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Does Increased Debt Offset 401k Savings?

Roughly half of U.S. employers with a 401(k) plan enroll their workers automatically, deducting money from their paychecks for retirement unless they explicitly opt out of this arrangement. This strategy is widely viewed as a good way to get people to save.

But auto-enrollment might not be as effective as it seems, if individuals are compensating for a smaller paycheck by borrowing more.

A new study of civilian employees of the U.S. Army used credit and payroll data to gauge whether debt increased for employees who were automatically enrolled in the federal government’s retirement savings plan. The researchers compared changes in debt levels for people hired after the government’s 2010 adoption of auto-enrollment with hires prior to 2010.

The good news is that since the broadest debt category, which includes high-rate credit cards, did not increase, it did not offset the employees’ accumulated contributions. Their credit reports showed no increase in financial distress either, the study concluded.

However, the findings for car and home loans were ambiguous, so auto-enrollment “may raise these latter types of debt,” said the researchers, who are affiliated with NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.

If workers are, in fact, borrowing more, the question, again, is whether the new debt is offsetting the additional savings under auto-enrollment. Auto and home loans – in contrast to credit cards – are used to finance an asset that has long-term value. Whether these forms of debt improve or erode net worth depends on the asset’s value and whether the value rises (say, a house in a growing city) or falls (a car after it’s driven off the lot).

The researchers did not have access to data on federal workers’ assets, which they would need to see what’s happening to their net worth. This remains an important question for future research. …Learn More

What’s Driving the Longevity Gap

The decline in U.S. life expectancy is unlike anything we’ve seen  

Bombshell headlines like this popped up in major news outlets last November after the government reported that life expectancy in 2017 fell for the third year in a row.

This is a troubling break from the steady improvements in lifespans since 1900, which were powered by a combination of medical breakthroughs and healthcare policy. Early in the 20th century, antibiotics dramatically increased infant lifespans. Later, new treatments like statins and stents, as well as expanded access to healthcare through Medicare and Medicaid, increased life expectancy across the age range.

But there’s another story behind this story: life expectancy very much depends on where one falls on the economic ladder.

Between 1979 and 2011 – prior to the very recent fall in longevity – the increase in lifespans was much larger for more educated, higher-earning Americans than the gains for people with less education and lower incomes, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR).

Smoking is an important factor in this socioeconomic divide. The decline in smoking and cardiovascular disease greatly contributed to rising longevity in the latter half of the 20th century. But while all Americans are smoking less today, those in lower socioeconomic groups still smoke much more. Today, one in four of them is a smoker, compared with just one smoker for every 10 people who attended college, the CRR found.

Looking ahead, education will remain a clear dividing line, and life expectancy will continue to depend crucially on the future prevalence and impact of smoking, as well as obesity, CRR predicted. …Learn More

Medicaid is Crucial to Rural Hospitals

Rural hospital closings can be a matter of life or death.

Residents in these remote locations may have to drive 100 miles or more for emergency medical care. One new study found that hospital closings increase mortality in rural areas by 6 percent. No such impact occurred in urban areas with multiple medical centers.

Both urban and rural hospitals serving poor and low-income patients face myriad financial pressures, led by Medicare and Medicaid’s relatively low reimbursement rates for their disproportionate numbers of older and sicker patients. The 2013 federal budget, which cut Medicare reimbursements for hospitals and physicians by 2 percent, compounded the problems.

But what has become increasingly clear in rural areas is that the option given to states under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to expand their Medicaid-covered populations of high-need patients has created a dividing line between the most vulnerable hospitals and the survivors, said Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the National Rural Health Association, a hospital trade group.

With closures accelerating across the country over the past decade, 24 of the 31 rural hospitals that closed in 2018 and 2019 were located in the minority of states (14) that have not expanded their Medicaid programs, according to the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina, which tracks hospital closures.

In contrast, the ACA has bolstered rural hospitals in expansion states by cutting their uninsured populations roughly in half by bringing in a fresh supply of federal and state revenues to insure more patients under Medicaid. …Learn More

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The Secret to Feeling Younger

You’re as young as you feel!

