December 12, 2013
Navigating the Gift Card Thicket
Too many financial products are far too complex. The pre-loaded cards that people give as gifts during the holidays are a multi-billion-dollar example.
When buying these cards, it’s very hard to know what you’re getting and giving. The big things to watch out for are expiration dates and fees. This isn’t easy.
The federal CARD Act of 2009 covers cards issued by retailers for purchases in their stores and cards issued by banks for use in many places. The law bars these gift cards from expiring for five years after their purchase. They must also maintain their full value for a year. But after the first year, the CARD Act permits one fee per month, and a $5 monthly fee can chew up a $25 gift card’s value pretty fast.
It’s difficult to tell the difference between gift cards and prepaid cards, like Wal-Mart’s Bluebird or the RushCard, sold side by side on grocery store racks. But prepaid cards are not regulated at all by federal consumer protection law, while retail and bank cards are, said Christina Tetreault, an attorney for Consumers Union, the non-profit affiliated with Consumer Reports.
State regulations often offer further consumer protections – and add a layer of complexity for consumers. A card that works one way in a state with strong regulations, such as California, may have few protections if you mail it to a relative in Texas.
The following is just a sample of the intricacies of state regulations. …Learn More
August 29, 2013
Financially Mismatched Couples at Risk
Financial planners say it happens all the time: couples who don’t see eye to eye on money matters often break up or divorce.
One reason they run into trouble is that a financial mismatch makes it more difficult for them to achieve important goals, said financial adviser Bonnie Sewell of Leesburg, Virginia.
“They’re working against the tide. People who pick like-minded partners get there faster,” said Sewell, who’s written a book about money and divorce.
Her contention is backed up by the preliminary results of a study of more than 30,000 married and cohabiting couples between 1999 and 2012 by Federal Reserve Board researchers Jane Dokko and Geng Li. Their study compared the partners’ individual credit scores to gauge their financial compatibility and found that the larger the disparity between the two of them, the higher the incidence of break-ups.
The authors said credit scores are a proxy for financial behavior and also can measure trustworthiness. The link between poor financial matches and household dissolution, they wrote in their paper, was “quite strong.”
To prevent unhappy endings, Sewell, the financial planner, has three suggestions for new couples: …Learn More
June 4, 2013
Earnings Growth: Better at the Top
U.S. inequality can be measured two ways – by wealth or by earnings. Either way, most working Americans are losing out.
It’s the 1920s again for the richest 1 percent of Americans, and a recent analysis of the wealth gap illustrates why they’re able to live like the fictional Jay Gatsby, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the new movie, “The Great Gatsby.”
The value of their wealth rises and falls with the stock market. But since the 1960s, they have consistently held 33 percent to 39 percent of the wealth owned by all Americans, including their stock, mansions, commercial real estate, and businesses, according to economist Edward Wolff at New York University. In 2010, the last year examined by Wolff, the richest 1 percent’s share was 35 percent – that was before the Dow flew past 15,000.
The U.S. wealth gap is enormous, partly because most Americans have little wealth to speak of. Most people instead gauge their financial well-being by the size of their paychecks, and income inequality is rising sharply.
Between 1993 and 2011, the earnings of the top 1 percent of U.S. earners grew by nearly 58 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Earnings include salaries, bonuses, stock options, dividends, and capital gains on stock portfolios. That far outpaced the 6 percent rise for the rest of U.S. workers during the same 18-year period, according to a new analysis by economist Emmanuel Saez at the University of California, Berkeley. …Learn More
April 18, 2013
To Live Cheaply, See the World
U.S. dollars go a long way in Indonesia.
Adam Shepard estimates that it cost him $19,420.68 to circumnavigate the globe from October 2011 through September 2012.
It was a budget tour filled with simple pleasures and wild adventures for the failed professional basketball player and successful book author. He helped poor children in Honduras, hugged a koala in Perth, rode an elephant in Thailand, bungee jumped in Slovakia, and hung out in lots of places with Ivana, whom he met while traveling and later married (she brought only $12,000, so he paid for the food).
If he’d kept his bartending job in Raleigh, North Carolina, his car, and apartment, he estimates he would’ve easily spent more than $20,000 during that same year.
Petting a koala was on Shepard's international to-do list.
“If you wonder whether an odyssey like mine is financially realistic for you, I answer with a resounding yes,” he writes encouragingly in his new e-book, “One Year Lived,” which is being published today.
