July 16, 2015
Misconceptions About Social Security
It is the most important source of retirement income for most workers. Yet too many older Americans lack a basic understanding of certain aspects of Social Security benefits.
In fairness, many people got some key questions right in a survey that quizzed them about the program’s rules and incentives. But a significant minority, and sometimes a majority, revealed a poor understanding of several major features of the program. As the researchers note, misunderstanding Social Security benefits could lead to poor financial decisions about retirement.
They analyzed responses by more than 2,300 people – all between ages 50 and 70 – to a nationally representative survey administered online in 2008. The survey, which took about half an hour, started with basic demographic questions before moving to various questions about components of the Social Security program.
Brief explanations of some program features appear below, followed by the percentage of survey respondents who provided incorrect answers, according to the researcher’s analysis of the results:
- The U.S. Social Security Administration calculates pensions using a formula based on the average of a worker’s 35 highest years of earnings. This information is important, because each additional year of work could substitute current earnings for an early year of low earnings – or even zero earnings prior to the worker’s entry into the labor force.
68 percent were incorrect in their responses to a multiple choice question that included the correct calculation as one of four options.
- A married person who has never worked is eligible for a pension equal to half of her spouse’s “full retirement age” benefit if the non-working spouse claims at her own full retirement age, and a reduced benefit if she claims earlier. …
July 9, 2015
Financial Bonus of (Same-Sex) Marriage
Two important U.S. Supreme Court decisions in two years removed not only the obstacles to same-sex marriage but also most of the financial inequities couples faced.
The June decision upholding same-sex marriage opened up financial advantages of marriage that either had been completely unavailable to gay and lesbian couples or were complicated by marrying in a different state than the state in which they live. The decision came on the heels of the high court’s 2013 ruling against sections of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a ruling that made Social Security benefits available to gay and lesbian couples in states that permitted them to marry.
In the wake of these decisions, “If marriage is an option and it makes sense emotionally for the couple, that’s also the best financial strategy,” said Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
There are disadvantages to marrying. Filing joint tax returns can mean higher income taxes or less financial aid for college-bound offspring. Nevertheless, Garrett, co-author of “Money without Matrimony: The Unmarried Couple’s Guide to Financial Security,” said the court rulings together make a compelling argument for marrying.
She provided Squared Away with five financial benefits of same-sex marriage listed below. They’re the same advantages that were always available to heterosexual couples who could produce a marriage license. …Learn More
June 25, 2015
Avoidance Comes with Financial Anxiety
Knowing how to budget or invest one’s retirement savings are useful skills. But managing money isn’t just about what you know – it’s also about how you feel.
That’s the gist of a handful of recent studies into a newly identified emotion known as financial anxiety. These early studies look at two things: 1) is financial anxiety real?; and 2) does it explain why people do things like avoiding money issues or going into debt to paper over their financial problems?
The evidence says yes to both questions.
A 2012 study established financial anxiety as an identifiable psychological condition that can be measured using a standard psychological test. The researchers gauged their subjects’ reaction times to pairs of words flashed on a computer screen – negative financial words (debt), positive financial words (jackpot), neutral financial words (bank), or anodyne control words (camp). The subjects were timed on how long it took to identify a word after an on-screen icon replaced one word in the pair.
When only the negative financial word was left on the screen, people with higher financial anxiety were slower to respond than when only the positive word was visible. The prevalence of longer delays for negative words suggests that most subjects had at least some financial anxiety. …Learn More
June 16, 2015
Black Americans’ Distrust of Finance
Redlining, subprime mortgages sold in minority and immigrant neighborhoods, higher interest rates on car loans – black Americans have reason to distrust the financial system.
This spills over into their retirement planning, specifically their relationships with financial planners and how much they save, concludes a study in The Journal of Personal Finance. Among the findings is that blacks and, to a lesser extent, Latinos have difficulty trusting planners.
Past research shows trust can play an important role in financial decisions. People who trust the stock market, for example, are more likely to invest in stocks. But black Americans start out with generally lower trust levels: nearly half reported “low trust,” compared with only about one-quarter of whites, according to the survey data used by three finance professors in their study last year.
The researchers then assessed whether trust levels affected two specific behaviors: hiring a financial planner and saving for retirement.
