I just bought a movie ticket online. It cost me $16, and the truth is that I really shouldn't have spent that money. I'm behind on rent, unsure of my checking account balance 36 hours ahead of payday, and still suffering from recent expenditures connected to my five-year college reunion. But I want to see the movie very badly, as infantile as that desire is, and the price of admission isn't going to get cheaper. The sooner I see it, I tell myself, the sooner I'll stop thinking about it. Then I can move on to other, less consumption-based concerns.
What enabled me to make that purchase was a credit card. I could have gone debit, but I'd rather not involve my checking account at this time of the month; I needed to be able to put off the reckoning of my overpriced ticket. (At least I didn't "upgrade" to 3D.) Which goes to show what Derek Thompson argues at the Atlantic: "Yes, Credit Cards Are Making You a Bad Person" -- "dumber, fatter, poorer," like some nightmarish Daft Punk song.
The utility of credit is obvious. As Thompson puts it: "People rarely spend exactly what they earn, exactly when they earn it. With savings, we pass today's earnings to the future. With credit, we pull expected future earnings into today." Sounds like an effective way to leverage earning power and allocate resources. But in practice people underestimate how much they ought to save and overestimate their ability to pay back debts on time. The result is often financial havoc, and potentially other personal problems, as studies cited by Thompson suggest.
According to two MIT business professors, "Framing hypothetical purchases as credit card payments may significantly increase likelihood of purchase and willingness to pay." Their example was an auction for Boston Celtics tickets in which people using credit outbid cash controls by nearly 100 percent.
Beyond this tendency to overspend, research points to some other surprising consequences of cashlessness. For instance, the finding that people pay less attention to what they're purchasing when they put it on plastic, and even have more trouble remembering what they've bought. Or that the ease of credit credit card transactions might subtly reduce consumers' inhibitions about what sort of food to buy, thereby impacting health.
Finally, there's reason to believe that credit cards are one factor driving economic inequality, luring some families into punishing debt and increasing the costs of some goods for everyone, even low-income shoppers who carry no cards, since businesses historically have been unable to charge credit card-only transaction fees. (That changed early this year, but the practice isn't expected to catch on too widely.)
The commonsense approach to using plastic is to pay one's balance in full each month, building good credit and accruing rewards while avoiding interest payments. (And hopefully not gaining weight or losing one's memory.) But the banks don't really want their customers to do this, since late-payment and interest charges are among their favorite ways to make money. So, for instance, even a transaction that exceeds a user's credit limit can be approved, turning a customer into a profitable debtor. Other techniques include confusing procedures for redeeming rewards on cash-back cards, which can mislead users about what they stand to gain by charging things. A potentially unhealthy relation between banks and their customers is just one more deleterious side-effect of credit cards, it seems.
The Case Against Credit Cards: Overspending, Obesity, Inequality
Think again. Even student loan debt can chase you into retirement.
The Treasury Department has been withholding as much as 15% of Social Security benefits from a rapidly growing number of retirees who have fallen behind on federal student loans -- five times as many as in 2001. Even something as simple as credit card debt can hurt you in retirement, says John Ulzheimer, president of SmartCredit.com.
"When it comes to credit card debt, you absolutely have to get out of it before you hang up your company badge," Ulzheimer says. "It's very likely the most expensive debt you're carrying at 13 percent to 15 percent interest on average, and twice that in some cases. No retirement nest egg can guarantee that kind of growth."
Leaving the workforce might help you cut costs in some areas -- for example, your pricey commute to the office -- but you can never underestimate the cost of aging.
"Many studies show that some retirees even spend more in retirement than they did when they were working," says Susan Garland, editor of Kiplinger's Retirement Report.
"In the early years, you may be embarking on long-delayed travel and hobbies. And as the years go by, your health care costs are sure to rise. House-related maintenance costs, insurance and property taxes are sure to be on the upswing as well."
"More and more Americans say they plan to pay for retirement by working longer, but in reality, many retirees end up quitting sooner than planned," says Greg Burrows, senior vice president for retirement and investor services at The Principal.
One third of American workers said they plan on working past age 65 in a recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, but more than 70 percent of retirees said they actually quit before that milestone.
Then there's the job market to consider, which doesn't take kindly to workers who are past their prime. In 2011, the median length of unemployment for people 55 and older was 35 weeks, up from 10 weeks before the recession, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Medicare is an excellent resource for retirees needing health care support, but here's a wake up call: It doesn't cover all long-term care.
Medicare coverage excludes extended nursing home stays, custodial care, or an in-home nurse to help out if you're unable to dress, feed or bathe yourself.
"Medicare pays for limited nursing-home and home-health care for short periods to provide continuing care after a hospital stay," Garland says. "For example, skilled care in a facility is limited to 100 days. It may be wise to consider long-term care insurance to cover those costs."
Never underestimate the crippling power inflation has over your retirement savings.
"Too many people have the illusion that money is safe as long as the balance doesn't go down, but the reality is that inflation will eat into your purchasing power unless you learn how to properly manage and invest your wealth," writes David Ning of MoneyNing.com.
