Fancy Hands promises that it can take some administrative tasks off your to-do list. We tried it to see how it works
These days you can outsource even the most mundane chores—at a price point that isn’t out of reach for the average Joe. And a host of new web-enabled services have made the process a snap. MONEY asked freelance writer and busy working mom Cybele Weisser to try out some of them to see if the time they bought her was worth the price she paid. This post is part of a series recording her results.
The Chore: Phone Calls, Research, and Other Admin Tasks
When it comes to making plans and decisions, I like to be well-informed about all my options. Perhaps too informed.
Online research and phone calls can easily eat up a couple of hours of my workday. If only I had a personal secretary …
→ What I tried: Fancy Hands. Examples of tasks listed on its site included scheduling, restaurant selection and reservations, complex Internet research, and bill negotiation.
→ Cost: Monthly billing plans range from $30 for five tasks to $150 for 50. I paid $60 for 10 requests. Most jobs take about 20 minutes of work, says CEO Josh Boltuch. If you request something that takes much longer, you’ll be billed for additional tasks.
→ Time saved: Less than 30 minutes.
→ How it worked: On the FancyHands dashboard, I entered instructions for several tasks, which included finding a trendy restaurant for a party of six—including one who doesn’t eat gluten—on an upcoming Saturday night, compiling a detailed list of summer camps nearby, haggling with my cable company for a better price, and helping me find a gift idea for my mother-in-law based on her interests.
The results? The tasks were completed in anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours by four separate assistants.
I got a table for six on Saturday at a sort of hip health-food restaurant—though when I asked for a menu with one gluten-free option, I didn’t mean we all wanted quinoa and kale.
While I received a nice rundown on four local camps, at least four more I knew of were missing.
My cable bill didn’t budge (instead, I was asked if I wanted to add a movie channel for $5 more).
And I opted not to buy my mother-in-law any of the 15 generic presents the assistant suggested, nine of which were from Gifts.com.
→ The Verdict: I wouldn’t do it again. I ended up having to complete many of the chores myself.
To be fair, this probably wasn’t the best route for meaningful gift ideas. But the other jobs should have been more up their alley. Boltuch told me the company usually excels at administrative tasks.
Maybe I’m just picky. Or maybe part of the problem is that the site can’t give you the benefit of a real assistant—that is, someone who gets to know you and whom you can come to trust to serve as your proxy.
More from MONEY’s outsourcing series:
More from Money.com:
This writer tried out Taskrabbit. Here's how it went
These days you can outsource even the most mundane chores—at a price point that isn’t out of reach for the average Joe. And a host of new web-enabled services have made the process a snap. MONEY asked freelance writer and busy working mom Cybele Weisser to try out some of them to see if the time they bought her was worth the price she paid. This post is part of a series recording her results.
The Chores: Odd Jobs at Home
Some items on my to-do list have been there for years because they seem so endlessly procrastinate-able.
Two examples: cataloguing the several hundred vinyl records my spouse acquired during college into a spreadsheet so that he’d know what he has (and what he could, I hope, one day toss), and deep-cleaning the gunk out of the crevices of our decade-old refrigerator.
→ Outsourcing options: TaskRabbit and Agent Anything help you find pre-screened independent contractors willing to execute almost any odd job. Zaarly is similar for home services; Thumbtack, for home repair.
→ What I tried: TaskRabbit, which has the largest national network of contractors.
→ What it cost: $75 for the record cataloguing; $88 to clean out the fridge. You pay by the hour, from $15 to $35 for unskilled labor depending on the person, location, and task.
→ Time saved: 3½ hours
→ How it worked: I entered a description of my job on TaskRabbit.com, and the site popped up profiles of dozens of “Taskers” available in the time window I chose.
Each profile showed the Tasker’s bill rate (each sets his own), a photo, and customer reviews. I looked for people on the lower end of the range with good reviews.
And since they’d be in my house with me, I picked individuals who looked like they probably weren’t serial killers.
→ The verdict: Mixed.
Both Taskers, fairly young folks who did the work to fund other pursuits, were friendly and polite, and they got the jobs done.
