December 17, 2015
Social Status in the Age of Vermeer
A Lady Writing
By the 17th century, the Netherlands had developed a major financial industry and thriving maritime commerce in goods produced by the country’s textile mills, dairy farms, herring fisheries, and sugar refineries. The resulting large and diverse middle class supplies the rich subject matter for a portrait exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The paintings in “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” are grouped into one of the three classes: the upper crust, the middle classes, and the laborers and indigent.
The Dutch elite – nobility, textile merchants, and wealthy landowners – commissioned portraits “to express and affirm their status,” according to exhibit materials. These paintings are replete with class symbols, such as the gleaming armor worn by princes to highlight their privilege as well as military prowess. The status symbols in the exhibit’s signature 1665 painting above by Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing,” go beyond the silver inkwell and pearls on the woman’s writing table. Status is also implied in what she is doing: “The very act of writing tells us she is educated and literate and has the leisure time to write letters,” the exhibit states.
But in the Golden Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the true sign of prosperity was the Dutch middle-class, which was the largest and most highly stratified class. This big tent took in everything from trained professionals and skilled artisans to modest shopkeepers. Middle class people might be extremely wealthy shipbuilders, successful goldsmiths, respected barbers (who performed minor medical procedures), or modest tailors and bakers. They were also often defined by “the [investment] capital at their disposal,” which distinguished them from the rich who inherited their wealth and the poor who earned low wages by selling their unskilled labor.
The Shipbuilder and his Wife
“The very top of the middle class” can be seen in the above 1663 masterpiece, “The Shipbuilder and his Wife.” The shipbuilder, Jan Rijcksen, an investor in the Dutch East India Company, was so well-off that he could afford to commission a portrait by the most fashionable painter in Amsterdam: Rembrandt van Rijn. In the painting, Rijcksen is receiving an urgent letter from his wife, Griet Jans.Learn More
December 10, 2015
How Couples Deplete Retirement Savings
Americans who save for retirement throughout their working lives often hold tight to that savings after they retire. A new study shows they eventually do spend much of this money and sheds light on where it goes.
The study focuses on the retirement spending patterns of couples, adding to similar past studies on single retirees. While both spouses are alive, the researchers found that a couple’s wealth remains relatively stable over time – until they start paying for medical care, nursing homes, and other major end-of-life expenses.
The researchers examined spending patterns for more than 4,600 households over a 15-year period using a subset of the Health and Retirement Study that collects data on the health and wealth of people over age 70. Wealth included savings and retirement accounts, investments, and home equity.
Couples in two different income groups were compared: the average couple at the 20th percentile has about $14,000 in post-retirement income and $70,000 in wealth at age 74; the 80th percentile couple has more than $30,000 in income and $330,000 in wealth.
Here are the study’s main findings:
December 9, 2014
Fewer Still Paying Off Last Christmas
‘Tis the season to acknowledge progress!
The share of Americans who are still paying off credit card debts they ran up during the year-ago holiday has dropped for a second consecutive year.
According to an annual Consumer Reports survey, conducted during the first week in November,
7 percent of Americans still had unpaid Christmas bills left over from last year. That’s down from
10 percent in 2013 and 13 percent the year before.
One likely explanation is the drop in the U.S. unemployment rate, to 5.8 percent last month from
7 percent in November 2013. Plummeting gasoline prices have also left more cash in shoppers’ wallets. But did a lackluster Black Friday – retail sales were down a whopping 11 percent, despite the stronger job market and falling gas prices – mean something else? Are shoppers just delaying their purchases, or could this be a sign of restraint?
This holiday, the vast majority of people plan to spend the same or less than they did last year, says a poll by the Consumer Federation of America and the Credit Union National Association. And here’s a suggestion for the 2014 holidays that could also help: pay cash.Learn More
October 23, 2014
How Emotions Meddle with Money
Our 401(k) retirement system requires most workers to save for the future. But it’s difficult to reach this increasingly important goal, because our emotions – overconfidence, pleasure, fear of loss – get in the way.
“We believe our own nonsense,” is how Daylian Cane, a professor in the Yale School of Management, explains financial behavior in a new public television program, “Thinking Money: The Psychology Behind our Best and Worst Financial Decisions.” The short video above is taken from the program.
Further clouding our judgment are a vast array of consumer products, and the stress produced by how easy it is to purchase them with a credit card swipe and how hard it is to pay off the cards.
