August 11, 2015
Medicare Primer: Advantage or Medigap?
Traditional Medicare with a Medigap plan or Medicare Advantage? My Aunt Carol in Orlando wrestled with this decision for some five hours in sessions with her Medicare adviser, which she followed up with multiple phone calls – and a raft of additional questions.
“You have to ask these questions. You really have to think about it,” she said. “It’s confusing.”
Essentially every 65-year-old American enrolls in Medicare, and many get additional coverage. One form of additional coverage is through supplements to traditional Medicare, which include a Part D prescription drug plan and/or a Medigap private insurance plan to cover some or all of Medicare’s co-payments, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs. The other is through Medicare Advantage, a managed care option that typically provides prescription drug coverage and other services not included in the basic Medicare program.
So which to choose? Consumer choices have proliferated since private plans were added to Medicare 40 years ago. The typical beneficiary today has about 18 Medicare Advantage options, a multitude of Medigap plans for people who choose the traditional route, and 31 prescription drug programs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
This primer is for new enrollees like my aunt. A future blog will provide suggestions from leading Medicare experts about ways to think about this important decision and the financial issues at stake.
The following compares the primary advantages and disadvantages of traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans. But everyone is unique, and it’s impossible to simplify a process that requires each individual to research his or her best options, based on the severity of their health issues, their preferences and financial situation, and the policies available in their state’s insurance market. …Learn More
August 4, 2015
Tax Refunds Advanced to Low Earners
Things are looking up for Shirley Floyd of Chicago.
Her daughter just earned a college scholarship, and Floyd has landed a better job. The new job requires the 37-year-old to stand on a concrete floor, sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day, inserting automobile gaskets into cardboard sleeves for shipping. But her earnings, including overtime, are much larger than her $216 biweekly paychecks in 2014, when she was a part-time home health aide.
When Floyd was unable to keep her head above water last year, she received a financial lifeline from a program run by the Center for Economic Progress in Chicago. Under the pilot program, which was supported and funded by the Chicago mayor’s office and housing authority, 343 low-income recipients of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) signed up for quarterly advances on their current year’s EITC payments, which they otherwise would have had to wait to receive the following year at tax time.
“It was an awesome program,” Floyd said about the advances, which always seemed to arrive at just the right time. “That pressure is relieved – for a little while. You’re able to do what you need to do.” She also believes quarterly payments are better than a large, one-time tax refund in February, because “the entire thing is gone” by March.
Under the Periodic Payment Pilot Program, low-wage workers with at least one child could get up to 50 percent of their estimated future EITC refunds as quarterly advances, up to a maximum of $2,000 per year. Floyd used her advances of nearly $400 per quarter to pay utility bills, rent, or her daughter’s tuition at a Catholic high school. …Learn More
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