However, I didn’t love spending hours in my home with strangers. Also, the price seemed high.
And I think I could have done both jobs faster myself (though in the case of the fridge, less thoroughly—who knew masking tape would extract crumbs?). I wondered whether getting paid hourly may have caused the Taskers to work less efficiently.
Still, since I would have otherwise put off these jobs infinitely, it was probably worth the money to actually get them done.
More from MONEY’s outsourcing series:
Pay somebody else to deal with them. That's the premise of an app called Shyp. MONEY tested it out
These days you can outsource even the most mundane chores—at a price point that isn’t out of reach for the average Joe. And a host of new web-enabled services have made the process a snap. MONEY asked freelance writer and busy working mom Cybele Weisser to try out some of them to see if the time they bought her was worth the price she paid. This post is part of a series recording her results. In future posts she’ll try out online personal assistants, grocery delivery, meal planning kits, and more.
The Chore: Shipping Packages
My love for Internet shopping is greatly eroded by my hatred for its inevitable byproduct: having to pack up returns and take them to UPS, the post office, and FedEx. Sending toys my kids outgrow to their cousins results is the same time suck and then some, since we never have the right size box.
→ Outsourcing options: Shipping and delivery apps, such as Shyp, Postmates, and Shipster, have proliferated in urban centers like New York City and San Francisco. Those outside metro areas can use all-purpose outsourcing site Taskrabbit but will pay more.
→ What I tried: Shyp
→ What it cost: $5 fee to pick up, pack up, and ship 10 pounds of toys to the cousins, plus a $13 charge from the U.S. Postal Service.
→ Time saved: 45 minutes total—15 to find and pack a box, 15 trekking back and forth to USPS, 15-plus minutes waiting in line.
→ How it worked: I pressed “add shipment” on the app, gave my address and delivery info, and uploaded a photo of what I wanted to send. Within 30 minutes a bike courier arrived at my door with a big white bag, placed my goods inside, and left for a central van where Shyp packs up the goods and finds the best price among shippers (the company gets bulk discounts, then marks up to allow for a profit margin).
Another half-hour later, I got a text with a link to a USPS tracking number and a receipt.
→ The verdict: Totally worth it.
I might have been able to send the package a bit cheaper if I’d gone to USPS on my own ($10 according to an estimate I got), but I didn’t have to buy a box and I saved a lot of time. Shyp says it guarantees shipments up to $1,000, but I might still hesitate if my items were precious or personal.
Lending Club priced its IPO on Monday, putting it in the ranks of the biggest public offerings ever for an Internet company. Here's what you need to know about peer-to-peer lending.
UPDATE: On Monday, peer-to-peer lending company Lending Club announced it would be pricing its upcoming IPO at $10 to $12 a share in an effort to raise as much as $692 million. (Click here to read the filing.) At the midpoint of the range, that would value the company at around $4 billion. Now that P2P lending has firmly entered the mainstream (and then some), it’s worth looking again at the advice we published in August, when Lending Club filed to go public, on how P2P lending works and how best to use Lending Club and similar services.
Your bank makes money off borrowers. Now you have the opportunity to do the same. One of today’s hottest investments, peer-to-peer lending, involves making loans to strangers over the Internet and counting on them to pay you back with interest. The concept may be a bit wacky, but the returns reported by sites specializing in this transaction—from 7% to 14%—are nothing to scoff at.
Investors aren’t laughing either. Lending Club, one of the leading peer-to-peer lending companies, filed to go public on Wednesday. The New York Times reports the company is seeking $500 million as a preliminary fundraising target and may choose to increase that figure.
Such lofty ambitions should be no surprise, considering that the two biggest P2P sites are growing like gangbusters. With Wall Street firms and pension funds pouring in money as well, Lending Club issued more than $2 billion of loans in 2013, and nearly tripled its business over the prior year. In July, Prosper originated $153.8 million in loans, representing a year-over-year increase of over 400%. The company recently passed $1 billion in total lending. “A few years ago I would have laughed at the idea that these sites would revolutionize banking,” says Curtis Arnold, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Person to Person Lending. “They haven’t yet, but I’m not laughing anymore.”
