Anthropologists took a deep dive into Middle America’s clutter a few years ago, and here’s what they found:
A wall of shelves holding hundreds and hundreds of Beanie Babies and dolls. Giant packs of multiple paper towels, cleaning fluids, Gatorade, and Dixie cups piled high in the garage or laundry room. Frozen prepared foods jam-packed into twin refrigerators in the kitchen and garage – enough to feed a family for weeks.
I write frequently about the financial challenges facing the middle class today and their perception that the American Dream is slowly and inexorably eroding. This feeling is very real.
But surely hyper-consumerism has something to do with our financial stress. U.S. households have more possessions than in any other country, UCLA anthropologists said in this video:
Money spent unnecessarily to stock our own personal Big Box store in the garage leaves much less for long-term goals like savings, retirement, and college tuition – the same expenses middle class families struggle to afford. “We buy stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have,” summed up one commenter on the video’s YouTube page.
The United States has long been a prosperous and material culture. But anthropologist Anthony Graesch argues that the magnitude of consumption has grown by leaps and bounds. This trend has probably been encouraged by the proliferation of inexpensive imports from countries with lower wages. Over a lifetime, these small expenses add up to boatloads of money.
“The sheer diversity and availability and fairly inexpensive array of objects that are out there – this has significantly changed over the years,” Graesch said. Toys are a prime example. “We’re perhaps spending more on kids’ material culture than ever before.”
Minimalism goes in and out of vogue, but there are few minimalists among us – this takes work, self-control, and a willingness to part ways with sentimentality. For the rest of us, there’s a personal finance lesson in this video. … Learn More
PBS Digital Studios is producing an excellent video series to guide 20-somethings who are starting their careers and want to get a handle on their finances.
In “Two Cents,” financial planners Julia Lorenz-Olson and her husband, Philip Olson, will make you laugh as they convey their very solid advice about personal finance. “How to Ask for a Raise” is perhaps the most relevant video to young adults – especially the ladies. Only one in three women believe that their pay is negotiable. Nearly half of all men do.
The potential for pay raises is highest for employees when they are in their late 20s and early 30s. But the boss isn’t likely to volunteer to increase anyone’s pay, the hosts explain – you have to ask. This is a scary thing to do, and the couple eliminates some of the anxiety by explaining how to prepare for that meeting with the boss.
The “Love and Money” episode asks the questions that are crucial to a successful partnership: how much does he or she earn and how much does this person owe? In “How Cars Can Keep You Poor,” the Olsons advise against buying a new car, which depreciates 63 percent in just five years – they compare it to investing in an ice cream cone on a hot day. A used car is a much better deal and the only sensible option for someone who’s already juggling rent and student loan payments. And the answer to “Should I Buy Bitcoin?” is, uh, no. Nearly half of all bitcoin transactions are illegal, Olson says.
For future-minded young adults, “How Do You Actually Buy a House?” walks through the entire process, explaining why it’s critical to get preapproved for a mortgage, how to choose a realtor, and what to expect in the closing. “Insta-Everything lays out the few pros and many cons of paying for on-demand services such as Grub Hub, InstaCart, and Task Rabbit.
Lorenzo-Olsen explains that the goal of their “Two Cents” videos is not to help young adults get more money (though a raise would be nice), “but to be happy with the money you have.”Learn More
In the world of Big Data, do you fall into the industry’s Extra Needy category, or are you viewed as American Royalty? Perhaps Ethnic Second City Struggler or Small Town Shallow Pockets is a more apt description of you? Or how about Eager Senior Buyer or Tough Start: Young Single Parent?
While the media are focused on Facebook’s privacy breaches, a growing multibillion-dollar industry of data brokers is mining personal information online in order to sell our data dossiers to financial and other companies – sometimes to the detriment of our personal finances.
Big Data collection also can be innocuous, when it is used for marketing. In this form, it’s just the high-tech version of snail mail solicitations for credit cards, retail catalogs, or the services of a neighborhood real estate agent.
But Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, said evidence is growing that some consumers are being exploited by the unfettered sharing of personal data. Further, individuals generally do not have a legal right to see their dossiers, which are proprietary – “and we don’t know what they’re being used for,” she said.