You’d have to read it to find out how he did it – and how energetic someone has to be to pull off an escapade through 17 countries. Shepard’s book is a strong reminder to those of us who burrow at our desks day after day that, as the saying goes, there’s more to life than money. …
March 28, 2013
Store, Online Browsing Can Be Dangerous
Impulse purchases – new spring clothes or an expensive dinner out – can create a rush. But a few minutes of pleasure can blow a hole in the budget for a month. If it’s chronic, it can eat into savings for a down payment or retirement.
The reason for these rash decisions is obvious: see it, want it. But for people who want to better understand – and prevent – their impulse buys and remain on budget, FinCapDev, which is hosting an online competition for a financial literacy app, recently posted a reading list of three research papers that explain why we can’t resist buying stuff.
- One study has confirmed that store browsers actually are vulnerable to impulsive purchases, because the act of browsing through a store’s merchandise produces positive feelings. “It is a state of high energy, full concentration, and pleasant engagement,” researchers wrote in a 1998 paper that is probably relevant to online browsing. Can you relate? …
March 12, 2013
Feeling Poorer? Blame the House!
The American psyche gets a lot of credit for fueling the boom in U.S. home prices, which ended in 2006. As houses increased in value, homeowners felt richer, and they spent more. Similarly, falling house prices led to declines in consumer spending as households found themselves poorer and less able to access credit, according to a new paper, “Wealth Effects Revisited: 1975-2012,” by economists Karl Case, the late John Quigley and Robert Shiller.
In this interview, Case explains this “wealth effect.”
Q: Why were our spending decisions influenced by our psychology during the housing boom?
Case: The increase in house prices was like magic. They went from the 1950s until 2006 without ever falling nationally. The numbers are astonishing. If you look at the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Accounts, the value of the owner-occupied housing stock in the United States increased from $14 trillion to $24 trillion. All of a sudden the collective balance sheet of U.S. households had $10 trillion worth of assets that it didn’t have before. That’s a very big number.
The first thing I asked myself is, How did I behave? I bought a house in Wellesley [Massachusetts] for $56,000 in 1976. When I sold it in 1991, it was a $240,000 asset. I know my behavior changed. I was in my 40s, and I found myself with a quarter million dollars that I didn’t know I had. It made me feel wealthier, and I spent more and saved less than I otherwise would have. Home equity loans and second mortgages made it possible for homeowners to withdraw their newly acquired equity to finance a higher level of spending and/or a new or bigger home.
Q: How do we decide we’re feeling richer?
Case: Household wealth is made of many things: houses, cars, and financial assets. The value of any asset, including housing, is determined by what people are willing to pay for it. What determines that? Our expectation of whether it will go up in the future. If you have a house I think is going to go up 10 percent per year, I’m willing to pay more for it than if I think it’s not going up at all. That’s how psychology drives the housing market.
In annual surveys for another paper, we asked 5,000 people going forward 10 years, what do you expect the average annual increase to be in the value of your house? They said 8-10-12 percent per year. They were feeling better because their house was worth more. That leads to more spending.
Q: Is it fair to say the housing market was one of the primary influences on the economy?
Case: Absolutely. Our finding has been very controversial. Some people say housing’s wealth effect doesn’t exist. Our own earlier work suggested that it works when the housing market is on the way up but not on the way down. We now have evidence that it works in both directions. …Learn More
October 18, 2012
College Educated Take On More Debt
Americans with college degrees are more likely to overuse their credit cards, home equity loans and other debts than are people who didn’t attend college, according to research in the latest International Journal of Consumer Studies.
“I was really expecting the reverse,” Sherman Hanna, a professor of consumer sciences at Ohio State University in Columbus, said about the results of his research, conducted in conjunction with Ewha Womans University in Seoul and the University of Georgia in Athens.
The study also reveals the increasing fragility of Americans’ finances, particularly in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis when overall debt levels surged amid what Hanna called a “democratization of credit” that made it easier – critics said too easy – to borrow.
The percent of all U.S. households with monthly debt payments exceeding 40 percent of their pretax income rose from 18 percent in 1992 to 27 percent in 2007. (Consumers have slashed their debt during the recent recession.)
Based on education levels, Americans with a bachelor’s or graduate degree had more than a 32 percent likelihood of being heavily in debt. That compared with 24.5 percent for people who graduated from high school and did not attend college, according to the study, which tracked U.S. households from 1992 through 2007. To make their comparison, the researchers controlled for the effect of incomes.
The researchers designated households in their sample as being heavily in debt if their monthly loan payments and other debt obligations exceeded 40 percent of their pretax income. That is a high share of income to devote every month to paying off loans, rather than buying groceries, saving for retirement, or utilities…Learn More