Here’s what to know before opening your wallet.
How P2P Works
To start investing, you simply transfer money to an account on one of the sites, then pick loans to fund. When Prosper launched in 2006, borrowers were urged to write in personal stories. Nowadays the process is more formal: Lenders mainly use matching tools to select loans—either one by one or in a bundle—based on criteria like credit rating or desired return. (Most borrowers are looking to refi credit-card debt anyway.) Loans are in three- and five-year terms. And the sites both use a default investment of $25, though you can opt to fund more of any given loan. Pricing is based on risk, so loans to borrowers with the worst credit offer the best interest rates.
Once a loan is fully funded, you’ll get monthly payments in your account—principal plus interest, less a 1% fee. Keep in mind that interest is taxable at your income tax rate, though you can opt to direct the money to an IRA to defer taxes.
A few hurdles: First, not every state permits individuals to lend. Lending Club is open to lenders in 26 states; Prosper is in 30 states plus D.C. Even if you are able to participate, you might have trouble finding loans because of the recent influx of institutional investors. “Depending on how much you’re looking to invest and how specific you are about the characteristics, it can take up to a few weeks to deploy money in my experience,” says Marc Prosser, publisher of LearnBonds.com and a Lending Club investor.
What Risks You Face
For the average-risk loan on Lending Club, returns in late 2013 averaged 8% to 9%, with a default rate of 2% to 4% since 2009. By contrast, junk bonds, which have had similar default rates, are yielding 5.7%. But P2P default rates apply only to the past few years, when the economy has been on an upswing; should it falter, the percentage of defaults could rise dramatically. In 2009, for example, Prosper’s default rate hit almost 30% (though its rate is now similar to Lending Club’s). Moreover, adds Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth, “a peer loan is unsecured. If it defaults, your money is gone.”
How to Do It Right
Spread your bets. Lending Club and Prosper both urge investors to diversify as much as possible.
Stick to higher quality. Should the economy turn, the lowest-grade loans will likely see the largest spike in defaults, so it’s better to stay in the middle to upper range—lower A to C on the sites’ rating scales. (The highest A loans often don’t pay much more than safer options.)
Stay small. Until P2P lending is more time-tested, says Roth, it’s best to limit your investment to less than 5% of your total portfolio. “Don’t bank the future of your family on this,” he adds.
Oh, if only six figures landed in your lap tomorrow. Hey, you never know. In case it does—or in case you're lucky enough to have 100 grand put away already—you'll want to have these smart moves in your back pocket.
1. Say “yes” to a master
Unless you live in one of the few areas where the real estate market hasn’t come to life, the decision of whether to move or improve is likely tipped in favor of remodeling, says Omaha appraiser John Bredemeyer. A new bedroom, bath, and walk-in closet may cost you $40,000 to $100,000. But it’s unlikely you’d find a bigger move-in-ready abode with everything you want for only that much more, especially after the 6% you’d pay a Realtor to sell your current home.
2. Burn the mortgage
If you’re within 10 years of retiring, paying off your house can be a wise move, says T. Rowe Price financial planner Stuart Ritter. You’ll save a lot of interest—$24,000, if you have a $100,000 mortgage with 10 years left at 4.5%. Eliminating the monthly payment reduces the income you’ll need in retirement. And as long as you’re not robbing a retirement account, erasing a 4.5% debt offers a better return than CDs or high-quality bonds, says Ritter.
3-5. Buy a business in a box
One hundred grand won’t get you a McDonald’s (for that you’ll need 10 or 15 friends to match your investment)—but there are a number of other good franchises you can buy around that price, says Eric Stites, CEO of Franchise Business Review. Here are three that get top raves in his company’s survey of owners:
- Qualicare Family Homecare (a homecare services firm)
- Window Genie (a window and gutter cleaning service)
- Our Town America (a direct mail marketing service)
6. Tack another degree on the wall
On average, someone with a bachelor’s degree earns $2.3 million over a lifetime, vs. $2.7 million for a master’s and $3.6 million for a professional degree. The payoff varies by field: In biology a master’s earns you 100% more, vs. 23% in art. So before applying, find out how much more you could earn a year, research tuition, and determine how long it’ll take you to recoup the investment.
