Tag Archives: personal finance

The Desperation of the Vanishing Middle Class

By James Kwak

I recently finished reading Pound Foolish, by Helaine Olen, which I discussed earlier (while one-third of the way through). The book is a condemnation of just almost every form of personal financial advice out there, from the personal finance gurus (Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey) to the variable annuity salespeople to the peddlers of real estate get-rich-quick schemes to Sesame Street‘s corporate-sponsored financial education programs. (Of them all, Jane Bryant Quinn is one of the few who generally come off as more good than evil.)

A lot of what’s going on is just semi-sleazy entrepreneurs trying to make a buck, taking “advice” that is equal parts routine, wrong, and contradictory and packaging it into attractive-looking books, TV shows, and in-person events. A lot of the rest is marketing by the real financial industry, which either (a) wants to make a show of promoting financial education so people will think they are good or (b) wants to teach people that they need their products. (You pick.)

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The Fallacy of Financial Education

By James Kwak

In White House Burning, there is a section on the rise and political influence of the conservative media. At one point, I looked up the top ten talk radio shows by audience. Nine of them were unabashedly right-wing, politically oriented shows. The tenth was Dave Ramsey. Ramsey has plenty of conservative elements: religion, moralism, glorification of wealth. But his show isn’t about conservative politics. It’s about personal finance.

Ramsey is a huge success because—in addition to his charisma and marketing skills—he is peddling one of the huge but popular illusions of American culture: that people can become rich by making better financial decisions. He’s also one of the characters skewered by Helaine Olen in her recent book, Pound Foolish, which describes the fallacies, hypocrisies, and borderline-corrupt schemes of personal finance gurus like Ramsey and Suze Orman. It’s a fun read—a bit repetitive, but that’s largely because all personal finance “experts” are pushing a small handful of myths.*

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Bad Advice

By James Kwak

I’m starting teaching at the UConn law school this fall, so I got a folder of information in the mail about my retirement plan. UConn professors have a choice between a defined benefit plan (SERS, in which I would be a Tier III member) and a defined contribution plan called the Alternate Retirement Program, or ARP. (There’s also a Hybrid Plan that seems to be the defined benefit plan plus a cash-out option at retirement.)

I chose the Alternate Retirement Program for reasons that are complicated (I used a spreadsheet) and that I may get into another time. The main benefit of defined benefit plans is that they do a pretty good job of protecting you from investment risk and inflation risk, since the state bears most of it. The main downside is that if you will work either for a short time or a very long time at your employer, they have a lower expected value, even given conservative return assumptions. The other downside is counterparty risk.

Anyway, the ARP is a pretty good plan. The administrative costs are a flat 10 basis points.  It includes a reasonable number of index funds (although there are also actively-managed funds—more on that later). And the plan had the sense to ask for institutional share classes with low fees. For example, the S&P 500 index fund is the Vanguard Institutional Index Fund – Institutional Plus Shares, which has an expense ratio of 2 basis points. Adding the 10 bp of administrative fees, that’s still only 12 bp.* (Contrast this with Wal-Mart, for example, which, despite being the largest private-sector employer in the country, stuck its employees with retail fees in its 401(k) plan.)

But despite that, the plan then goes and encourages people to put money into expensive, actively-managed funds. I got a brochure subtitled “A Guide to Helping You Choose an Investment Portfolio” that was almost certainly written by ING, the plan administrator. It has the usual stuff about the importance of asset allocation and your tolerance for risk, and then provides “model portfolios” for various investor types.

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Lump Sum or Annuity?

By James Kwak

Usually the New York Times gives reasonably good financial advice—or, at least it avoids giving really bad advice. Today, however, Paul Sullivan’s column borders on the latter. The question is whether to take a pension payout as a lump sum or as an annuity (a guaranteed, fixed amount per year until you die).

Sullivan’s column isn’t all bad. He talks about the importance of being able to manage your money and the need to be comfortable with risk if you take the lump sum. He also points out the annuity (in this case, based on what GM workers are being offered) isn’t indexed to inflation, which is an important consideration. And he doesn’t come down on one side or the other, although he says he would take the lump sum because, he says, “I would rather control the money myself.”

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