The holidays have arrived, and our credit cards are getting a workout. Sheldon Garon, author of “Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves” (November 2011), maintains that gift shopping isn’t only about giving – it’s our civic duty, we’re told.
Squared Awayinterviewed the Princeton University historian about world savings rates and America’s “democratization of credit.”
Q: Americans have tightened their belts. How does our current 4 percent savings rate compare with the rest of the world?
Garon: The Chinese save at extraordinary rates, about 26%. But that’s something that happens with Asian economies just as they’re taking off. The Japanese and Korean economies did that too. The really interesting place is continental Europe. . . . The United States should be going down in its savings rates, because we’re an aging society. But the Europeans should be going down even farther, because they have more rapidly aging societies and very low birth rates. But the German, French, Austrian and Belgian savings rates are around 10 percent – Sweden has gone up to 13%.
Q: How did debt become culturally acceptable here?
Garon: Before the 1920s, it was no honor to be indebted. When installment buying became popular in the 1920s, that was seen as an acceptable form of debt. But we reached a new stage in the early 1990s, when society considered you stupid if you didn’t take on more debt. Why would you save up for something if you could borrow so easily?
What do you think of Garon’s take on U.S. financial culture? Squared Away would like to hear your comments after you read the full interview. …Learn More
What is it about the minimum payment on credit card statements that makes people act so crazy?
Two years ago, Neil Stewart, a psychologist at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, confirmed his own and some behavioral economists’ suspicions: when the minimum payment line was entirely deleted from statements, cardholders paid 70 percent more.
The holiday shopping season is in full swing, underscoring how important this initial finding was. Credit-card companies set their minimum payments extremely low, significantly increasing customers’ total payouts over the long term – paying the minimum causes interest costs to accumulate faster.
Stewart and his colleagues have now advanced his prior research by testing how card-carrying Americans and British would react to different levels of minimum payments. The result this time: the higher the minimum, the less people paid.
“We’re not entirely sure what’s going on in people’s heads,” said co-author Linda Salisbury, a professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. The key, however, is a well-known psychological concept called “anchoring,” she said. …Learn More
Nearly one in three employees under age 35 has not enrolled in their 401(k) retirement plan, according to almost half of the major corporations surveyed recently by Northern Trust.
It’s “imperative” that young employees save more than they do, said Lee Freitag, senior product manager for defined contribution solutions at Northern Trust, which surveyed Altria Group, Microsoft, Walgreen and other U.S. companies.
Today’s young workers will rely more on 401(k) savings than any previous generation, he said, now that employer-funded pension plans are virtually extinct in corporate America. Yet many are sacrificing their prime savings years. To retire at age 70, for example, a 25-year-old must save only 7 percent of his or her income, earning investment income over 40 years. This compared with a steep 18 percent of income for someone who waits until age 45 to start saving and has fewer years to accrue investment returns.
So, how to reach these young adults when it counts? To them, retirement in their 60s is an abstraction – they do not naturally focus on it. According to preliminary research out of the Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary, how employers communicate may be the key to boosting savings among recent entrants to the workforce, given their long time horizon until retirement.
“We may need to communicate with younger workers differently than older workers,” Nicole Votolato Montgomery, Lisa Szykman, and Julie Agnew write in their new paper.
Their research indicates that employers can help younger employees define the steps they should take – by making them more concrete. This is a different twist on the psychology of saving found in other psychological research – when college students in one experiment saw computer avatars of their older selves, they wanted to save for their old age. …Learn More
Financial planners have scrapped the old rules for emergency funds as the time it takes to find work has skyrocketed.
The U.S. economy picked up a little bit of steam, growing at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the third quarter. But economists expect the unemployment rate to remain stuck around 9 percent for many months.