A lack of trust reduced the likelihood an individual will engage a planner by 18 percentage points, compared to individuals who tend to be more trusting. The surprising result was that blacks were actually more likely to hire a financial planner than were whites with similar incomes when the researchers controlled for trust – meaning the controls eliminated differences in behavior related to individual trust levels.
Another finding was that while blacks have less retirement savings than do white Americans of similar incomes, this difference virtually disappears when the analysis controls for the difference in their trust levels.
If black Americans could get past their inherent lack of trust and get good advice or good financial products things might be different, said one of the study’s authors, Terrance Martin, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Texas-Pan American in south Texas.
“You might see less of a difference between black households’ accumulated retirement saving relative to white households,” Martin said.Learn More
June 4, 2015
Workers See Regular, Roth 401ks as Same
Due to differing tax treatments, each $1,000 placed into a traditional, tax-deductible 401(k) costs less today than $1,000 placed into a Roth 401(k), but that Roth will provide more money in retirement.
New research indicates that workers don’t recognize this difference between the two types of employer-sponsored retirement accounts when deciding how much to save.
A $1,000 contribution to a traditional 401(k) costs the worker less than $1,000 in take-home pay, because the income tax hit on the $1,000 will be delayed until the money is withdrawn from the account. But a $1,000 contribution to a Roth 401(k) costs exactly $1,000 in take-home pay, because the worker has to pay income taxes on it up front. The Roth funds, including the investment returns, will not be taxed when they’re withdrawn.
A Roth 401(k) might be thought of as shifting additional money into the future, allowing people to spend and consume more in retirement. (This assumes the same tax rate over a worker’s lifetime.)
The upshot: to get a set amount of after-tax money for retirement, workers could contribute less to a Roth than to a traditional 401(k). But that’s not what they do. …Learn More
May 28, 2015
Annuities: Useful but Little Understood
The general public is very cool on annuities. But many economists like the idea of retirees using some portion of their savings to buy them.
Annuities, with their fixed monthly payments, may be the best way to ensure retirees’ savings last just as long as they do. Otherwise, they may either spend it too fast and deplete their savings prematurely or spend too conservatively, depriving themselves of necessities in their old age.
New research suggests that one reason retirees don’t buy annuities is because they have great difficulty figuring out what they’re worth. When they try to figure this out, they bump up against their own cognitive limitations – limitations that only worsen with age.
In the study, 2,210 adults over age 18 were asked to estimate the value of a monthly annuity familiar to most workers: Social Security benefits. First, the research subjects were asked if they would pay $20,000 to “buy” a $100 increase in their monthly Social Security benefits. If the person said no, the survey repeated the question with a lower amount, eventually zeroing in on what this additional $100 benefit was worth to them. Next, the research subjects were asked to reduce – or “sell” – their monthly benefits by $100 in return for a specific dollar amount paid to them upfront.
In theory, the buy and sell prices they finally arrived at should be equal. But there was an enormous gap between the two. The median price research subjects were willing to pay was $3,000, and the median price at which they would sell was $13,750. There was also a wide range of sales prices among the individual participants: some would accept $1,500 or less, while others wanted $200,000 or more. …Learn More
May 14, 2015
Financial Ed in Schools Sometimes Works
There’s little agreement on whether personal finance education in the schools is effective, but success with financial education mandates in Georgia, Idaho, and Texas indicates that it is.
A new study compared thousands of young adults in these states, which have fairly rigorous mandates, with states lacking personal finance education. This focus on states with very strong mandates departs from prior studies that lumped together numerous states with varying levels of mandates. The researchers also looked at whether behavior actually improved – credit scores and loan delinquencies – rather than simply testing students’ knowledge before and after they took the classes.
The three states studied have extensive financial education programs. Curricula in Georgia cover economics, financial institutions, saving, insurance, credit, and investing. Idaho requires a full semester of economics, with intensive personal financial instruction. In Texas, all high school students are required to delve into topics ranging from the rent-vs-buy decision and planning for retirement to personal bankruptcy.
The study assessed the impact of this education on credit scores once the students graduated high school and on whether they successfully avoided poor financial behaviors, such as falling into delinquency on their car loans. Young adults in Georgia, Idaho, and Texas were compared with young adults in the same state before the mandates, as well as people in other states with similar demographics but no mandates. …Learn More