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Archive for the ‘financial literacy’ Category

Failing to Plan Is Planning to Fail

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

That headline, a quote from legendary basketball Coach John Wooden, is one of my favorite.  Today’s Yahoo!Finance column looks at personality traits and behaviors that are closely correlated with accumulating wealth. Research has found one of the most significant factors is something called “propensity to plan.” Planners have higher levels of net worth and gross financial assets.

I interviewed John Ameriks, an economist at Vanguard and co-author of the research, about this trait. He said along with being conscientious, organized and thorough, people with the propensity to plan also tend to set a budget for their overall spending.

“It’s the opposite of the absent-minded consumers, the people who are not monitoring what they spend very closely,” said Ameriks. “In the economic models we could work out, simply by monitoring expenditures and paying attention to them you can get higher wealth accumulation.”

Although budgeting is essentially just mapping out where one’s income goes, the researchers suggest that people who budget see the activity as one that helps reduce their spending. “We hypothesize that households are sometimes spending at an excessively high rate given their actual preferences and resources,” the researchers write. “Those with a high propensity to plan both notice this pattern of over-spending relatively early, and find it relatively easy to correct. Those with a low such propensity notice problems later, and find them more difficult to correct. According to this vision, saving may be as much a matter of skill as of preference.”

Could it be that planners simply hold more stocks and therefore accumulate more wealth? The answer is no. On average stocks made up about 63 percent of financial assets in the research regression sample. Even those who reported low planning levels had 60 percent of their financial wealth in equities.

Another motivation that boosts wealth: the desire to leave an inheritance to family or charity. “The bequest motive has a significant positive impact on planning, and has a separate positive impact on wealth accumulation,” the researchers write. “Those with higher bequest motives accumulate more not only because of their greater concern with the size of their bequest, but also because the desire to leave a bequest induces higher planning.”

In the story I also talk about conscientiousness; Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and David Weir of the University of Michigan have found that this personality trait leads to higher lifetime earnings. Duckworth studies something she calls “grit”  — a combination of courage, focus, the ability to delay gratification and persevere over the long-term — that leads to success. See my column on her work and check out her TED talk here on that topic.

What personality traits, habits or behaviors have helped you accumulate wealth (or hurt your efforts)? Comment here or email me at laura at laurarowley dot com.

Why Budget Shoppers May Be More Likely to Overspend

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

I’ll be talking about money and happiness live tonight on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “At Issue with Ben Merens” from 5 to 6pm CST/6 to 7 pm EST.

This week’s Yahoo!Finance column looks at the trend in tracking and analyzing personal behavior, with, of course, a focus on spending and saving. I report on new research that examines characteristics and motivations shared by people who plan ahead and track their spending.

One study I had hoped to include didn’t fit the column length, so I’m featuring it here. Researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, Cornell University and Maastricht University examined the tracking habits of grocery shoppers in two Atlanta stores, one in a middle-income neighborhood and one in area with a 36 percent poverty rate, in February 2009.

Some 90 percent of low-income participants indicated that they track their spending as they shop, with 35 percent using hand-held calculators; for middle-income shoppers, the numbers were 80 percent and 17 percent respectively, according to the study, published in the Journal of Marketing in March.

“Even though people say groceries are not a big part of the budget – 12 to 13 percent on average — among low-income people that percentage goes up very quickly,” says co-author Koert van Ittersum, Georgia Tech associate marketing professor. “When it becomes critical to keep track of spending, people become innovative and find a way to do it.”

Interestingly, the study also reinforced the necessity of real data – especially for people on tight budgets. Researchers found that people most motivated to save money are most likely to mess up their mental tracking. Here’s how they figured that out: In the lab, one group of participants was promised a cash reward, with the amount dependent on how accurately they determined the cost of 19 grocery items flashed on a screen. A second group was asked to estimate the grocery bill with no reward.

The cash-motivated group would start by trying to add exact numbers in their heads and give up after the third or fourth item, Ittersum explains. “In the end budget shoppers are more likely to overspend. As a result of trying so hard, they messed up, and their final estimate turned out to be worse than people casually asked to estimate the price of the items,” he says. “Humans are not wired to process three-digit numbers on 19 products — we can’t pull it off. If you need to be accurate because you can’t overspend, bringing a calculator is the best way to do that.