7. Make sure you won’t be broke in retirement
More than half of Americans worry about running out of money in retirement, Bank of America Merrill Edge found. Allay your fears with a deferred-income annuity: You pay a lump sum to an insurance company in exchange for guaranteed monthly payments starting late into retirement. Because some buyers will die before payments start, you get more income than with an immediate annuity, which starts paying right away. A 65-year-old woman who puts $100,000 into an annuity that kicks in at age 85 will get $3,500 a month, vs. $600 for one that starts this year. In the future you could see deferred annuities as an investment option in your retirement plan; the Treasury Department just approved them for 401(k)s.
8. Get a power car that runs on 240v
For just over $100,000 (after a $7,500 tax rebate), you can be the proud owner of an all-electric Tesla Model S P85, with air suspension, tech, and performance extras. Yes, that’s a pretty penny. But you’ll help the planet, eliminate some $4,000 a year in gas bills—and get a ride that gets raves. “The thing has fantastic performance,” says Bill Visnic of Edmunds.com. It goes from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds and drives 265 miles on a charge, which requires only a 240-volt outlet.
9-12. Put hotel bills in your past
Think you missed the window on a vacation-home deal? True, the median price has jumped 39% since 2011, according to the National Association of Realtors. “But while you can’t buy just anything, anywhere, for 100 grand anymore, there are still decent deals out there in appealing places,” says Michael Corbett of Trulia.com. Here are four markets where the price of a two-bedroom condo goes for around that amount:
- Sunset Beach, N.C./$96,000
- Fort Lauderdale/$116,000
- Colorado Springs/$117,000
13. Tone up your core
The average American saving in a 401(k) has nearly $100,000 put away ($88,600, to be exact, according to Fidelity). With this core money, you’re likely to do better with index funds vs. active funds, says Colorado Springs financial planner Allan Roth. “The stock market is 90% professionally advised or managed, and outside Lake Wobegon, 90% can’t be better than average.” His three-fund portfolio: Vanguard’s Total Stock Market Index, Total International Stock Index, and Total Bond Market.
Related: 35 Smart Things to Do With $1,000
Related: 24 Things to Do with $10,000
Tell Us: What Would You Do With $1,000?
These moves can make you smarter, healthier, happier—and richer.
4. Grab the last of the great TVs
While they’re considered superior to LCDs—for having deeper blacks and any-angle viewing—plasma TVs haven’t been profitable enough for manufacturers, so most are curbing production. LG is one of the last in the game, and its 60-inch 60PB6900 smart TV (around $1,000) has apps to stream digital content and 3-D performance besting its peers. Get the extended warranty, since a service company would have to replace the TV if parts are no longer available.
5. Kick tension to the curb with yoga…
Half of workers say they’re less productive due to stress, the American Psychological Association found; worse, research from the nonprofit Health Enhancement Research Organization found that health care expenses are 46% higher for stressed-out employees. Regularly practicing yoga can help modulate stress responses, according to a report from Harvard Medical School. Classes cost about $15 to $20 a pop, which means that $1,000 will keep you doing downward dog twice a week for about half a year.
6. …Or acupuncture
A recent article in the Journal of Endocrinology found a connection between acupuncture and stress relief. Your insurer may cover treatment, but if not, sessions run $60 to $120 a piece. So you can treat yourself to around 10 to 15 with $1,000.
7. …Or biking
Research suggests that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So take a bike ride after work. The Giant Defy 2 ($1,075) is one of the best-value performance bikes out there, Ben Delaney of BikeRadar.com says.
8. Give your kids a jump on retirement
Assuming your kids earn at least a grand this year from a summer job or other employment, you can teach them the importance of saving for retirement by depositing $1,000 (or, if they earn more and you’re able, up to $5,500) into Roth IRAs in their names. Do so when the child is 17, and it’ll grow to over $18,400 by the time he’s 67 with a hypothetical 6% annual return, says Eau Claire, Wis., financial planner Kevin McKinley.