“Thinking Money,” a production of Maryland Public Television, covers many topics covered by this blog, including help for people trying to overcome their emotional obstacles.
“Thinking Money” is scheduled to air in its entirety on public television stations around the country in coming weeks. Click on “Learn More” for a list of broadcast dates in major cities. …Learn More
September 18, 2014
On Moms, Deadbeat Boomers, and Utopia
This blog has a single writer posting just two articles a week. So it’s impossible to keep up with all the news that crosses the transom.
But perhaps because the work world is gearing back up this fall, there have been a lot of interesting stories lately about financial behavior. Here are three worth noting:
Fatherhood adds to paychecks – motherhood, not so much. A new study estimates that women actually face about a 7 percent “wage penalty” for each child. So, having two children reduces a woman’s hourly wages by 14 percent, according to a new study out of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In contrast, annual earnings for fathers are about 8 percent higher than similarly situated men who have no children. This research sheds more light on the wage gap.
Baby boomers are having to pay off college loans they took out decades ago. Some 155,000 older Americans are now seeing deductions from their Social Security checks to pay their federal student loans – up from 31,000 a decade ago – according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Parents often co-sign loans for a child’s education, but the GAO report says that about three out of four dollars of boomers’ loan balances are for their “own education.” Baby boomers never borrowed the large amounts that today’s steep college tuitions demand. But what’s not discussed in the report is that the garnisheeing of Social Security benefits may be due to a cultural artifact of the 1960s and 1970s – when attitudes toward repaying student debt were, well, loose. Laws requiring repayment have become more stringent. …Learn More
August 28, 2014
Stark Differences in U.S. Cost of Living
The Squared Away Blog’s focus is on how informed financial decisions can improve one’s personal finances or retirement prospects. But much that impacts our standard of living is not in our control.
One example is the cost of consumer goods, healthcare, and renting or buying a home, which vary widely from one city or region to another. To highlight this variation, the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C., used recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis to create the cool interactive map below, which shows locations with the highest cost of living (bright orange) and the lowest (bright turquoise).
Running a cursor over the map displays metropolitan and rural areas and their comparative living costs, measured in terms of what $100 will purchase. In the Manhattan-New Jersey area, for example, $100 buys the equivalent of about $82 worth of goods, healthcare and housing, while it will buy $119 worth of the same stuff in central Kansas.
Source: The Tax Foundation.
The least expensive city is Danville, Illinois, where $100 buys $126 in consumer goods, followed by Jefferson City, Missouri; Jackson, Tenn.; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Rome, Georgia. The most expensive metropolitan areas are the usual suspects, in this order: Honolulu, Manhattan, Silicon Valley, the Bridgeport-Stamford, Connecticut, area outside Manhattan, and Santa Cruz, California, which is south of Silicon Valley.[A second map compares states.] …Learn More
July 10, 2014
In-Home Senior Care – a Lot to Learn
The first baby boomers will turn 80 in 2026. Arranging in-home care by nurses, home health aides, physical and occupational therapists, or social workers will become a pressing concern for growing numbers of Americans. To sketch out the home care landscape, Squared Away interviewed Carol Levine, director of the families and health care project at the United Hospital Fund, a New York non-profit. She’s written widely on long term care, from academic articles to her new book, “Planning for Long-Term Care for Dummies.”
Is it logical that baby boomers will try to avoid nursing or assisted living facilities and will view home care as the way to go – at least for as long as possible?
You’re right. Most people, regardless of age, want to stay in their own homes. They think, “I don’t want to be in a nursing home. Therefore I’ll have home care” – as if they’ll both provide the same level of support or assistance. Home care may be even more complicated than nursing home care or assisted living, because it takes place in your own home, and because there are so many varieties.
Describe the two main types of care: skilled and personal.
The kind of care you need depends on your health condition and your abilities to manage your household – to get around, cook, shop. A medical condition that requires a nurse visit is one level of care. A lot of home care that is paid for by insurance comes after a health problem that lands you in the hospital. If you’re on Medicare, your doctor will have to document your need for skilled care, which means at least a nurse visit a few times a week. You may get a home health aide as well. If you just need someone to help out and monitor what’s going on, make lunch, do the laundry or do tasks like bathing, it’s called personal care. …Learn More