In one egregious case, brokers sold data on an elderly veteran, who was then victimized by a scam that stripped him of his life savings. Some brokers compile lists of people living in trailer parks to sell to companies making “predatory offers to those in financial trouble,” Dixon testified before the Senate. …Learn More
Despite the mounting pressures on Americans of all ages to save for retirement, our saving habits haven’t changed in 10 years.
The combined employer and employee contributions to 401(k)s consistently hover around 10 percent of workers’ pay, according to “How America Saves 2018,” an annual report by Vanguard, which administers thousands of employer 401(k)s and other defined contribution plans.
Retirement account balances aren’t going up either. The typical participant’s 401(k) balance is no larger than it was in 2007, even though accounts grew 7 percent last year, to $26,000, thanks to a strong stock market. The balances, when adjusted for inflation, are slightly smaller.
The growing adoption of 401(k) plans that automatically enroll their workers is having both negative and positive influences on the account balances. Employers tend to set employees’ contributions in these plans at a low 3 percent of their pay. This has had a depressing effect on balances, but it has been offset somewhat in recent years by a modification to auto-enrollment plans: more employers are automatically increasing their workers’ contribution rates periodically.
Baby boomers with a few short years left to save are particularly under pressure to increase their savings. The typical boomer has accumulated only $71,000 in his current employer’s retirement account, according to Vanguard. Total account balances are generally larger, however – though still often inadequate – because many baby boomers have rolled over savings from past employer 401(k)s into their personal IRA accounts.
Overall, the situation for all workers hasn’t really changed and neither has Vanguard’s message to future retirees.
“Going forward, we need to reach for higher contribution rates for more individuals,” Jean Young, senior research analyst says in the company’s video above. …Learn More
A theme runs through the infographic below: aging baby boomers are still a force of nature.
Created by Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives, the infographic uses demographic data to show that boomers remain important to the labor market even as they grow older.
More than 9 million people over 65 work – a steep 65 percent increase in just a decade.
Two things primarily explain this increase. One reason is hardly surprising: the post-World War II baby boom that created the largest generation in history also created the largest living adult population (though Millennials will soon catch up).
On top of this, baby boomers are working longer for myriad reasons – among them, better health, inadequate retirement savings, and more education – which drives up their participation in the labor force.
To see boomers’ other impacts on work, click here for the entire infographic.
Two of our readers’ favorite articles so far this year connected difficult bread and butter issues – personal finance and retirement – with a far more pleasant topic: travel.
The most popular blog profiled a Houston couple scouting locations for a dream retirement home in South America, which has a lower cost of living. Another well-read blog was about Liz Patterson, a young carpenter in Colorado who built a $7,000 tiny house on a flat-bed trailer to radically reduce her expenses – so she could travel more.
The downsizing efforts of 27-year-old Patterson inspired several older readers to post comments to the blog about their own downsizing. “From children’s cribs and toys in the attic, to collectible things from my parents’ 70-year marriage!” Elaine wrote. “Purging has been heart wrenching and frustrating and long overdue!”
The following articles attracted the most interest from our readers in the first six months of 2018. Topics ranged from 401(k)s, income taxes, and Americans’ uneven participation in the stock market to geriatric care managers. Each headline includes a link to the blog. …Learn More
Education is the fastest ticket to a higher income, more opportunities, and a better quality of life. But four-year college is often a tough road for the pioneering first in their families to attend.
They have at least two big disadvantages – apart from the well-known financial one. Unlike the teenagers of the highly educated professionals who usually take for granted that their children will go to college, first-generation students might not have the benefit of high expectations at home. College is outside their comfort zone, which creates psychological barriers to attending and succeeding.
A second disadvantage is that they aren’t always going to learn, through a sort of parental osmosis, to cope with higher education’s mores and attitudes or be as resilient to its challenges.
UCLA student Violet Salazar says in this video that she used to feel she didn’t fully belong, “because I am first generation or because I am Latina, and also coming from a low socioeconomic background.” She went on to organize an entire dormitory floor specifically for first-generation students to make them feel more at home. …Learn More