February 14, 2017
Unpaid Water Bills Open Door to Advice
Nearly half of the low-income residents in some sections of Louisville are delinquent on their city water bills. In Newark, water customers’ unpaid balances have been known to reach $4,000.
The shutoff and reactivation fees that some cities charge when they stop a customer’s water service create another problem in places like Houston: they add to the unpaid balances of customers who are already struggling financially. Cities are also becoming more aggressive about collecting on their debts, hiring third-party collection firms.
Researchers and the National League of Cities tried an alternative in the form of an ambitious pilot program involving five city water departments: Houston; Louisville, Kentucky; Newark, New Jersey; Savannah, Georgia; and St. Petersburg, Florida. Driving the program was the recognition that unpaid water bills are an indication of deep financial distress. So the cities, which are loathe to turn off this essential service, embraced a broader vision: providing financial counseling to empower families with delinquent water bills to better manage their situations.
While every city’s pilot program was slightly different, Ohio State researcher Stephanie Moulton said they had two things in common: an agreement to restructure residents’ unpaid water bills to make them affordable, and at least one private session with a financial counselor or coach already working for the city or a local non-profit. Some cities added other services, such as screening for public benefits if a job loss had caused a resident to fall behind on the water bill.
Houston, for example, trained and certified six customer service representatives in its Department of Public Works to act as financial coaches, said Bonnie Ashcroft, a departmental section chief. The counselors who coached clients on their household finances also advised them on how to reduce their water bills.
It’s not possible to do a rigorous analysis of the pilot’s overall effectiveness, because each city’s water department is unique. But individual analyses of each city found three that showed marked improvements in their water payments, Moulton said. These successes were presented in a recent webinar. …
In Houston, customers’ unpaid account balances declined, on average, from $544 to $374. Unpaid account balances in Newark went from $969 to $605. The frequency of payments in these cities also increased, Moulton said. Learn More
January 17, 2017
2.8 Million Seniors Have College Debt
The number of Americans over age 60 who are paying back federal or private student loans has reached a critical mass, quadrupling to 2.8 million over the past decade, a new report finds.
These older borrowers owe $23,500, on average, and two-thirds of them also have mortgages and credit card bills at a time their medical expenses are typically increasing, according to the report issued this month by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Separately, nearly 40 percent of those with federal loans have defaulted on their payments.
The response of many older student loan borrowers, the CFPB said, is to “skip necessary health care needs such as prescription medicines, doctor’s visits, and dental care because they could not afford it.”
Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumer Reports, said CFPB’s report illuminates the link between the country’s college debt crisis and the retirement crisis. …Learn More
January 12, 2017
Financial Stress Rings in the New Year
Having dug ourselves out of the worst financial crisis since the Depression, the nation entered 2017 amid rising wages and record-low unemployment. Yet three out of four adults report being “financially stressed.”
And no wonder: half of the 2,000 adults in the December survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) said they are living paycheck to paycheck.
Americans’ specific financial issues are routinely documented in this blog and run the gamut from cash-flow shortages to poor retirement prospects.
The primary sources of financial stress identified in the NEFE survey were not enough savings and too much debt. This was consistent with a second finding in which respondents said that solving these issues would also provide the most “financial relief.” Here are the other findings: …
January 5, 2017
Millennial Couple Squares Away Finances
The Knapkes hiking last May in the Rocky Mountains.
Heather and Tyson Knapke were like a lot of young couples starting out: they were in debt.
One household expense on their credit cards loomed larger than all the others: at least $1,000 every month for groceries and dining out. Some weeks, the Denver-area couple could be found at their various favorite restaurants Thursday night straight through Sunday night.
The food budget “was astronomical, and I had no idea,” Heather said.
Their lives changed dramatically after realizing about 2 1/2 years ago that their finances were spinning out of control. How this couple transformed their debt-laden household into one that is free of credit card and college debts and has a tidy emergency fund, with retirement saving now well under way, could be a blueprint for other Millennials in the new year.
Here is the order in which the Knapke’s accomplished this: reduce expenses, impose a budget, pay down debt, and start saving for retirement.
“I’m trying to get ahold of my finances early – earlier than most people – so compound interest works in my favor so I’m set when I’m older. That’s the goal,” said Tyson, who is 32.
