Buzzfeed Money Hacks

I don't usually love Buzzfeed 'listicle' articles, but this one caught my attention. I have a lot of thoughts about the author's approach but regardless of any of her tactics, I applaud her for trying to change her habits and spend more consciously. 

Now, a few (completely personal) thoughts on her 'hacks': 

  1. Making your coffee at home and cooking in bulk are great tips! I make coffee at home, and especially love making this cold brew kit. 
  2. I have mixed opinions on using cash instead of credit cards. On one hand, it is much easier to see how much cash you are spending. On the other hand, cash doesn't offer any of the protections or benefits of using credit cards: digital record, purchase protection, cashback, etc. But if this works for you, go for it!
  3. I feel pretty strongly that 'entering contests' isn't good financial advice. 
  4. Instead of 'signing up for loyalty programs', I would broaden this tip to be smart about shopping. Look for coupons, comparison shop, buy store brands, etc. Another great tool is the chrome extension Honey, that automatically tries to find discount codes. 

I still believe that there aren't perfect tips for every person. You really have to do what this author did and see what works for you. 

FinX Financial Services Workshop

This past week, I was invited to a workshop run by the Center of Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) and hosted by J.P. Morgan Chase. The workshop started early in the morning with breakfast and introductions. The next hour was spent setting context for the workshop, describing the goals for our activities, and planning logistics for our “field activities” (described below).

Income Stability

During the intro presentation, we covered many of the sobering facts concerning the financially underserved community. One specific statistic that I hadn’t seen before was that nearly 90% of the U.S. adult population preferred income stability to income growth. Both are clearly desirable, but it was surprising to me that the breakdown was so heavily skewed towards stability. To supplement the figure, we walked through the finances of a real household in N.Y. in which the husband is a construction worker, and the wife worked in childcare. On average, they made enough money to get by, but the month-to-month fluctuation of their income was staggering.

The takeaway for me was that any financial empowerment program should not just assume that a higher income or more money is going to solve every problem. A key focus should be on teaching people how to reduce or manage the weekly or monthly fluctuations in their income. It also made me think about just how crucial it is to have a emergency fund.

 

Fieldwork

The second part of the workshop involved putting ourselves in the shoes of the underserved communities. We were tasked with completing several financial transactions the same way that many lower income households accomplish them. The tasks were:

  • Cashing a payroll check
  • Cashing a personal check
  • Purchasing a reloadable debit card
  • Adding money to the reloadable debit card
  • Sending money via Western Union
  • Receiving money via Western Union
  • Getting a money order
  • Visiting a pawn shop

Our assigned location was in Harlem and was centered at the intersection of Malcolm X Blvd and 125th St. We had about 20 minutes to develop a plan, so we used our phones to locate a few check cashing places, Western Union locations, and other local financial shops. After that we took off on the subway, and quickly arrived to start working on our tasks. While we weren’t able to finish everything, here are quick highlights from what we did get to.

Cashing a Check

Part of our package included a payroll check made out in my name, that we needed to cash. The first check cashing place we went to rejected us because the check was issued by an out-of-state company. Thankfully, we hadn’t waited in line for that long and decided to leave and try another place. The second check cashing place we visited didn’t have that restriction, so I was able to cash my $80 check and get back about $78.40. Thankfully, NY regulates these rates and has set a standard 2% fee.

Prepaid/Reloadable Debit Card

Part of the assignment was to also buy a reloadable/prepaid debit card. Although I wasn’t aware of this, many people use these to give money to kids, babysitters, or themselves when they don’t want to carry plain cash. To purchase a new $10 card, I had to pay a $3.95 fee. Later, when I wanted to add $20 to this card, I had to pay another $3.95. For a total transaction amount of $30, I paid $7.90 or about 26%. At least for those given values, that is a pretty hefty fee.

Sending Money

In order to send money, we decided to locate a Western Union store. We quickly realized that we could send money from a Duane Reade store, and accomplishing this task was relatively easy. The particular Duane Reade we went to had a Western Union machine that was able to guide us through the whole process (yay technology!). However, when we went to receive this transfer at a Rite-aid, there was simply a Western Union telephone that we could use to call Western Union. This process was much harder as the call quality was terrible and it involved transcribing a lot of information. While I didn’t personally conduct these two transactions, and therefore didn’t mark down the fees, I still realized how slow and inefficient this process is in the age of Venmo, Square, Apply Pay, etc.

Overall Thoughts

  • The people who worked at the check cashing stations were very helpful. Perhaps they could tell that it was our first time, but they did a great job explaining the products and what information was needed. This job must require endless patience.
  • The wait times weren’t too bad, but I can’t imagine waiting in line multiple times a week, and potentially with small children.
  • The fees were probably the most upsetting part of the exercise, because for every single transaction, we had to pay a few dollars to get it done. Tragically, and paradoxically, it confirms the notion that ‘being poor is very expensive’.