"Those who put all their money in a savings account may not experience the volatility that comes with different investments, but they are sure to be able to afford less and less as years go by, which is a real threat too."
Contrary to popular belief, investing savvy isn't something only the rich are born with.
But if you want to invest wisely, do yourself a favor and leave the stock picking and day trading to the professionals.
"Stick to the boring but effective strategy of saving early and often, watch investing fees, and picking an asset allocation plan where you can stay the course when the market inevitably takes a dive," says Ning.
And start as early as possible. According to personal finance expert Kimberly Palmer, someone who begins investing at age 25 will only have to save $4,830 annually to reach $1 million by age 65, accounting for an annual return of 7 percent after fees.
That figure triples to $15,240 if you wait until your 40s.
At some time (and for a lot of you, many times), life eventually will get in the way and you'll find yourself on the wrong side of your bank or, worse, a debt collector.
Stand your ground and watch them like a hawk. That means reading the fine print before signing up for a high-interest, high-fee credit card and taking a proactive approach to lower your interest rates on credit and mortgage loans. Sometimes, all it takes is a phone call and a little math work to figure out you could be getting a better deal elsewhere.
When in doubt, think about Kenny Golde, a 40-something producer we spoke with last year. He managed to negotiate $220,000 worth of debt down to $70,000 on his own.
It turns out one in four workers resorts to taking out 401(k) loans each year, to the tune of $70 billion, nationally.
"You might be cheating your future self," says Catherine Golladay, VP of 401(k) Participant Services at Charles Schwab. "While paying back a 401(k) loan, many people stop saving in their 401(k) plan, which can really derail retirement savings."
And don't forget about the fees. Workers under age 59 1/2 who dip into retirement funds must generally pay back their loan quickly, between 30 to 90 days in most cases. Otherwise, you could wind up paying income taxes on whatever you've taken out, along with a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. And you still have to pay back the loan with interest -- and with after-tax money, which then gets taxed again when you withdraw it in retirement.
We'll never tire of the Roth vs. Traditional 401(k) debate. With a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA, all of your contributions are taxed immediately according to whatever tax bracket you fall into today. Traditional IRAs are tax-deferred until retirement.
The general consensus is that it's better to convert to or start a Roth now, since it's likely that you will wind up retiring in a higher tax bracket than you occupy now, in which case you'll pay significantly more in taxes later than you would today.
But investors who've already built a substantial IRA or 401(k) often can't stomach the thought of paying taxes on everything at once if they make the switch.
"Sometimes it just takes a lot of handholding because investors don't like to write that check," says Janet Briaud, chief investment officer of Briaud Financial Advisors. "There is sticker shock, but in the long-term, our clients really get it. They're really happy."
Ultimately, that money will be taxed one way or the other, either starting at age 70 1/2 when required minimum distributions take effect, or during the life expectancy of the beneficiaries, she argues. And if you leave a Roth IRA to your loved ones, you'll have the peace of mind of knowing they won't have to pay taxes on the money they withdraw.
To help ease the blow, speak with your advisor and try a partial conversion by moving just part of your savings to a Roth each year.
"Start by estimating your post-retirement expenses. Average it out across a year. From there, estimate what sort of investment returns you'll be able to generate -- yes, you'll need a crystal ball for this.
"From there, divide that rate (as a decimal) into one to find your multiplier. So, for example, if you think you can generate 4% real returns (i.e., 4% returns after accounts for inflation, so more like 7% nominal returns) then you'll need 25x your annual expenses (1 / 0.04 = 25). If you think you'll only be able to generate 3% real returns, then you'll need 33x your expenses. And so on."
The benefit of saving for your children's college education early (ideally via a 529 plan) is that you limit your saving burden by spreading it out over time.
But even if you come up short of tuition costs, don't immediately dip into you retirement savings to make up the difference.
"You can always fall back on financial aid. Grants, scholarships and student loans can help pay your child's way," writes Learnvest's Laura Shin. "When it comes to your retirement, however, there are no loans."
Of course, few people have the benefit of unlimited cash flow without putting in a little leg work first. But there are higher priorities in life than working overtime and depriving yourself of a few pleasures today just to save a buck or two.
"People spend most of their time planning their finances for old age, but not their fulfillment" along the way, says Ken Budd, executive editor of AARP The Magazine.
"We once profiled a man who decided that for the first year of retirement he would do whatever he wanted. So he went for long walks, he skimmed the newspaper online, he sat in Starbucks and read Grisham novels. But after that, he [felt so bored] he decided to become a chaplain."
Without a plan in place, you could leave your estate's future in the hands of squabbling family members or your state, which would appoint an administrator to handle everything.
"[A will] enables you to start thinking about issues like whether you have the right insurance coverage, life insurance, and ways of replacing your lost income," RocketLawyer founder Charley Moore says.
This is doubly important for gay spouses, as states that don't recognize gay marriages would pass over same-sex spouses in favor of next of kin.