9. Get over your midlife crisis
Would getting behind the wheel of your dream vehicle make you feel a teensy bit better about reporting to a 30-year-old boss? Then sow your oats—for 24 hours. Both Hertz and Enterprise offer luxury rentals; you can find local outfits by searching for “exotic car rental” and your city. Gotham Dream Cars’ Boston-area location rents an Aston Martin Vantage Roadster for $895 a day.
10. Iron out your wrinkles
For a safer and cheaper alternative to going under the knife, try an injectable dermal filler. Dr. Michael Edwards, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, recommends Juvéderm Voluma XC, which consists of natural hyaluronic acid that helps smooth out deep lines and adds volume to cheeks and the jaw area. It lasts up to two years and costs near $1,000 per injection.
11. Live out a dream
Play in a fantasy world with these adult camps, which cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 with airfare: the four-day Adult Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala. ($650); the Culinary Institute of America’s two-day Wine Lovers Boot Camp in St. Helena, Calif. ($895); or the one-day World Poker Tournament camp in Vegas ($895).
12. Hire someone to fight with your folks
Is your parents’ home bursting at the seams with decades of clutter … er, memories? Save your breath—and sanity—by hiring a professional organizer (find one at napo.net) for them. Mom and Dad may listen more to an impartial party when it comes to deciding what to toss, says Austin organizer Yvette Clay. Focus on pile-up zones, like the basement, garage, and living room (together, $500 to $1,500).
13. Launch you.com
A professional website will help you stand out to employers, says Jodi Glickman, author of Great on the Job. Buy the URL of your name for about $20 a year from GoDaddy and find a designer via Elance.com or Guru.com; $1,000 should get you a nice-looking site with a bio, blog, photos, and portfolio of your work.
14. Become a techie—or just learn to talk to one
Technical knowledge isn’t just for IT folks anymore. “Digital literacy is becoming a required skill,” says Paul McDonald, a senior executive director of staffing agency Robert Half International. Get up to speed with one of these strategies. Understanding how websites, videogames, and apps are built is useful to almost any job dealing in big data or search algorithms, says McDonald. Take a course in programming for nonprogrammers at generalassemb.ly ($550), then get a year’s subscription to Lynda.com ($375) for more advanced online tutorials.
15. Get tweet smarts
Take a class to give you expertise—and confidence— in using social media and analyzing metrics. MediaBistro’s social media boot camp includes five live webcast sessions for $511, and you can add four weeks of classroom workshops with pros for $449. #olddognewtricks
16. Buy the Silicon Valley gear
Need a new laptop now that you’re a tech whiz? To best play the part, go with Apple’s MacBook Air ($999) or its big brother the MacBook Pro ($1,099). With a long battery life and powerful processors, the Air and Pro are the preferred picks for developers, coders, and designers, says PCmag.com’s Brian Westover.
17. Save your cellphone camera for selfies
Your most important memories shouldn’t be grainy. Get a digital SLR camera featuring a through-the-lens optical viewfinder, “which is still essential for shooting action,” says Lori Grunin of CNET. Her pick, Nikon’s D5300 ($1,050). Its 18–140mm lens produces sharp images shot quickly enough for most personal photography.
18. Class up your castle
Interior decorating can cost a fortune—insanely priced furnishings, plus a 30% commission. Homepolish.com, launched in 2012 and now in eight metro areas, upends the model. The site’s decorators charge hourly ($130 or less) and suggest affordable furnishings.
19-21. Hire a good manager
With only 10 C-notes, your mutual fund choices are limited by minimum investment requirements. Besides simply letting you in the door, these actively managed funds have relatively low fees and beat more than half their peers over three, five, and 10 years:
Oakmark Select large blend; 1.01% expenses
Schwab Dividend Equity large value, 0.89% expenses
Nicholas large growth, 0.73% expenses
22. Primp the powder room
Get a new sink and vanity for a refresh of your guest bathroom without a reno. You can find a combined vanity and sink set for under $650; figure another $100 to $200 each for faucet and labor.
