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
February 7, 2017
Wrong People Seek Financial Info, Help
Most of the 1,000 people who took the financial well-being quiz posted here last year felt content with their situations. Their well-being score averaged 16.4 out of 20 points possible on the quiz.
This happy response completely conflicts with a statistically more reliable survey showing that three out of four Americans report feeling “financially stressed.” Our quiz makes no claim of representing the adult U.S. population and was taken by a hodgepodge of regular readers, Twitter followers and Facebook friends.
So why are Squared Away loyalists so content with their finances?
The blog is “attracting people who are in the action phase. I’m guessing they’re motivated and ready to move,” said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist in Hawaii – he is both a certified financial planner and trained psychologist.
But the flip side of this is that those who do not seek out financial information and advice – and don’t take blog quizzes – are often “in total denial, and you’re probably not going to catch them,” he said.
Indeed, Klontz’s research has identified avoiding dealing with difficult money issues as among the unconscious behaviors that ensnare people who are in poor financial health, measured by being overloaded with debt or not saving for retirement.
For the avoiders, the psychology is that they know their behavior hurts them but feel it’s due to a character defect – “lazy, crazy, or stupid” – he said. “Shame keeps you stuck. If I’m such a terrible person, why should I try? I’m not going to ask anyone for help.”
When people with money problems recognize the psychological underpinnings, he said, it can lead to changes that can end the pain.
The question for personal finance bloggers and financial advisers remains: how do we reach the people who can’t be reached? …Learn More
January 19, 2017
People Lack Emergency Funds, Tap 401ks
When between 45 percent and 60 percent of Americans don’t have enough money for retirement, encouraging saving is a national priority.
A related issue is preserving the funds once they’re set aside.
A survey released last month by Transamerica indicates that workers frequently resort to hardship withdrawals and loans from their 401(k)s, because they lack the cash required in emergencies. The survey bolsters the argument made by some retirement experts and employers that until workers’ cash-flow problems are addressed, many will continue to view retirement funds as their best option in an emergency.
More than one in four U.S. workers in the survey said they have taken premature withdrawals from their 401(k) or IRA retirement funds. Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, connected this “alarmingly high share” to a shortage of cash: 21 percent of workers reported having less than $1,000 saved for emergencies and another 14 percent have saved just $1,000 to $5,000. …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 10, 2017
Try Walking in the Working Poor’s Shoes
Minimum-wage workers in 21 states and Washington D.C. will have larger paychecks this year.
But it’s still extremely difficult to eke out a living on the minimum wage, as demonstrated by this video game. The game, “Spent,” was actually the topic of Squared Away’s very first blog in 2011 and is worth featuring again.
The Urban Ministries of Durham in North Carolina designed Spent a few years ago so others could see how it feels to live on about $300 per week – the weekly income of those earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour but at the low-end in many states. The game conveys the very real, sometimes impossible, financial choices faced by working men and women who use the organization’s food pantry and clothing closet.
The game was updated a few years ago to incorporate both the monthly premiums and more reasonably priced health care offered by the Affordable Care Act.
Employers from Arizona to Maine are being required to increase their 2017 minimum wages to anywhere from $8.90 to $12.50 per hour, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the ballot initiatives, legislation, and automatic cost-of-living adjustments driving these wage hikes promise more increases in the future.
Click here to try walking in the shoes of a minimum-wage worker.
January 3, 2017
Our Readers’ Favorite Blogs in 2016
The 10 articles that received the most attention from our readers last year are ranked below in the order of their total page views. Retiree taxes and Medicare made up the top three:
Why Most Elderly Pay No Federal Tax
Medicare Advantage: Know the Pitfalls
Federal Taxation Drops for Retirees
Financial Fallout from Gray Divorce
Stress is One Reason People Retire
How Many Years Can You Do Your Job? …Learn More
December 1, 2016
Retirees’ Tax Puzzle: Pay Now or Later?
The majority of retirees pay no federal taxes. But taxes should be a concern for retirees who have retirement savings. That’s because the money they take out of their retirement accounts for living expenses will be treated as federal taxable income. It’s difficult enough to figure out how much money to withdraw – and when. Taxes are a separate but related issue.
In this blog, we interviewed Michael Kitces, a well-known financial adviser and partner with a Maryland financial firm, who writes the “Nerd’s Eye View” blog. He discusses the basics of navigating the tax code. The challenge facing retirees is to make tax decisions today that will minimize taxes now and in the future.
Question: Do you find that new retirees are surprised by their retirement tax situation?
Kitces: It’s usually not even on their radar screen. Pre-tax and post-tax income, different tax buckets – I don’t think most people even think about it once they’re in retirement. That’s why we’re still seeing people who are “surprised” when they turn 70½ and the required minimum distributions (RMDs) begin, and their tax bill gets a whole lot higher. They say, “Why didn’t we plan for this?” We say, “We’ve been recommending you plan for this for years!” …Learn More