Many Adults Would Struggle to Find $400 in an emergency, the Fed Finds

From today’s New York Times:

Four in 10 American adults wouldn’t be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that could be quickly paid off, a new Federal Reserve survey finds.

About 27 percent of people surveyed would need to borrow or sell something to pay for such a bill, and 12 percent would not be able to cover it at all, according to the Fed’s 2018 report on the economic well-being of households, which was released Thursday.

The share that could cover such an expense more easily has been climbing steadily and now stands at 61 percent, up from just half when the Fed started this annual survey in 2013. Still, the finding underlines the fact that many Americans remain on the edge financially even as this economic expansion is approaching record length and people have become more optimistic.

Household finances over all have shown a marked improvement over the life of this report, thanks in large part to an improving labor market that has lifted wages and left more Americans with jobs. Three-quarters of adults said they were “doing O.K.” or “living comfortably” when asked about their economic well-being, up from 63 percent in 2013.

Underlying disparities persist. Just 52 percent of rural residents said their local economy was doing well, compared with 66 percent of city dwellers. And while nearly seven in 10 white adults viewed their area’s economy as good or excellent, only six in 10 Hispanic adults and fewer than half of black adults said the same thing.

Read the complete article here.

Spending Is as Easy as Pushing a Button. The Hard Part? Keeping Track.

From today’s New York Times:

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Tara Siegel Bernard, a personal finance reporter, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for tracking budgets?

This may sound strange coming from a personal finance reporter, but I’m not a big fan of traditional budgets — I don’t think they work. I try to keep my own spending in check by taking the reverse approach. Instead of tracking every dollar, I focus on what we need to save for: retirement, college or some other goal. After you’ve automated your savings goals and created a bit of a cushion for emergencies, you’re freer to spend without thinking too hard or feeling too guilty. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s better than a failed budget.

That method won’t necessarily work in all situations, especially if you need to tackle debt or establish a stricter spending plan in retirement. And everyone can benefit from tracking personal spending, even if you do it only for a few months or check in only every quarter.

Mint has been around for a while, but it is still a solid way to take stock of where all of your money is going and whether your net worth is moving in the right direction. It also allows you to create a budget, and alerts you when you’ve spent too much. I use it infrequently, and there’s usually at least one kink I need to work out whenever I log in; most recently, it counted all of my retirement accounts twice, which was kind of cruel.

Which basic tools would you recommend for people to increase their savings and investments?

It’s not so much a tool but a technology: automation. After you’ve settled on a low-cost investment provider such as Vanguard, automation is the surest way to set yourself up for success. Automate as much as you can — your Roth I.R.A. contributions, your kids’ 529 college savings accounts. If you have an employer-provided retirement plan like a 401(k), see if it will allow you to automatically increase the percentage you’re saving each year. If not, set a date in your electronic calendar to remind you to revisit all of those amounts annually.

I also like the little revolution that the roboadvisers have started. They lean heavily on technology to help invest and manage your money, though more of them are increasingly integrating human advisers. Betterment and Wealthfront have free tools that will let you play with various goals and savings amounts to see how long it will take you to save what you need.

Read the complete article here.

Consumers lack financial literacy, contributed to Great Recession

From the LA Times:

Guess how many Americans correctly answered this basic financial question: Is the stock of a single company usually safer than a mutual fund?

A) 100% B) 80% C) 60% D) None of the above.

The right answer is D. Barely 1 in 2 people knew that a single stock is not safer than a mutual fund, which holds many stocks.

The question, included in a survey by a pair of college professors, underscores a fundamental problem facing millions of Americans. At a time when the world of personal finance is increasingly complex — and when people are more responsible than ever for their own financial future — Americans’ understanding of basic concepts is sorely lacking.

Despite many efforts to boost knowledge, studies show that most people don’t understand rudimentary principles of finance and investing. Even well-educated and upper-income Americans often have poor financial literacy, experts say.

“By and large, people are pretty clueless,” said Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of the study.

A 182-page analysis by the Securities and Exchange Commission last year found that “investors have a weak grasp of elementary financial concepts and lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud.”

The result, experts say, is young people who are mired in student debt and older Americans who face bleak retirement prospects. People who don’t understand basic concepts are ill-equipped for more complex tasks, such as ferreting out hidden fees or conflicts of interest that are embedded in many financial products.

The collective ignorance has played a role in recent financial crises, according to some experts. The subprime mortgage meltdown would have been less severe, they say, if people understood the pitfalls of the loans they were taking out.

Read the complete article here.