23. Replace light fixtures
Subbing in new lighting in the dining room, the front hall, and possibly the kitchen can take 20 years off your house, suggests Pasadena realtor Curt Schultz. You’re likely to pay $100 to $400 per fixture, plus $50 to $100 for installation.
24. Swap out the front door
It’s the first impression guests and buyers have of your home. Look for a factory-finished door—possibly fiberglass if it’s a sunny southern or western exposure without an overhang. You could pay $1,000 for the door and the installation.
25. Catch up on retirement.
If you’re 50 or older, you can put in $1,000 more in an IRA (above the $5,500 normal limit) each year. Do so from 50 to 65, and you’ll have $27,000 more in retirement assuming you get a 6% annual return, per T. Rowe Price.
26. Fly solo to see the Northern Lights
As more companies package deals to Iceland, prices are dropping, says Christie McConnell of Travelzoo.com. You could recently find four-night packages with airfare, hotel, and tours for $800 a person. Go in late fall to see the Northern Lights.
27. Hit the beach in Hawaii
The islands are still working through the overbuilding of hotels that began before the recession, says Anne Banas of Smartertravel.com. Three-night packages for fall with hotel and airfare start around $500 a person from the West Coast.
28. Give your car a makeover
You can’t get a new set of wheels for 1,000 smackers, but you can make your old car feel new(ish) again with this slew of maintenance fixes: A new set of tires ($600), a full car detail ($100), new wiper blades ($50), a wheel alignment ($150), and a synthetic oil change ($100). You’ve likely been putting these off until something breaks, but there’s good reason to do them all at once. Besides giving your car a smoother ride, “this preventative maintenance will help you nurse your car longer, while also saving some gas,” says Bill Visnic, senior editor at Edmunds.com. New car smell not included.
29. Make like (early) Gordon Gekko
Wall Street buyout firms KKR and Carlyle are inviting Main Street investors into private equity funds for $10,000 and $50,000, respectively. Want to play the game with less scratch? Invest $1,000 in Blackstone GroupBLACKSTONE GROUP LP, THE BX 1.02% . Shares of the private equity giant have a 5.1% yield and a cheap P/E of 8.5, plus Blackstone is a top-notch alternative-asset firm, says Morningstar’s Stephen Ellis.
30-32. Put your donations to work where they’ll do the most good
Groups that focus on improving healthcare in the developing world have some of the best measurable outcomes of all charities, says Charlie Bresler, CEO of The Life You Can Save. Many of the supplies used to improve and save lives, like vaccines or mosquito nets, cost pennies to produce, he says, and surgeries that cost tens of thousands in the U.S. can be performed for a few hundred bucks overseas. Three great organizations working in those areas: SEVA Foundation, which works to prevent blindness; Deworm the World, which seeks to eradicate worms and other parasitic bacterial disease; Fistula foundation, which provides surgical services to women with childbirth injuries.
33. Defend the fort
An alarm system can pare as much as 20% from a homeowner’s policy, and the latest ones have neat bells and whistles. Honeywell’s LYNX Touch 7000 (starting at $500, plus $25 to $60 a month) links to four cameras that stream live video. It randomly switches on lights to make an empty home look occupied—and can detect a flood and shut down water.
34. Enjoy a buffet of entertainment
The average cable bill is expected to hit $123 a month in 2015—or $1476 a year—according to the NPD group. What if we told you you could cut the cord, redeploy $1,000 of that to getting two years worth of the following digital libraries, and still bank about 500 bucks? Yeah, we thought so.
For old movies and TV shows…get Netflix ($7.99-$8.99/month). Analysts estimate the company’s library is much larger than that of Amazon Prime.
For current TV shows…watch via Hulu ($7.99/month), which offers episodes from more than 600 shows that are currently on air.
For music…stream with Spotify Premium ($9.99/month). The premium version lets you skip commercials and listen to millions of songs even offline.
For books…read via Kindle Unlimited ($9.99/month). You can access the company’s library of more than 600,000 ebooks and audiobooks with one of its free reading apps, which work Apple, Android or Windows Phone devices.
