September 20, 2016
Lift SNAP’s Asset Test and People Save
When a low-wage worker has a dental emergency or the car breaks down, it can set off a chain reaction of financial problems. Losing a job due to that car problem is a catastrophe. It’s not an exaggeration to say that having just a little money in a bank account is a lifesaver.
But low-income Americans are discouraged from saving due to the asset limits in joint federal-state assistance programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. These asset limits create a Catch-22: if the recipient builds up the savings crucial to their financial well-being, they lose their assistance, which is also critical to their well-being.
This illustrates just how difficult it is to design programs to help the poor and low-wage workers. Without asset limits, a relatively well-off person who earns very little would qualify for food stamps. But using asset limits to restrict who qualifies can harm our most financially fragile populations.
New research looking into the impact of asset limits among recipients under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – once known as food stamps – confirms that asset limits inhibit saving.
“Having a policy where people don’t save or draw down their assets before they apply for benefits can really harm long-term economic success for these families,” said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who conducted the study. …Learn More
September 15, 2016
When a Diamond Isn’t Forever
While student loans are a painful, long-term expense, they are also an investment in one’s career and earnings prospects. But what does lavish spending on a wedding provide?
It can lead to divorce, according to a study by Emory University researchers Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon. More interesting, they suggest that the stress that comes with wedding debt might be the underlying cause for the unhappy outcomes.
Weddings, which peak in early summer and surge again in the fall, have become more elaborate over the years. Engagement rings usually have diamonds – that wasn’t always the case. The average expense for a wedding and reception in this country is now $30,000.
But the researchers found that women who spend more than $20,000 on a wedding were nearly four times more likely to become divorced than women who spend under $10,000. In the case of men, buying a more expensive engagement ring was linked to a higher divorce rate.
They based these findings on data from their own random survey asking 3,151 adults about their wedding costs and current marital status.They controlled for education, household income, whether the person was employed and other things that play a role in whether a couple stays married.
Stress may be the undercurrent that explains their findings: couples who spend more money are also more likely to report being “stressed about wedding-related debt,” the researchers found.
The links between marriage and money are a perennial topic in academic literature. Other studies have shown that divorce creates financial problems, particularly for people closing in on retirement. It just might be that excessive spending on a wedding – usually a couple’s first major expenditure – gets a marriage off to a bad start.Learn More
May 26, 2016
Array of Financial Products is Dizzying
Rather than put his money in a bank, my cousin, who’s in his mid-40s, makes loans in $25 increments on a peer-to-peer lending website. He decides on the amount of risk he’s willing to take on – and the riskier the borrowers he chooses, the more he earns on his “savings.”
My cousin’s $25 investments illustrate how much our consumer finance market has evolved over several decades. We all embrace the convenience. Car loans are a more affordable way to buy a vehicle, Internet banking lets homebuyers get several mortgage quotes at once, and paying with cell phones is much easier than paying with cash or even credit cards.
But all this innovation has a downside. One example is the change from installment credit with fixed payments in the early 1960s to revolving credit, which lets consumers choose to pay a small required minimum – and increases the high credit-card interest that undisciplined borrowers pay. A recent and egregious innovation is companies that purchased lawsuit settlements from victims of lead paint poisoning for a fraction of their value. Both innovations offer convenience in exchange for personal financial impacts that are either excessive or difficult to recognize.
A primary outcome of all this financial innovation is that U.S. households “in aggregate have taken on greater risk,” conclude professors at the Harvard Business School in their 2010 paper, “A Brief Postwar History of US Consumer Finance.” Consumers now have an enormous amount of latitude – arguably too much latitude – to borrow, shift assets, save for retirement (or not), play the markets, or engage in peer-to-peer lending, they say.
As a result, risks pervade our investment portfolios, savings and retirement accounts, borrowing decisions, and how we purchase consumer goods. And that’s the problem. …Learn More
May 10, 2016
5 Ways Millennials Mess Up With Money
The harsh reality is that you aren’t earning as much money as you think you are, and you don’t have as much to spend as you think you do – so it’s easy to let spending get out of control.
Andrea Woroch, only 34 years old herself, delivers some tough love to those who’ve already developed poor spending habits. A personal finance expert for the Millennial generation, Woroch said a perilous time is between the cash-strapped period right after college and the time when the steady, but modest, paychecks start flowing.