“Information is power and the more you know, the more you can make more informed decisions,” he contiues. “Depending on how important those decisions are, it might be important to track certain behaviors.”

I would argument is that as long as the tools and analysis are so readily available, everyone should track their spending, because small decisions snowball into life-changing scenarios over time. “Not many people end up in debt overnight — it’s accumulation of many small decisions that end up causing a whole lot of trouble,” says Ittersum.

Making Financial Fitness Fun

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

A million users have signed up for, the online money management tool, since its launch 18 months ago. The company unveiled a new feature – Financial Fitness – at the Finovate conference in San Francisco today.

First a quick overview: Mint users register anonymously, and then add login information for bank accounts, credit cards, etc. Mint automatically tracks and classifies spending in specific categories; sends email alerts and bill reminders to help avoid bank fees and overdraft charges; and suggests financial products and services to help save money.

The new feature takes financial tracking to a new level, giving users various challenges in five categories, and explaining why and how they should address the task. Successful behavior is rewarded with a higher fitness score. Categories include spending less than you earn; knowing your credit score; using credit and debt wisely; investing; and preparing for the unexpected. For instance, Mint can track whether the user has paid down credit card balances and stayed within their credit limit, and they accumulate points for smart money behavior.

The feature explains “why is this important task and exactly how — with a series of tools and resources — to perform that,” says CEO Aaron Patzer. “It shows how many times in a row you hit your budget, or saved or avoided bank fees, and when you’re 80 percent financial fit you get a trophy. If you hit 100 percent for six months you’re a financial guru. It (gives users) positive psychological feedback, it almost makes finances game-like.” Mint studied the point systems of the Wi Fit and Warcraft when developing the new feature.

Do you use any strategies that make money management feel more like a game? You can comment here or email me at laura at

What Really Happened in the Subprime Crisis?

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

I have been continually debating the causes of the subprime crisis with a good friend who spent two decades on Wall Street and whose moral and intellectual character I highly respect. Clearly it’s a multifaceted phenomenon that involved a great deal of greed and foolishness, which I summed up in this Yahoo!Finance column. (Although I regret that I failed to mention regulators who were asleep at the wheel and legislators who were in the pocket of the financial services industry, rather than watching out for consumers.)

But bottom line, my friend maintains that consumers are at fault. Yes, brokers, lenders, securitizers and investors were all involved. But people should simply have known better, she says. If they had not  signed documents they did not fully understand, if they had not taken out mortgages they could not afford when the rate readjusted, if they simply ignored the refinance offers piled up in their mailbox — none of this would have occurred. They should have known better.

I agree with her in part; I’m a big believer in caveat emptor. When we bought our home, we put 20 percent down (saved over a dozen years) and took out a 30-year, fixed-rate, 5.18% mortgage because we were fully cognizant of the risks of an adjustable-rate loan. There were too many unknowns — what if we couldn’t refinance when the rate adjusted? What if the price of our home declined? I wanted a payment I could be certain of over the long-haul. (I call it the Starbucks mortgage because if we both lost our jobs we could afford the payment by working as a baristas. Or bartenders. Maybe I should call it the Pub Mortgage.)

However, I believe that the subprime crisis is not simply a story of irresponsible and greedy Americans who bought five houses with no money down hoping to flip them. There was indisputably a great deal of fraud. For example, Ellen E. Schultz — my favorite investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal — exposes the story of some senior citizens who were defrauded during the subprime crisis (sub. may be req). It’s a tragic tale. 

That story (which should have run on A1 and not D1) needs to be told by more media. Because if this crisis goes down in history as a story of personal irresponsibility alone, we won’t as a nation make the regulatory changes that need to occur. (At minimum, mortgage brokers should be subject to the same suitability requirements that financial advisors are.)

