May 4, 2017
Our Stubborn State of Financial Illiteracy
The U.S. retirement system is built on people having a working knowledge of finance. Yet financial literacy among a big chunk of Americans ranges from unimpressive to abysmal.
This revelation was again confirmed in a survey that recently debuted by financial literacy guru Annamaria Lusardi, head of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University. In a 2011 survey, Lusardi had found that too many Americans were unable to answer three very simple financial questions.
This new survey is more ambitious, though the results are no more promising. It asks 28 questions in eight areas: earning money, budgeting, saving, investing, borrowing, insuring, understanding risk, and information sources. In the nationally representative survey, about one in four people got no more than seven answers (25%) correct.
One telling finding is that the highest scores were for knowledge about borrowing, with nearly two out of three answering these questions correctly. I suspect this knowledge has been gained from experience – experience with high-interest credit card bills and onerous student loan payments, as well as mortgages.
In every other financial topic surveyed, about half or less answered the questions correctly. Questions about risk, which is at the heart of many financial decisions, fared worst – only 39 percent answered these correctly.
An important connection is made in the report regarding 18- to 44-year olds, who answered only 41 percent of the questions correctly (versus 55 percent for people over 45). Younger adults also answered “I do not know” most often.
When it comes to retirement, those who would gain more from financial knowledge are the least knowledgeable. Saving that starts in early adulthood can go a long way toward achieving retirement security, thanks to compound investment returns over the many years remaining prior to leaving the work force. It’s unfortunate that those who could benefit from compounding often don’t comprehend its effect. …Learn More
April 11, 2017
Blood for Student Loans
Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad
Interest in the student loan problem from the media and politicians seems to be ebbing.
The issue does not go away for Joshua Roiland. Every day, money worries grind him down – him and millions of other young adults working through the emotional fallout and shattered relationships caused by debt.
Roiland owes $200,000-plus and earns only $52,000 as a newly minted University of Maine journalism professor. He begins his article on Longreads by describing a 340-mile round-trip drive to a clinic in Lewiston, Maine, that pays him $50 for a pint of his youthful blood. …Learn More
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