To protect against a potential job loss, financial planners until recently advised clients to set enough cash aside to cover their expenses for three to six months. Today, six months is their starting point. And the amount of financial cushion should be based on each individual’s job security – the more risk, the bigger the emergency fund. It’s similar to the argument that an entrepreneur, for example, should balance his or her job risk by investing conservatively.
“I ask a lot about their job,” said Rand Spero, president of Street Smart Financial near Boston. “I say you need to be in a savings mode and it needs to increase substantially.”
To calculate an emergency fund, every household needs to know two things: how much fat they can cut out of their budget and how much they can expect to receive in unemployment benefits. Benefits typically cover up to half of the state’s average weekly wage. It now takes 10 months, on average, to find a new job.
Using six months as the baseline, several planners outlined the risks for various life circumstances: …Learn More
The pioneering behavioral economist Richard Thaler said employers and the financial industry should increase their efforts to help people prepare financially for their retirement.
“Making it easy isn’t the most profound thing anyone has said. But if we want people to do a better job saving for retirement, make that easier,” he said last week at a Retirement Income Industry Association conference, backed by a wide-angle view of Boston’s skyline.
Thaler is co-author of the bestselling “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” and a pioneer in a branch of economics that rejects the convention that people are “rational” when it comes to making decisions. Behavioral economists acknowledge that people are psychological beings who don’t always act in their best interest and often do downright perplexing things. One prominent example is employees who do not sign up for their 401(k) retirement plan, leaving the money from their employer’s savings match on the table.
To nudge people to save, about half of U.S. corporations now automatically enroll their employees in their 401(k), according to consultants Callan Associates, though many offer it only to new employees. Before auto enrollment came into vogue, companies gave employees the option of signing up if they wanted to participate in the plans. With auto-enrollment, they must choose to opt out of saving, a strategy behavioral economists argue helps overcome the powerful inertia of doing nothing.
But employers typically deduct only 3 percent from employees’ paychecks. Thaler said this is nothing more an arbitrary percentage that a US Treasury Department official once mentioned in passing but that has now been accepted as gospel. It’s also too low by financial planners’ standards, particularly for mid- and late-career workers. “It’s time to get over that” and raise the rate, he said. …Learn More
In this humorous Ted video, Graham Hill advocates minimalism as an alternative to consumerism and showcases his 420-square-foot apartment in Manhattan. His living arrangement may seem extreme but residents of Tokyo have been living small for years, and his main point is well taken: he has reduced both his living expenses and his environmental footprint.
Hill is a modern Renaissance man. He studied architecture, founded Treehugger.com to take environmental sustainability mainstream, and dreamed up the idea for those ceramic Greek coffee cups, a replica of the paper cups, found in art museum gift shops.
“From his New York home, he schemes daily about how he can help humanity avoid rapid extinction,” according to his bio.Learn More
When it comes to retirement, we women are in lousy shape.
We live longer, so will need more money when we retire. Yet we work less over our lifetimes and earn 80 percent of what men earn while we are working. As a result, we’ve saved less in our 401(k)s and IRAs.
Not surprisingly, the rising economic insecurity among all Americans ushered in by the Great Recession is more pronounced among women, according to reports Monday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington:
58 percent of women interviewed by IWPR were concerned they would not have enough to live on in retirement, compared with 43 percent of men;
47 percent of women lacked confidence that their resources would last throughout their retirement, compared with 35 percent of men;
51 percent of women worried they would not be able to afford retiree healthcare, compared with 44 percent of men.
Financial data support women’s concerns. In 2010, the average balance in defined-contribution plans managed by Vanguard Group, one of the nation’s largest mutual fund companies, was $58,833 for women and $95,675 for men. The median balance was $21,499 for women and $33,547 for men.
Women’s personal retirement savings are even lower, relative to men’s, when one considers that women live much longer. Among women born in 1935, 51 percent are expected to live until age 85 – just 36 percent of men will, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, which hosts this blog. Fully 13 percent of women will make it all the way to 95 – only 6 percent of men will. …Learn More