Early on, she explained, the attitude was “Okay, let me go to happy hour on this day because I can get $1 tacos and a beer. Now it’s okay to spend $20 for dinner. But that adds up, and they end up spending even more.”
Millennials polled by Gallup said they prefer saving to spending. But Woroch, in an interview, provided five harsh observations about the obstacles to saving that she’s observed among young adults – including her husband, when they started dating:
- You eat out all the time. Rightly, socializing is a big part of life. Eating out is also part of a larger trend: in March, consumer spending on dining out surpassed grocery store sales for the first time. Woroch advises that “spending money at the grocery store will help you spend less on food and leave room in your budget to put towards your savings goals.” …
April 26, 2016
Delaying Motherhood Boosts Earnings
Economists have landed on two primary reasons for why women working full-time earn less than their male co-workers. First, their research detects an element of discrimination.
The second reason stems from motherhood, which can make it extremely difficult to simultaneously complete an education or get a firm footing in a career.
But America is changing. Over the past half-century, the typical age at which women have their first baby has risen markedly, from 20 to 25.
This societal shift toward later motherhood has, in turn, dramatically improved women’s financial prospects, concluded a study featured in a book about the financial impact of changing employment, family and health trends.
University of Virginia economist Amalia Miller found that each one-year delay in when women start a family has increased their lifetime earnings by 3 percent. Since first motherhood now comes five years later, she estimates that translates to a 14 percent increase since the 1960s in the typical woman’s lifetime earnings.
Women who wait to become mothers also accumulate more wealth: each one-year delay increases their wealth at age 50 by between $12,000 and $20,000 – or potentially $100,000 more for waiting five years.
Although women who earn more money spend more, “their consumption does not increase proportionately, leaving them with greater accumulated wealth at older ages,” Miller said. “The effects of motherhood timing especially are substantial and significant for decades after the age at first birth and well into retirement years.”
Education plays a large role in the improvement in women’s ability to build up their financial resources. For example, there was a much smaller increase in women’s incomes due to delay when Miller controlled for education.
There is another way to think about her findings: it’s becoming clear to many young women that there are fairly large financial rewards from delaying their first child. …Learn More
April 7, 2016
Our Blind Spots Cut Retirement Savings
Our personal biases can play havoc with how we handle our finances.
Two such biases have long been suspected as obstacles to saving for retirement. The first is a tendency to procrastinate on decisions that may benefit an individual in the long run, but also involve short-term costs, like saving for retirement – economists call this “present bias.”
The second bias is a failure to perceive the power of compounding investment returns and how this can build wealth over decades of saving.
But the impact of these biases on how much people actually save wasn’t really understood – until now. A new study by a team of economists from Stanford University, the University of Minnesota, the London School of Economics, and Claremont Graduate University finds that people who are not blinded by these two biases in particular have saved significantly more for retirement, largely because they start putting money away earlier in life.
The researchers based their findings on a big sample of nearly 2,500 people in online surveys in 2014 and 2015; the average age was about 49. To determine the consistency with which they value the present over the future, the survey asked the participants a series of questions about whether they would, for example, rather have $100 now or a larger amount on some future date – people who want their money now are a bit like Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons, who became famous for wanting a hamburger now but offering to pay for it later. The survey questions about compounding revolved around estimating an account’s future value, using a variety of different interest rates and time periods. … Learn More
February 18, 2016
U.S. Workers Got a Raise Last Year
It probably doesn’t feel like it, but workers got a decent pay raise in 2015.
Inflation last year was an improbably low 0.7 percent, and the fairly strong job market helped, too, by pushing up average hourly wages by 2.6 percent. Together, these translate to nearly a 2 percentage point increase in workers’ pay. Wages rose again in January by one-half percent, which was the second-best monthly increase in the current economic expansion. Minimum wages are also going up in many states.
It gets even better, based on an analysis by the American Institute of Economic Research (AIER) in western Massachusetts. An inflation measure designed by AIER that it calls the everyday price index, or EPI, actually declined last year. As its name implies, the EPI gauges changes in prices for things that are necessary for daily living, such as utilities and groceries, and excludes infrequent big-ticket items such as cars, homes, appliances, and even clothing. For this reason, it also weights gasoline more heavily than the standard consumer price index (CPI). The EPI declined 1.4 percent for the 12-month period ending in November, the latest data available, compared with the 0.7 percent increase for the CPI. …Learn More