February 1, 2018
My Hillbilly Roots
J.D. Vance’s rural Kentucky roots, described in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” differ from my father’s family in southern Indiana in one important way. Vance’s violent, angry mother was a substance abuser with a trail of failed relationships in her wake. Vance carries the childhood scars. My dad’s family was a bunch of kind, reticent, teetotaling farmers.
Alvin and Lena Belle Blanton and sons Gerald and Leland, 1966.
But the similarities between our families struck me too – Vance called his grandfather Blanton “Papaw,” which I’d always thought was unique to my own Papaw Blanton but, I now know, is an endearment. And believe me, the corn fields and hills of southern Indiana and contiguous Kentucky are more southern than Midwestern. My grandma’s fried chicken was heaven.
The backdrop for Vance’s hillbilly stories emerges front and center in my own take on family: I look at rural poverty through a socioeconomic lens.
Vance, an acclaimed writer and Silicon Valley investment banker, “got out” via the Marine Corps, Ohio State University and Yale Law School. “To move up,” he writes, “was to move on.” With sheer determination – supported by his tough, caring Mamaw – he overcame long odds, childhood stress-eating, and psychological retreat from a conflict-filled home. His Yale scholarship wasn’t earned on grades but because “I was one of the poorest kids in the school.”
To be clear, I do not see “getting out” as pejorative. Nor does “getting out” mean getting away from family. Rural people relocate in search of better job opportunities than what is available in depressed areas with eerily quiet “downtowns” of struggling or abandoned establishments pushed out of town by big-box retailers like WalMart and fast-food joints. Getting out is code for earning a decent living, buying a modest house, having health insurance, and being able to retire. In short, capturing the American Dream.
In my family, the strategy of getting out worked for some but not for others. Please bear with me through my generational story.
My late father, Leland Blanton, left home – Jasonville, Indiana, population 2,147 – so that my two brothers and I didn’t have to. His father – Papaw – owned a small-town gas station and, due to childhood polio, walked with a cane. A midwife helped my father’s true-grit mother deliver him into a three-room farmhouse with an outhouse. Twenty years later, his ticket out was a high test score that paved the way to becoming a hotshot pilot in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s. Greenland, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Greece, Germany, Bangkok, Saigon, Turkey – he flew to every corner of the globe. We all lived nearly three years outside Tokyo. …Learn More
January 30, 2018
WSJ Recognizes our Retirement Blog
I was honored to be in the company of some excellent retirement writers recognized in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “My Favorite Writers on Retirement Planning.” Since I started writing this blog in May 2011 for the Center for Retirement Research, which is funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), retirement writers have come out of the woodwork to help the swarms of retiring baby boomers – and many of us need it!
Others featured in the article by the Journal’s Glenn Ruffenach – some new, some veterans – include financial planner Michael Kitces, whom I’ve interviewed about tax strategies for retirement plan withdrawals. Most everyone knows Jonathan Clements, a former long-time Journal reporter now editing and writing a blog. Last but not least, I’ll mention Mike Piper, a certified public accountant – someone new to interview! – and Christine Benz of Morningstar, a Chicago firm that is a long-time source of data and information for this blog.
Each writer is distinct. So, what do we try to do here at Squared Away? …Learn More
January 25, 2018
Just Half of Americans Enjoy Bull Market
The stock market’s 19 percent climb in 2017 was nothing short of impressive. This year, it has gained another 6 percent.
This means that many boomers with 401(k)s are feeling a little more secure about retirement – at least for now. That more people feel they will be able to afford a vacation this summer with their children. And that Warren Buffett is getting richer even faster.
But one in two Americans isn’t at the party. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances in 2016, the Federal Reserve Board’s latest triennial survey and the most comprehensive look at Americans’ personal finances, 48 percent of U.S. families do not own equities.
Less surprising is how stock holdings break out at various income levels. About 30 percent of families with earnings in the bottom half of all incomes own equities, whether in the form of 401(k) investments, brokerage accounts, mutual funds, or individual stocks. For these lower-paid workers, the 2.5 percent average increase in hourly wages in 2017 is usually more meaningful. But inflation increased 2.1 percent last year, leaving them with just 0.4 percent more spending money, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics wage and inflation data. This is half of 2016’s inflation-adjusted wage gain.
In the next highest income group – from the middle-income level up to the 90th percentile – about 70 percent of families own equities in various forms. In the top 10 percent, the vast majority do (94 percent).
The chasm between the well-heeled and ordinary workers has been widening. Stock ownership is one prism through which to view that inequality. …
January 23, 2018
Millennial Retirement ‘Discouraging’
Baby boomers have limited time and only a few options to improve their financial prospects when they retire and give up a regular paycheck. Millennials have more time to do something about it.