This cliché is meant to be uplifting to older people. But it really just begs the question: what, exactly, is it that makes a person feel young?

Having a sense of control over the events in one’s life is the answer that emerged from a 2019 study of 60- to 90-year-olds in the Journal of Gerontology. “[B]elieving that your daily efforts can result in desired outcomes” lines up nicely with what the researchers call “a younger subjective age.”

This makes a lot of sense. Feeling in control becomes important as we age, because it counteracts our growing vulnerabilities – we can’t move as fast, hear as well, or remember as much. Wresting back some control can rejuvenate older people, instill optimism, and improve memory and even longevity, various studies have found. …Learn More

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Financial Survival of Low-Income Disabled

A monthly disability check from the federal government is a lifeline for poor and low-income persons with disabilities, but they still face a daily struggle to meet their basic needs and cover their expenses.

In in-depth interviews, 35 low-income people in Worcester, Massachusetts, described how they make ends meet on the disability benefit they get from Social Security, which averages $912 a month and is their largest source of income. Another $300 comes from other forms of public assistance, family support, or minimum-wage jobs, according to a new issue brief by Mathematica’s Center for Studying Disability Policy.

The daily struggles that each individual faces are as unique as they are. Here are a few excerpts from the study:

“My rent is subsidized. Plus I work 20 hours a week which is pretty good. I bring home more than one hundred something dollars a week and I get a few dollars in food stamps. So it’s okay.”

“I’m stringing it, managing it, and just barely staying above water. I’ve been treading that water for a long time.”

“My situation is challenging. I sometimes just don’t have enough coming in to make what’s going out.”

Three out of four people in the study told interviewers that they find it very difficult to pay for their housing, food and other basic expenses. A bright spot is that people on federal disability insurance (DI) are also covered by Medicare and/or Medicaid and spend very little on medical care.  “I’m getting everything I need,” one individual said about her healthcare. …Learn More

Half of Retirees Afraid to Use Savings

For most retirees, figuring out how much money to withdraw from savings every year is a difficult-to-impossible math problem. But the issue goes much deeper: fears about what the future might bring make this decision overwhelming.

Extreme caution is a popular solution. A 2009 study estimated that by the time middle-income retirees are in their 80s, they still had not touched about three-fourths of their savings, and 2016 research found that retirees with substantial assets are the most reluctant spenders. Vanguard recently reported that retirees with very modest savings turn around and reinvest a third of the money they’re required to withdraw under IRS rules after age 70½.

People saved all of their lives to make sure they will enjoy retirement. So why are they so reluctant to spend the money for the purpose it was intended?

A 2018 study in the Journal of Personal Finance surveyed retirees to get a sense of the psychology behind their caution.

Half of the survey respondents agreed with this statement:  “The thought of my retirement portfolio balance going down over time brings me discomfort, even if the decline in value is a result of me spending money on my retirement goals.”

And the people who agreed with this statement said they feel like they are not well prepared financially to retire – and this had nothing to do with how prepared they actually are. …Learn More

What Personality Says about Your Wealth

A person’s finances are not determined simply by obvious factors like how much they earn – personality can also make a difference.

A new study has identified three personality traits that play a role in how individuals handle their nest eggs. For example, conscientious people – self-disciplined planners – are more careful and have more wealth at the end of their lives.

The University of Illinois researchers looked at two types of wealth: within employer retirement plans and outside of these plans. They did not find a connection between the wealth levels in employer plans and various personality traits, a result they anticipated because retirement wealth has more to do with a retiree’s work history and earnings.

But they did find a connection between personality and the wealth individuals hold outside of their retirement plans. Even though the majority of retirees have very little of this wealth, it’s still interesting to see the connections.

For example, retirees who are open to new experiences – they are imaginative, proactive, and broad-minded – behave like conscientious people and preserve their wealth, especially after their mid-60s, according to the study, which was conducted for NBER’s Retirement and Disability Research Center.

Agreeableness works in the opposite direction. Agreeable people are known for being soft-hearted, friendly and helpful – they also tend to care less about money or about managing it. Not surprisingly, they have less wealth. …Learn More

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