If anything, the crisis demonstrates that a common sense outlook, a viewpoint that carefully weighs the worst-case scenario, that crunches all the numbers in detail, is essential to economic survival. (And sometimes even then, everything still comes crashing down.)

By the way, I feel the same about college tuition as I do about mortgages — there are too many unknowns in terms of our ability to get loans or scholarships. So we have been sacrificing elsewhere in our budget and saving since the kids were born to foot the bill for bachelor’s degrees in full. The Wall Street Journal recently did a piece (sub. may be req.) on how the kids of parents who can pay the tuition have regained their advantage in college acceptances. So if if this goal is important to you, and you haven’t started saving, it’s time to get going.

What do you think caused the sub-prime mortgage crisis? Is it a failure of individuals, institutions, government or a combination thereof? You can comment here or email me at laura at

Regulators Cracking Down…Too Little Too Late

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Three federal agencies and state Attorneys General are cracking down on foreclosure fraud. There’s plenty of it following the announcement of President Obama’s $75 billion plan to help homeowners. If only we had had this level of attention during the sub-prime mortgage debacle. In an interview on Bill Moyers Journal this weekend, University of Missouri professor and author William Black noted that in 2004 the Federal Bureau of Investigation publicly warned about “an epidemic of mortgage fraud, and if it was allowed to continue, it would produce a crisis at least as large as the Savings and Loan debacle.”

So why wasn’t anything done? After the 9/11 attacks, Black says, 500 white-collar crime specialists in the FBI (the folks who went after bad S&Ls in the early 90s) were moved to national terrorism duties. That’s understandable — except the Bush Administration refused to replace them. Virtually no one was watching the store as the mortgage industry — brokers, lenders, securitizers, investment bankers, ratings agencies — committed widespread fraud. You’ll also want to hear what Black has to say about Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Phil Gramm aligning to block Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, from regulating derivatives. (Other news reports say Alan Greenspan and Arthur Levitt also opposed Born.) Why are Rubin and Summers still advising President Obama? Can we sweep the rascals out already? How about having Born replace Summers? Click here to watch the interview.

While you’re at it, listen to this interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, with Frank Partnoy, former derivatives trader at Morgan Stanley and author of Fiasco: Blood in the Water on Wall Street. The book was just reissued in paperback (and out of stock on Amazon). It’s a clear-eyed examination of what de-regulation run amok looks like.

I recently interviewed Robert Manning, professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Credit Card Nation, about a wide range of scams. (I followed up on my March 19 post about the “Card Services” fraudsters in this Yahoo!Finance column, exposing how the scam works.)

Manning told me he’s seeing a couple different version of the foreclosure rescue scams. Watch out for services that demand an upfront fee to process your application for foreclosure relief. “Some companies are charging $300 a pop just to talk to someone over the phone,” he says. “The consumer really needs to be engaged with the service that’s being offered so they understand what it is the firm can do and what they can’t do. Are they simply collecting information and passing it on to someone else, who passes it on to someone else?” Someone seeking foreclosure relief should be engaged with the decision-maker he says. See this information from the Center for Responsible Lending to avoid scams and click here to find a certified housing counselor in your area.

If you’ve been scammed, tell your story and help warn others. You can comment here or email me at laura at

Phone Phishing Scam?

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Update: I tracked down the scam artists that I wrote about below and reported on their activities in this Yahoo!Finance column.

Twice in the last month or so I’ve received a call from a recorded voice that says, “This is your last chance to lower your credit card interest rates! Press one to lower your rate now.” Since I always pay off my cards in full, and the caller doesn’t identify the financial services company, I sensed a scam. Twice I have pressed “1″ on the phone and gotten a live voice; when I said, “Can you identify the company you are from and give me your phone number?” I was immediately disconnected on both occasions. When I called back the number on the caller ID, a recording said the number was unassigned.

Next time I’ll try a little subtlety to keep them talking, and report them to the Federal Trade Commission. I didn’t find this particular scam under the FTC‘s list of “credit and loan phone scams,” but it could have been any number of things, such as identity theft or a credit consolidation scam, in which the firm offers to negotiate with your creditors. You pay the consolidation company, which never pays your creditors and disappears with your check. 