How did the couple get into trouble in the first place? Before marrying, Heather, a 33-year-old hairdresser, had learned a few things about controlling expenses as she purchased shampoos and hair dyes for her clients. Her personal finances were, as a result, in decent shape. Then she fell in love with a man in debt. Tyson had graduated from the University of Colorado with a communications degree, $16,000 in student loans, and another $9,000 distributed among three credit cards. …
December 6, 2016
Student Loan Repayment: 12 Rules
It’s easy to drown in the financial details of student loan repayment. Here’s a life preserver.
The rules of thumb listed below were culled from interviews with two experts on student loans. Betsy Mayotte is director of consumer outreach for American Student Assistance, a non-profit that educates people about their loans. Craig Lemoine is program director for the American College of Financial Services, which trains financial planners.
1. If you earn enough to make your payments, start paying.
The reason: Student loans in most cases must be repaid in full. The sooner you start making your full monthly payments, the sooner your loans will be paid off and the less in total you will have to shell out. A decision about how much extra to pay on student loans should be weighed in the context of other financial goals, including paying off high interest credit cards and putting enough money in a 401(k) to ensure you receive your employer’s match.
2. Open your student loan mail.
The reason: Owing tens of thousands of dollars is serious business. Ignoring a letter from the company that holds your loan won’t make the problem go away – in fact, it could worsen things.
3. Call your loan servicing company. But do not call without doing some homework first.
The reason: If you’re struggling to pay your loans, the companies that handle your student loans can be very helpful. They are experts not only on your particular loan account but also on the federal government’s rules for loan repayment. Nevertheless, student loan servicers are not perfect. Representatives might not know much more than is on the U.S. Department of Education’s website, Lemoine said. And sometimes their advice can conflict with information from another representative in an earlier phone call. To make sure you’re getting the best advice, it’s important to read the information on the federal website, know your potential options, and compile a list of detailed questions pertinent to your unique situation. “Going in blind can cost you money,” he said.
4. The best option for lower-income former students with high debt levels is an income-based repayment plan. …Learn More
October 6, 2016
Starting the College Conversation Early
Parents have finished the summer college tours with their teenagers. Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to pay for college. But Judith Ward, a senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price in Baltimore, urges parents to prepare for this moment well before their child’s high school graduation to help minimize college costs when the time comes.
Squared Away interviewed Ward, whose advice comes from a combination of her professional experience and putting her own two kids through college. They are now 23 and 27, employed, and paying back modest student loan balances.
Your company’s 2016 survey of parents and children between ages 8 and 14 about paying for college points to a disconnect between what young kids are expecting in terms of paying for college and what their parents are planning on.
Yes, we found in our survey that 62 percent of kids expect their parents to cover most of whatever college they want, but 65 percent of parents say they’ll only be able to contribute some to their college. There’s definitely a disconnect. But it’s easy to rectify – just start talking to your kids about college.
Question: Can parents really talk to their kids about college at 8, 9 or 10? And what do they talk about?
In fairness to the kids who answer these survey questions, they have no idea what the cost of college is. It’s not the enormous number it is to their parents. But start when they’re young by having conversations that are not necessarily about the cost of college. Just start making college part of the conversation and sharing your own stories. That will have them thinking about college and thinking, “I’m going to be expected to go to college.” …Learn More
July 5, 2016
Parents, Start Student Loan Homework!
Here’s a reminder that parents should start their homework this summer to minimize college loan repayments over the long haul. A few basic decisions can add or subtract thousands of dollars.
A little help came last week, when the interest rates on all federal student loans were reduced. Despite the declines, the rates for the PLUS loans available to parents remain much higher than the loans available to their offspring – taking out a PLUS loan will nearly double the interest paid on $50,000 over 20 years, compared with an undergraduate Stafford loan.
This is an argument for having prospective students take out the loans, rather than the parents. As for paying them back, financial advisers tend to agree that young adults with decades of work ahead of them can share in that responsibility at a time their parents are facing retirement. This complex family decision depends on myriad factors, including how much income the graduate can expect to earn after college and how comfortable the parents are.
There are one-time, upfront fees on federal student loans, and they are also much higher for parent PLUS loans: 4.272 percent of the loan’s principal amount versus 1.068 percent for Stafford loans for undergraduates – these fees will go up for loans disbursed after Oct. 1.
The Institute for College Access & Success has put together an excellent cheat sheet explaining the federal loan options, who qualifies for various types of loans, and the costs of each. To see this sheet, click here.
Below is the institute’s summary of the new loan rates, effective July 1: …Learn More