Three older people laughing in rocking chairs.

Long-Term Care: To Buy or Not to Buy

Let’s face it: thinking about long-term care insurance, nursing homes and home health aides is depressing.

It’s no wonder that just 10 percent to 12 percent of America’s elderly population has purchased a long-term care policy.

More are thinking about it though: New research shows that 40 percent of people 50 years or older who were surveyed had “thought a lot about needing long-term care” if they were to become ill in old age.

This research delved into the factors driving individual decisions about whether to buy long-term care coverage – or not buy. The decision “depend(s) on a complex amalgam of many different factors,” concluded a conference paper based on research conducted by the NBER Retirement Research Center.

Here are some of the findings in the paper, by Jeffrey Brown at the University of Illinois, Gopi Shah Goda at Stanford University, and Kathleen McGarry at the University of California at Los Angeles: …Learn More

Credit Card Use Declines Among Students

Average college loans owed by the class of 2010 surged to $25,250 last year, up 5 percent from class of 2009 balances and up 35 percent from 2004, the Project on Student Debt reported today.

But let’s take a moment to thank Congress for doing something well: helping college students ward off another source of debt troubles, credit cards.

Since the federal Credit Card Act of 2009 restricted card issuers’ once-easy access to students, their credit card balances have dropped to $811, on average, from a record $3,173 in 2009, according to student lender Sallie Mae. Forty percent of college students currently have credit cards, down from 84 percent.

Sallie Mae said the 2009 and 2011 surveys were based on slightly different populations and are difficult to compare. But a downward trend is what the undersecretary of the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs, Barbara Anthony, has also observed when she tours college campuses. Three years ago, a roomful of hands would go up when she asked who had a card. Today, it’s “definitely a minority,” she said.

The drop in card use “was absolutely due to the act,” she said. …Learn More

Job Risk Dictates Rainy Day Fund Size

Financial planners have scrapped the old rules for emergency funds as the time it takes to find work has skyrocketed.

The U.S. economy picked up a little bit of steam, growing at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the third quarter. But economists expect the unemployment rate to remain stuck around 9 percent for many months.

To protect against a potential job loss, financial planners until recently advised clients to set enough cash aside to cover their expenses for three to six months. Today, six months is their starting point. And the amount of financial cushion should be based on each individual’s job security – the more risk, the bigger the emergency fund. It’s similar to the argument that an entrepreneur, for example, should balance his or her job risk by investing conservatively.

“I ask a lot about their job,” said Rand Spero, president of Street Smart Financial near Boston. “I say you need to be in a savings mode and it needs to increase substantially.”

To calculate an emergency fund, every household needs to know two things: how much fat they can cut out of their budget and how much they can expect to receive in unemployment benefits. Benefits typically cover up to half of the state’s average weekly wage. It now takes 10 months, on average, to find a new job.

Using six months as the baseline, several planners outlined the risks for various life circumstances: …Learn More

Occupy Wall Street protesters holding an American flag and a sign reading "We are the 99%"

How Rich is Rich?

Occupy Wall Street protesters have made their feelings known about the widening U.S. wealth gap.

So, what do the rest of us think?

A Harvard Business School professor – Michael Norton – and a behavioral economist – Dan Ariely – teamed up to ask people their preferences when it comes to the distribution of wealth. They found that Americans of all types and political affiliations “vastly underestimated” the magnitude of the difference between rich and poor in this country.

At a time many people are suffering in the slowing economy and languishing job market, it’s interesting to see a comparison between what Americans believe about U.S. wealth distribution and the reality they inhabit.

The American rags to riches myth endures – young adults are inspired by it; immigrants come here to pursue it; and millions play state lotteries every year in hopes of hitting the jackpot. Not surprisingly, the authors found that both rich and poor said some level of inequality is okay.

“This is an admirable part of America,” Norton said in a recent interview with Squared Away. “It’s just that people overestimate the extent to which it happens.” …Learn More

CFPB Integrates Outreach, Regulation

A top official in the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) said educational outreach to four vulnerable populations – college students, seniors, members of the military, and low-income earners – will be integral to the bureau’s research, regulatory, and legal enforcement efforts.

CFPB’s consumer division will “work with regulators to make sure people know what they are signing” and to help “clean up the marketplace” by ridding it of abusive products, Gail Hillebrand, who heads the consumer division, said at a Massachusetts Financial Education Collaborative conference held Friday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Citing the subprime mortgage crisis, Hillebrand said it began “one mortgage at a time” – in large part due to poor disclosure by salesmen or on mortgage forms. Many borrowers who ultimately went into foreclosure failed to realize that their payments would rise sharply after the period of the initial, discounted interest rate ended. … Learn More

Annual Health Expenses in Retirement: blog writer's Kim Blanton's estimated average annual expenses in five year increments - Graph

Calculate Your Retirement Health Costs

Mid- and late-career professionals staring into their futures, eyes glazed, often don’t have a clue how much their health care will cost them during retirement.

Few pre-retirees know how many holes exist in Medicare coverage. One MetLife survey this year found that 42 percent of pre-retirees age 56 to 65 believe, incorrectly, that their health coverage, Medicare or disability insurance will pay for their long-term care. Such knowledge gaps make it virtually impossible for most people to take a stab at tallying their total costs, out of pocket, for Medicare, Medigap, and private premiums and copayments over years of retirement.

Retiree healthcare is “the elephant on the table,” said Dan McGrath, vice president of HealthView Services outside Boston. The omission amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars per retiree.

Calculators that estimate retiree health expenses are scarce, according to a 2008 AARP brief. But HealthView’s calculator, recently upgraded, estimates total out-of-pocket health expenses, which are tailored to an individual’s specific medical traits – diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure etc. – and health habits – smoking, exercise etc.

Squared Away readers can obtain a free trial by emailing McGrath at dmcgrath@hvsfinancial.com. …Learn More

A pile of different colored credit cards.

People Make Mistakes When Paying Cards

Myth: I should pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first to get out of debt quickly.
Truth: You should pay off the smallest debt first to create the greatest momentum in your debt snowball.

— DaveRamsey.com

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely might agree with Dave Ramsey’s second statement: Ariely and fellow researchers for the first time have established that people do, indeed, pay off their small card balances first, because it gives them a feeling of accomplishment.

“We have a desire to close things, to feel we’re making progress,” Ariely said in a recent interview. As each card is knocked off the list, “it’s something you can count.” The strategy also dovetails with people’s natural inclination to break down overwhelming tasks into sub-goals to make the task feel more manageable.

But the mathematical truth remains that holders of multiple cards get out of debt faster and cheaper if they first pay down the cards with the highest interest rates. In other words, it’s not in a card holder’s financial best interest to pay off the small balances first, even if it does make them feel better.

The researchers’ first experiment confirmed this behavioral tendency by testing 162 undergraduates…Learn More

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