They should start thinking about it, indicates a study by the Urban Institute’s Richard Johnson, Karen Smith, Damir Cosic, and Claire Xiaozhi Wang.
Their test of a comfortable retirement was set at a 75 percent replacement rate, meaning retirees need 75 cents in monthly income for every dollar earned in their final decade of working. For this analysis, the researchers estimated retirement income at age 70 – an age when most people have already retired – for every individual in the federal data sources used in their analysis.
They found that about a third of boomers and boomers’ parents don’t have enough retirement income to make that 75 percent cutoff. Millennnial households will be significantly worse off at age 70: nearly half are at risk.
The prospects for Millennials are “discouraging,” the researchers said. …Learn More
January 18, 2018
Half of Boomers Social Security Eligible
This milestone must be noted: about half of baby boomers are now over 62 and can claim their Social Security benefits.
The year 1955 was the midpoint for the post-World War II population explosion – and those boomers born in 1955 will turn 63 sometime this year.
This marks the time to take stock of differences between the old boomers (born 1946-1955) and young boomers (1956-1964). Of course, Social Security eligibility doesn’t automatically mean retirement, and boomers of all ages are retiring later than their parents. Today, only around a third of 62-year-olds file immediately for Social Security benefits – it was closer to half for the oldest boomers. The downward trend should continue.
But a yawning difference between the two boomer groups is their vastly different stages of life. Those born in the late 1950s and early 1960s are still working full-time. Entrenched in work, they have several years to go to retirement – their big challenge is having enough time to prepare financially.
The oldest boomers, now in their late 60s and early 70s, are already retired. They can take great joy in their grandchildren, which most have. That’s a comforting antidote to sobering thoughts like whether my financial affairs are in order (just in case), who will take care of me when I no longer can, and how do I want to spend my final years or days?
The good news is that baby boomers are healthier than any previous generation and will live longer. Old and young boomers still have lots to enjoy.Learn More
January 16, 2018
Know About the Roth 401(k) Surprise?
Financial experts and writers often tout the Roth 401(k)’s main selling point: when the money is withdrawn in retirement, it won’t be taxed.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
An employee’s own money saved in his Roth account over the years is, indeed, shielded from income taxes when he retires and starts pulling out the money. That’s because the worker had paid the taxes before he put the money into the Roth.
But employer contributions to Roths are different. Employer contributions and any resulting investment earnings are taxed as income in the year that the money is withdrawn.
“Most everyone I talk to is shocked by this and surprised,” said CPA Sean Stein Smith, a business and finance professor at Lehman College in New York. Understanding the difference between the two types of savings plans offered to employees – Roth versus regular 401(k) – is already complicated enough, he said, and the tax distinction only adds to the confusion.
The reason withdrawals of employer contributions to Roths are not exempt from income taxes is because they are no different than employer contributions to regular 401(k)s. They are another form of income, just like your hourly wages. However, no taxes are deducted from a worker’s paycheck for Roth and regular 401(k) contributions when the employer puts them into the account. So the worker eventually has to pay the taxes – they are simply being delayed.
The next logical question is, how do you know how much you owe in taxes? What if you withdraw retirement income from both a Roth and a traditional 401(k) over the course of a year?
Figuring out the tax bite “is not your problem,” said Jaleigh White, CPA for a Louisville, Kentucky, investment firm and member of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission for the American Institute of CPAs. …Learn More
January 11, 2018
Earnings Gap Hits Mom’s Social Security
Mothers often work less because, well, they’re also moms.
Still, they generally work consistently enough to qualify for Social Security pensions based on their own earnings records – rather than on their husbands’, as was common when more women were full-time housewives or worked just a few hours a week while the kids were at school.
Yet today’s working mothers do take a hit to their earnings when they temporarily reduce their hours or take a hiatus from work for childcare. The upshot of lower earnings is less Social Security income later for mothers, according to a new study by researchers for the Center for Retirement Research (CRR supports this blog).
The researchers, Matt Rutledge, Alice Zulkarnain, and Sara Ellen King, used data on all older women – married or single, mother or not. First, they confirmed past studies showing that the typical mom earns about $2,760 per month – or 28 percent less than a childless woman earns. Having two children translates to nearly 32 percent less income, and three children, to 35 percent less. (The analysis adjusts for some things – education is one – but not all the factors that distinguish mothers from non-mothers.)
Mothers’ lower Social Security benefits reflect this earnings penalty, though by a smaller percentage. Mothers’ benefit checks are 16 percent less than women who had no children to care for. Benefits are also lower if they had more children – by 18 percent for two children and nearly 21 percent for three. …Learn More