As we debriefed with the other attendees, I noticed everyone was a little more energized to help solve the problems we witnessed. Many of the J.P. Morgan employees pointed out that they have a ‘Liquid’ card, which could help eliminate many of the fees we incurred. Another attendee made a great point that instead of trying to solve these issues with new products, we could also try to improve the technology of the existing institutions to better serve their customers.

 

This workshop was extremely valuable to me because although I had written about these topics before, I had never truly experienced the difficulties of being unbanked. That is not to say that a half-day’s worth of pretending can truly help me understand. On the contrary, I felt even more empathetic for people who aren’t ‘pretending’ and have to accomplish these tasks every single day.

The Real Value of $100 in Each State

This is a great article and visualization to show how far your money goes in each state.

The states where $100 is worth the most are Mississippi ($115.34), Arkansas ($114.29), Alabama ($113.90), South Dakota ($113.64), and West Virginia ($112.49). In contrast, $100 is effectively worth the least in the District of Columbia ($84.67), Hawaii ($85.62), New York ($86.43), New Jersey ($87.34), and California ($88.97).

Saving and Retirement

In addition to statistics on banking, the other aspect of personal finance that I want to provide a quick background on is savings and retirement. Hopefully, these two areas (banking and saving) provide context for discussions on solutions and strategies later on.

Saving

Setting the stage

Let’s start off with a few statistics. All of these are from a 2014 Federal Reserve survey on economic well-being. The sample size is 5900 people.

  • 20% of respondents indicated that their spending exceeded their income in the past 12 months
  • 37% of respondents stated they had not saved anything in the past year
  • 47% of respondents said they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money

Saving can be difficult, especially if you are only earning enough to get by. But saving is still necessary and it compounds on itself. What I mean is by saving for big purchases or emergencies, you don’t need to take out expensive loans. Saving money helps you save money. Make it work for you.

Simple savings strategy

If you asked a fitness expert how to get fit, they would recommend starting slow and working your way up. The same is true with personal finance. The best way to get started is with small, simple, and achievable goals and slowly build better saving habits.

Here is one simple savings plan:

  1. Save $1/day for one month. By the end of the month you will have saved about $30.
  2. Save $2/day for the second month.
  3. Keep saving
  4. Save $6/day for the sixth month. At the end of the month, you will have saved $630. That would put you ahead of the 47% Americans who don’t have $400 of savings. Way to go!
  5. Save $12/day for the twelfth month. By the end of one year, you will have saved over $2000 ($2340 to be exact).

The best part of this plan is that you don’t need to worry about the last month today. I will talk about savings strategies and tips in the future but this is a simple plan to get started.

Retirement

How much are Americans saving for retirement?

Not enough. According to a report put together by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, nearly 41% of Households age 55-64 had no retirement savings. This group will rely on social security to take care them. For the remaining 59% who have some retirement savings, the median amount is $104,000. While this number seems large, it computes to roughly an additional $310/month.

Clearly Social Security will be doing the heavy lifting for supporting retirees who haven’t saved enough. As of June 2015, the average Social Security payment was $1335 but depends on your income. The group that hasn’t saved is also likely to be on the lower side of this average.

If we go just a bit deeper into this number, $1335/month, it is clear that this is not enough to make ends meet. The same government report states that of the group that has some retirement savings, only 27% of households age 55-64 own a home that is paid off. The remaining 73% may still need to make rent or mortgage payments out of the social security benefit they receive. The remaining balance will likely be just enough to survive, and certainly won’t allow the lavish retirement full of golf and traveling that is perpetuated in the media.

How much should you be saving?

I’m glad you asked. One of the best features of Teller, is that it can help you figure out how much you will need at retirement, and how much you need to save each month in two minutes. Just send a text to 646-693-3720 with the message: “How much should I save for retirement?”

In general, there are numerous factors that influence how much you should save for retirement — you can build as complicated a model as you want. In my opinion, it is best to keep it simple and you can get a rough idea just based on your age and current income. From there you can make adjustments to account for life expectancy, stock market returns, inflation. You even also model in whether you expect social security to exist.

How do I start?

There’s a short answer and long answer (which I will save for a future post). The short answer is that both the public and private sector have numerous programs to help people save for retirement. You can start by budgeting at least 10-15% of your income for savings, and putting that savings in a 401(k), or an IRA.

Sources:

  1. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/2014-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201505.pdf
  2. http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/670153.pdf
  3. https://www.ssa.gov/news/press/basicfact.html

Why Banking Matters

This is the first post in a series. My startup, Teller, is a personal finance coach that you can talk to through text-messaging. Even if you know nothing about saving, budgeting, or credit, you can text a number and quickly learn some of the basic concepts.

