not know the basic workings of a program that is crucial to their financial security.

Steve Richardson, a Social Security official in Boston, holds regular seminars to explain the pension program to the public. “The first thing I ask is – before I say my name – ‘How many people in this room know how many years Social Security looks at to determine your pension payment?’

“Not many of them know it’s your high 35 years of earnings.”

To qualify for a pension benefit at all, a person must work full- or part-time for 40 quarters – a total of 10 years. That’s not a difficult hurdle for most to clear during decades in the labor force. What’s central is the size of your future benefit check, which is determined by your highest 35 years of indexed earnings, Richardson said – and that brings us to the math thing. …Learn More

Prescription pills

Fewer, Clearer Medicare Part D Choices

medicare part d chartA decade ago, the nation’s Medicare enrollees had more than 1,800 different prescription drug plans to choose from. In the 2017 open enrollment that started on Oct. 15, that number dropped to just 746.

News of higher Part D drug plan premiums and out-of-pocket costs in 2017, estimated in a new report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, will not be welcome by the nation’s older population.  But Squared Away also wanted to know whether fewer plan options are good or bad for consumers.

“It’s good in the sense [federal] efforts are bearing fruit in giving people options that are more distinct from each other than in the past,” said Juliette Cubanski, Kaiser’s associate director of Medicare policy. At the same, she said, retirees “still have a lot of choice in this marketplace.”

The number of plans has shrunk steadily for a variety of reasons since the 2006 inception of the prescription component of Medicare, known as Part D. In the early years of the program, plans started disappearing amid consolidation among insurers and pharmacy benefits managers, she said. More recently, a few Part D plan providers have pulled out of the market.

But Cubanski said recent reductions in the number of plans were primarily by federal design. In 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) stepped in and began requiring insurers that offered more than one Part D plan in a region to make sure the differences among their plans were clear and distinct to Medicare beneficiaries. …Learn More

Medicare Enrollment Help is Plentiful

Medicare posterOpen enrollment starts Oct. 15 for people who’ve signed up for Medicare and must buy into or change their supplemental Advantage or Part D prescription drug plans.

The Medicare Rights Center in New York tells me that you can “make as many changes as you need during this period” and that “only your last coverage choice will take effect Jan. 1.”

A long list of resources appears at the end of this blog to help Medicare beneficiaries through the enrollment process. But there’s a lot of hoopla around the Oct. 15-Dec. 7 enrollment period, so it’s important to know what Oct. 15 is not about.

One’s birthday – and not a date on the calendar – determines when people should initially enroll in the Medicare program. Most people turning 65 who are not covered by their own or their spouse’s employer health insurance at work are required to enroll in Medicare Parts A and B during a seven-month period that starts three months prior to their 65th birthday. During this seven-month window, new Medicare participants must also sign up for their Part D drug plans – or risk paying a lifelong penalty. Oct. 15 is not the trigger date for selecting Medigap plans either.

Here’s what the Medicare open enrollment that starts Oct. 15 is about: figuring out the right Advantage or Part D drug plan to buy or switch to. This is a complex process that involves multiple choices, anticipating your future health care needs and expenses, and a lot of research into the plans available.

It’s an implicit recognition of Medicare’s complexity that so many resources are available to help with this process, from private and government-funded consultants to YouTube videos and detailed web pages on the Medicare website. The following resources and blogs can help answer your questions: …Learn More

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