Art of Dice that spell out the word "fees"

Oddly, the Educated Pay Higher Fees

It’s smart to invest retirement savings in mutual funds that charge very low fees for one simple reason: the worker keeps more of his money and hands over less to Wall Street.

But in a study of people in their 50s and 60s who have retired or otherwise left federal employment, the people with the most education and the best scores on a standardized test were more likely to make what seems to be the wrong decision. Rather than keep their retirement funds in the government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which has extremely low fees, they transferred the money to much higher-fee IRAs operated by financial companies.

The $500 billion TSP – the world’s largest defined contribution retirement plan – is inexpensive in large part because it invests only in index mutual funds, which automatically track a variety of stock and bond market indexes and avoid the need to pay money managers to pick the investments. The annual fees for TSP’s index funds – known as expense ratios – are under 0.04 percent of the investor’s assets.

But over a 10-year period, about one fourth of the former federal employees rolled over the money saved during their careers into IRAs that typically had much higher expense ratios: 0.57 percent. On top of that, IRAs often charge additional fees for investment advice, pushing the potential total annual fees to well in excess of 1.5 percent. It’s possible that investing in an IRA could generate enough returns to make the extra fees worthwhile, but research has shown this is not the norm.

What explains the rollover decision? More educated people tend to have larger retirement account balances, raising the possibility that they were either seeking out financial advice or were targeted by advisors’ sales pitches. However, even among people with similar balances, those with more education were still more likely to roll over to IRAs.

It’s possible that they “perceive that they know what they’re doing” and want to take control of their investments “even when higher fees result,” the researchers said. …Learn More

NFL Rookie Took Finance Class to Heart

Joejuan Williams

Joejuan Williams
Photo courtesy of the New England Patriots.

Joejuan Williams, a rookie defensive back for the New England Patriots, has received a lot of attention for his practice of saving 90 percent of his game-day paychecks. He credits his frugality to a personal finance class at his Nashville, Tenn., high school.

“It completely changed my life,” Williams told The Boston Globe recently. “I’m going to sacrifice now for me to be happy later.”

Williams, having signed a $6.6 million contract this season, isn’t exactly living on the edge. But keep in mind that these sky-high earnings are often temporary for football players. When one considers that the average NFL career lasts about three years, Williams is just playing it smart.

But read on in the Globe article, and a more complex and touching explanation for Williams’ frugality seems to emerge – one that revolves around a childhood watching his single mother live paycheck to paycheck.

“I’ve been stingy with money ever since I was young just because I saw what my mom had to go through,” he told the Globe. He said that he has paid off his mother’s student loans and purchased a car for her.

Although he credits the influence of his personal finance class, psychologists say that adult financial behavior has deep roots in childhood experiences like Williams’. In fact, endless research papers have debunked the effectiveness of financial education. There are numerous reasons for this, including a widespread aversion to math. Human nature is another obstacle: people regularly sacrifice their long-term goals to whim – credit card spending is the classic example.

Williams is different. He has his eye on the future. He is focused on one long-term goal for himself – investing his savings for the future – and one goal for his mother.

“I’m going to give my mom a home,’’ he said. “That’s the only big purchase I have my eyes on.’’

Williams’ high school finance class clearly influenced him. But maybe the lessons stuck because he took them to heart.

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401k Balances are Far Below Potential

If a 60-year-old baby boomer started saving consistently at the beginning of his career back in the 1980s, he would have some $364,000 in his 401(k)s and IRAs today.

Bar graph showing a 60-year-old worker's 401(k): potential vs. reality

How much does he actually have? One-fourth of that, according to a new study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (CRR).

One obvious explanation for the enormous gap is that the 401(k) system was in its infancy in the 1980s, and it took time for employers to widely adopt the plans and for young adults to get into the habit of saving for retirement.

Another likely reason is the large share of workers who do not have any type of employer-sponsored retirement plan.  This coverage gap, which predates the introduction of 401(k)s, persists today and leaves about half of private-sector workers without a plan at any given point in time.

And this gap isn’t just a problem for baby boomers. A majority of young workers are not saving in a retirement plan, despite their advantage of having entered the labor force after the 401(k) system was more mature. …Learn More

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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

Illustrated people

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

Illustration of slum and hospital

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