Setting the Stage

Let’s start with the definitions of unbanked and underbanked:

Unbanked

Unbanked households do not have a checking or savings account at an insured institution. The total unbanked population (in 2013): 7.7% of households in the U.S (9.6 million households or about 16.7 million adults).

Underbanked

Underbanked households have a bank account, but also use alternative financial services or products such as money orders, check cashing services, payday loans, etc. The total underbanked population (in 2013): 20.0% of households in the U.S. (24.8 million households or about 50.9 million adults).

Collectively, I will refer to the unbanked and underbanked population as underserved.

Demographic Factors:

  1. For Black or Hispanic households, the underserved percentage is nearly 54% and 46% respectively. For comparison, the rate for White non-black, non-hispanic households is only 19.5%.
  2. For the nearly 16 million single-mother households, the total underserved (unbanked+underbanked) percentage is nearly 48%.
  3. Without a high school degree, the unbanked rate is 25% compared to 1.1% for college graduates.
  4. Perhaps most unfortunate is the relationship between family income and bank status. There are 19 million households (not individuals) who have a household income less than $15,000. Among this group, 27.7% of households are unbanked, and 22.4% of them are underbanked totaling over 50%. This particular group that can least afford the negative consequences of being unbanked, has the highest unbanked+underbanked rate.
  5. Households with a disability have a considerably higher rate of unbanked+underbanked: 46.5%. Perhaps this is related to employment status and high medical costs.

Before moving on, I should point out that while these seem like several independent statistics, there is probably an underlying phenomenon connecting many of them. Many of these factors (for example, education and income) are definitely correlated to each other so it shouldn’t be a surprise that both are also related to bank status.

These statistics are alarming in part because of the sheer number of households they include. While percentages can seem small (after all, only 7.7% of U.S. households are unbanked), the number of households and individuals are measured in tens of millions.

What is the cost of being unbanked?

So after a brief introduction on the status of banking in the U.S., the next logical question is why does it matter? Or put another way, what are the consequences of being unbanked?

Spending Income

Let’s start with cashing a check. If you do not have a bank account, and you receive a payroll check, or government benefits check, it will likely cost you anywhere from 2.5-5% just to convert them in to spendable income. The St. Louis Fed estimates that the cost of cashing bi-weekly checks, along with money orders (described below), can result in fees of $1,200 for someone with an annual income of $20,000. About the same amount was estimated by Candice Choi, an AP writer who personally ‘acted’ unbanked for a report. This amount, $1,200, is substantially more than it costs to open and maintain a checking account.

Paying Bills

If you need to pay your rent, utilities, medical bills, car payments, or anything else with a check, you need to turn your cash into a check. Although a money order may not cost much individually ($0.75 -$1.50), you still need to go to a post-office, Walmart, or Western Union to issue one. This is a completely unnecessary errand if you have a bank that can issue checks.

Getting a Loan

Life is full of unexpected expenses -this is precisely the reason most personal finance guides recommend building an emergency fund as one of the first steps. Medical emergencies, layoffs, home or automobile expenses, or natural disasters are some of the numerous unexpected expenses that can arise. If you haven’t built up your savings, you will need to take a loan or a pricy financing option (more on that in another post).

While the process of obtaining a loan is not directly related to having a bank account (in the same way check cashing is), there is likely a large overlap between the group of unbanked households and those that can’t get loans from banks. These people sometimes have no choice but to resort to payday loans.

Most of us know about the predatory tactics of payday loans. If not, consider watching this John Oliver segment that investigates the problem. According to the CFPB, a typical two-week payday loan with a $15 per $100 fee, equates to an Annual Percentage Rate (APR) of almost 400%. For comparison, most credit cards charge between 12%-30%. The total amount of credit extended by payday lenders is about $38.5 billion, or roughly about $1,120 per underserved household.

While technology today empowers many people to deposit checks or pay bills online, underserved households must still go to brick and mortar locations to cash checks, get money orders, mail or deliver payments, purchase and reload prepaid cards, etc. As Candice Choi put it in the article linked above, when you don’t have a bank, you spend a lot more time managing your money.

In a future post, I will try to cover some solutions (both tech-enabled and local/in-person) to better serving the unbanked and underbanked population.

Sources:

  1. https://www.fdic.gov/householdsurvey/2013report.pdf
  2. https://cfed.org/newsroom/experts/ethan_geiling/the_most_unbanked_places_in_america/
  3. https://www.stlouisfed.org/Publications/Central-Banker/Winter-2010/Reaching-the-Unbanked-and-Underbanked
  4. http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2010/10/08/the-cost-of-being-unbanked/
  5. http://www.consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb/1567/what-payday-loan.html
  6. http://cfsaa.com/about-the-payday-advance-industry.aspx