Amid the recession, scams are multiplying. The FTC received 1.2 million consumer complaints in 2008. Identity theft accounted for one in four of those complaints. Watch out for work-at-home scams and foreclosure rescue scams, among others. For a primer on recognizing and reporting phone fraud, click here. 

In the meantime, here’s that segment I did on the Weekend Today Show about some legitimate websites that can help you learn about and better manage your finances.

Best Online Bets for Your Financials

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

I did a segment on the Weekend Today Show this morning looking at best bets for your finances online. Americans conducted 13.5 billion online searches in January – many of them looking for financial info. The web offers online courses, financial calculators to help you plan, shopping comparison sites and  social networking sites where you can connect with other people about money.

Then I went running with my friend Pam, who said I talk too much with my hands on T.V. (true) and she couldn’t keep up with all the websites I mentioned. So this post is for you, Pam!

Here are the details on the education sites for beginners: First check out the Cooperative Extension System. It brings together the teaching and research of more than 100 universities, and has more than 3,000 county offices. It offers online courses, you can click on your state to get information about classes in your area, and you have the ability to submit financial questions and get an expert response by email. A site with similar features is called Wi$eup from the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau – aimed at Gen X and Gen Y Women.

And finally there’s the OpenCourseWare Consortium — a group of 250 universities around the world that offer dozens of online courses for free, 17 in the U.S., including heavy hitters like Columbia University and MIT. They have advanced courses in economics; I found two basic personal finance courses at the University of California – Riverside and Utah State University.

Then there’s an ocean of financial information sites, if you know how to surf them. Look to the non-profit, ad-free education sites so you can be sure there’s not a bias toward a particular financial product or service. Before using a site, look at the “About” section and check the background and credentials of the people running the site. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission offers good educational resources on its “Consumer Information” tab. The site 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy is sponsored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants so you know it’s been vetted by professionals.

Yahoo!Finance has calculators and how-to guides, Microsoft Office has free Excel budgeting templates, you can find the best interest rates on savings accounts at or, and then there’s the whole world of coupons.

In January, Yahoo searches for the “Free printable online coupons” rose 3800 percent from the year-ago period. You can go to a more generic site like or go right to the manufacturer. For instance, Proctor and Gamble lets you register to have coupons emailed directly to you, and, depending on your grocery store, can even be downloaded electronically right onto your store’s loyalty card. You can also register at major brand like General Mills and get access to coupons that are only available online. So it’s worthwhile to check the sites of the brands you buy most. And if you do buy one and get one free, consider donating the second item to your local food pantry. The need is huge right now.

Finally,  I mentioned two budgeting and social networking sites, and  – that have social networking spaces where people share ideas about saving, paying down debt and other topics. Since money can be tough to talk about with friends, it’s nice to find a community where you can commiserate — and celebrate when you reach your goal.

What’s your favorite online tool? You can comment here or email me at laura at

What Does It Mean to Retire?

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

I’m intrigued by the controversy over my Yahoo!Finance column on Madison DuPaix, the 29-year-old retiree. Many readers were outraged that I would profile a woman who says she saved enough to quit her full-time gig at 29.

DuPaix told me she accumulated enough to replace her full-time income by drawing down 2% of what she put away. She would not give me the figures. Maybe I’m naive, and I was suckered by a self-promoting blogger. But I don’t think so. I did my own back-of-the-napkin assumptions; if she were making $75,000 working in finance/insurance and two-thirds of it went to daycare, taxes, and savings, then her cash flow was $25,000. She would need to have saved $1.25 million to draw down 2% and stay cash-flow even.

Impossible to accumulate that amount over 13 years? Not necessarily. She worked through college with no expenses (full scholarship) and was investing in index funds as early as 1995 — the beginning of a significant bull market. She told me her entire portfolio, savings and interest, had grown 862% since 2003.

She married young, which halved her major expenses such as housing, and lives in the Midwest, where costs are significantly lower. Both she and her husband were super-saving for six years; and they sold a condominum at the top of the real estate market. She never carried any debt, except a very low-rate mortgage.

