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
October 16, 2012
20-Somethings Buck Pressure to Spend
Newlyweds Erin and Michael Gallagher
Michael and Erin Gallagher are just 26 years old but have made a strong start financially, socking away $50,000 by maxing out their 401(k)s while honoring a $20,000 budget for their October 5 wedding in downstate Illinois.
Jennifer and John Lucido, both 32 years old, now have $250,000 in the bank and have built a 2,500-square-foot home near Detroit.
By comparison, the typical U.S. household had saved $42,000 for retirement in 2010, according to the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.
Both couples are members of that rare species of 20-something super savers, spurning intense peer pressure to spend money on consumer items, go out for dinner a lot, and run up their credit cards. Neither couple got where they did the easy way either. They worked hard, but they were also quick to catch on to important lessons about being frugal and saving – from their parents or from each other.
“I have clients in their 30s and 40s who don’t even have $200,000 in their 401k,” said Naomi Myhaver, a financial planner at Baystate Financial Services in Worcester, Massachusetts.
An August article in The Journal of Consumer Affairs suggests one reason people like them are so hard to find. Young adults are extremely vulnerable to peer pressure to run up credit card debt so they can support a high lifestyle and social life.
In the study, 225 college students were asked questions such as whether they have “very strong” connections to their friends or “feel the need to spend as much as [friends] do on activities we do together.” College students have an average of 4.6 credit cards and $4,100 in debt…
October 2, 2012
How Smart Are Smart Phones?
Nearly half of people who have cell phones pay more than $100 per month for the service and 13 percent pay $200 or more, according to a survey by an online coupon company.
That doesn’t include the cost of the physical phone, the app and music downloads, the extra data plans. A certified public accounting organization in Oregon, Oregon Saves, estimates that the total cost for a two-year contract can easily reach $3,000.
And then there are the rogue teenagers who go over the monthly limits on minutes set by their parents’ cell plans – eventually, the parents relent and buy an unlimited data/text plan, which drives up their monthly charges permanently.
Wow, this habit is getting expensive.
The cell phone isn’t the only electronic habit that’s costing us. We also pay hundreds for cable TV, the Internet on our home computers, the land line. The automatic withdrawals for these services suck hundreds from our bank accounts each month – and we may not notice how much we’re spending since the transactions are electronic…Learn More