She says her spouse could retire too (under my imagined scenario, they would live on $50,000 a year, or 4% of their portfolio, plus part-time blogging income) but he prefers working. It’s a bit of a cheat that he provides health insurance – that would be a big expense if they both quit full-time. But a family in good health can get health insurance for $800 a month. I know, because I pay for my own health insurance. That’s not a gigantic amount of money in the big picture, especially if they incorporated their blog as a business and could write off the health insurance as a business expense.

Madison now blogs part-time and is home with her kids, age 2 and 1. This led to many comments on Yahoo!Finance about how she is really a stay-at-home-mom sucking off her husband’s income. But that’s an unfair characterization if she contributes the same amount of cash to her household without working full-time, and he could, if he wanted, leave his job too.

I wrote about Madison because I thought her philosophy was intriguing, even a bit twisted. She went into the workforce with the idea that full-time work is something you should get out of the way as quickly as possible. I’ve almost never felt this way about work because I chose a career I loved. Madison told me she also loved her job — but if you genuinely loved your job, you wouldn’t quit. Unless there is something you love more, which in this case, is apparently her kids, and having complete control over her time.

I get this. I left CNN in 2001 when my kids were 3-1/2 and 16 months old. I did not enjoy being laid off with 1,000 other people after the AOL merger because I loved my job (enough to actually do it full-time) and my husband worked part-time from home. Since severance bought me a little time, I figured I would reconfigure my career to work mainly from home and have more balance.

Because my kids were so small (and I had another one) there were many nights when flexibility meant working from 2am to 7am. Now that my kids are in school full-time I get a lot more shut-eye. But I would happily suffer the years of sleep deprivation all over again to get the kind of flexibility I enjoy now. (I sure don’t have DuPaix’s level of flexibility, but then I chose to live 35 minutes from New York and send my kids to private school.)

That’s the other enormous unknown in Madison’s story — which I discussed with her but could not fit in the column. Her kids are babies. As any parent with older kids knows, her costs are going to explode — not just college savings (she already has 529s going for them) but the academic, sports and other enrichment costs. She joked about having to go back to work if one of her kids wants to be an Olympic athlete. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she may have to go back to work just to cover math tutoring, soccer, piano lessons and family vacations.

The comments were pretty bitter, I’m guessing because DuPaix won’t reveal the numbers in detail — and maybe no one wants to read about someone succeeding when the economy is in the tank. But I’m always inspired by people who set really high, clear goals and then have the discipline to stick with them  — whether they’re Olympic athletes or early retirees.

Finally, I don’t write the headlines on Yahoo. The editors do, and of course they lean toward the sensationalistic to drive more traffic to the site. I don’t know why people find this surprising. Newspapers have done it since the printing press was invented. (I don’t get paid based on traffic, so I have no incentive to sensationalize.)

And no, I did not receive some kind of kickback from her blog. (Geez, there is some serious cynicism out there about journalism.) For the record, I do not post any editorial here for which I’m paid or receive a commission from click-throughs, which is standard at many personal finance blogs. I just want to help people manage their money better, and create a forum where people can share useful ideas. I thought DuPaix had a few useful ideas worth sharing. I would love to hear yours as well. 

Stop the Insanity, Your Savings Are Safe

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

I was startled by television images of people lining up at IndyMac Bank to get their deposits out of the bank since it was taken over by the federal government. One woman said she was going to put her money under the mattress. In a word, this is INSANE.

I did a quick segment on the Mike & Juliet Show on Fox Network explaining why, but I wanted to reiterate the information here, with a few salient details, because people are becoming totally irrational about the financial crisis.  (My own suspicion is that the media feels they dropped the ball on the sub-prime mortgage debacle and don’t want to miss the next crisis.)

Should you panic? NO! Regulators say that 99 percent of U.S. banks are in good shape — or in industry-speak, “well capitalized.” Indymac, the fifth bank to fail this year, lent a lot of money to people who had no incomes and poor credit. Not surprisingly, people with no jobs and no history of paying back their loans tend not to pony up the money you lend them. There are an estimated 100 to 150 banks having similar troubles. But that’s only 1% to 2% of the banks in the U.S.

We have been here before. In the 1980s, banks lent obscene amounts of money to commercial real estate developers, who tend to act like drunken sailors when you hand them a wad of cash. Aided by a Texas oil boom and favorable tax-shelter laws, they built office buildings and condos like crazy, even when there was no demand for them. They defaulted on their loans, and the empty office towers and condos were repossessed by the banks.

During the 1980s, more than 1,100 commercial banks failed or received assistance from the government. — 8 percent of the total. Another 900 savings and loans went belly up — representing 17.5 percent of all thrifts operating at the beginning of the 1980s.

Congress created the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) to clean up the mess. Between 1989 and 1995, when it was shut down, the RTC liquidated the assets of 747 institutions with more than $220 billion in deposits. The estimates of the cost to taxpayers vary widely; this FDIC analysis suggests the total was $153 billion.

Almost all banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC, created in 1933 during the Great Depression to restore confidence in the banking system. It insures up to $100,000 of the money you have spread among checking, savings, certificates of deposit or money market deposit accounts (which are different from money market mutual funds). The insurance is $200,000 for joint accounts, and $250,000 for funds in an individual retirement account (IRA).


To find out if your bank is FDIC-insured, look for the sticker on the bank’s front door or click here:

So what if your bank fails? As long as your deposits are under $100,000 in the accounts mentioned above, you don’t have anything to worry about. IndyMac’s account holders had access to everything — the only exception was that online banking and billpay were down for two days.

The FDIC does NOT guarantee other investment products that banks sell, such as mutual funds or brokerage accounts. If you want some assurance for those accounts, make sure the bank is a member of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation — or SIPC.

When IndyMac failed, some 5% of depositors had more than $100,000 in the bank. Don’t be that person. Stop worrying about things that you can’t control that are insured by Uncle Sam. Focus instead on getting the best deal from your bank: free checking, low or no minimums, a decent interest rate on your savings (see for the best savings rates) and no ridiculous fees for overdrafts or ATM usage. That’s where you’ll lose money. Not in a bank failure.

Try This Financial Literacy Test

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Try this financial literacy test, designed by economists Annamaria Lusardi of Dartmouth and Olivia Mitchell of Wharton, to measure competency with more sophisticated financial concepts that are the basis for financial planning and decision-making.  

1. Which of the following statements describes the main function of the stock market? (a) The stock market helps to predict stock earnings; (b) The stock market results in an increase in the price of stocks; (c) The stock market brings people who want to buy stocks together with those who want to sell stocks  

2. Which of the following statements is correct? (a) Once one invests in a mutual fund, one cannot withdraw the money in the first year; (b) Mutual funds can invest in several assets, for example invest in both stocks and bonds; (c) Mutual funds pay a guaranteed rate of return which depends on their past performance 

3. If the interest rate falls, what should happen to bond prices? (a) Rise; (b) Fall; (c) Stay the same 

4. True or false? Buying a company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund. (a) True; (b) False  

5. True or false? Stocks are normally riskier than bonds. (a) True; (b) False  

6. Considering a long time period (for example 10 or 20 years), which asset normally gives the highest return? (a) Savings accounts; (b) Bonds; or (c) Stocks 

7. Normally, which asset displays the highest fluctuations over time? (a) Savings accounts, (b) Bonds, (c) Stocks  

8. When an investor spreads his money among different assets, does the risk of losing money: (a) Increase, (b) Decrease (c) Stay the same  The answers are: 1) c; 2) b; 3) a; 4) b; 5) a; 6) c; 7) c; 8 ) b 

Here’s how many respondents in a national survey chose the correct answer: 
1. Main function of the stock market: 76%  
2. Knowledge of mutual funds. 72%
3. Relation between interest rate and bond prices:  37%
4. What is safer: company stock vs. stock mutual fund:  80%

5. Which is riskier, stocks vs bonds:  82%
6. Highest return over long period: 70%
7. Highest fluctuations: 89%
8. Risk diversification 81% 

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