35. Protect your heirs.
For about $1,000 you can have a will, durable power of attorney, and health care directive written up. Find an estate planner at naepc.org.
What would you do if you suffered an emergency that's bigger than your safety net? These strategies can cushion the blow.
You’ve no doubt diligently socked away a chunk of cash for a rainy day. But chances are it isn’t enough to keep you from worrying about being swept under by a passing financial storm. In a MONEY survey of 1,000 Americans conducted earlier this year, 60% of respondents said they didn’t feel they had enough emergency savings.
They’re probably right to be concerned: A new survey by Bankrate.com found that the majority of Americans making $75,000-plus have less than six months of emergency savings on hand. Meanwhile, experts typically recommend having at least that much and often as much as 12 months’ worth—lofty goals even for those who are otherwise well-off.
While you’re in the process of bulking up your kitty, lessen your anxiety by figuring out how you’d quickly lay your hands on cash if the roof fell in, literally and figuratively. “The goal is to reduce long-term damage to your finances,” says Scottsdale financial planner Brian Frederick. Putting the bills on a credit card can be a reasonable option for those able to pay off their debt in a jiffy, but carrying a balance for longer gets pricey when you’re talking about a 15% interest rate. Instead, keep these five better options in the back of your mind:
1. Crack a CD
In hopes of discouraging customers from fleeing when rates rise, banks have been hiking penalties for tapping a CD before its maturity date—six months’ interest is now common on a one-year certificate, and six to 12 months’ is typical on a five-year. Even so, “the interest is so small these days that a six-month penalty is almost meaningless,” says Oradell, N.J., financial planner Eric Mancini. On a $100,000, five-year CD at 2%, you’d give up just $100.
2. Sell Some Securities
Ditching money-losing stocks is clearly a better move than borrowing, says Frederick, given that you can use losses to offset up to $3,000 of capital gains for this year and carry any overage into future years. Everything in your portfolio on the up and up? While you’ll pay a 15% capital gains tax on the profits from any security you’ve held for more than a year, it might make sense to pare back on winners if your allocation has gotten out of whack.
3. Take Out a 401(k) Loan
Most plans allow you to borrow half your vested amount, up to $50,000, with generous terms: no setup fees and a 4% to 5% interest rate, paid to yourself. Moreover, as long as you keep making contributions, you probably won’t sacrifice much growth. A five-year, $20,000 loan against a $250,000 401(k) would reduce your balance by just $9,000 after 20 years, assuming you continued to save $500 a month during the loan term. But should loan payments require you to pull back on contributions, your nest egg will take a hit (see the graphic). Another risk: If you leave your job for any reason before repaying, you must cough up the entire balance within 60 days, or else you’ll owe income taxes and a 10% penalty on the funds. “You can end up feeling stuck in your job,” says Edina, Minn., financial planner Kathleen Longo.
4. Tap the House
Whether or not you have a home-equity line of credit already, you’ll benefit from today’s low rates. The average on a new line is about 5%, but if your credit is nearly perfect, you can get closer to 3%, with no setup fee, Bankrate.com reports. Plus, interest payments are usually tax-deductible. The caveats: It may take a few weeks to open a new line. Also, HELOCs are variable rate, so your payments may rise if the Fed hikes interest rates. Finally, some banks charge a fee if you close the line early; look for one that doesn’t.
5. Borrow from a Stranger
Those who don’t have adequate home equity can still beat rates on credit cards and personal bank loans by nabbing a loan from a peer-lending site like LendingClub or Prosper. Rates on those sites can be less than 7%, plus an origination fee of 1% to 3%. Peer loans are a good option for those with sterling credit histories, says Steve Nicastro, investing editor at NerdWallet. Check what rate you’d get using the sites’ tools. Look good for you? After you fill out an online form, the sites will take a few days to verify your info, then send your loan out to prospective lenders. Most loans are funded within a week.
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An exclusive MONEY survey reveals sweeping changes in how husbands and wives are managing their finances. Use these insights and strategies to get on the same page with your spouse and make your money work harder–and better–for both of you.
When she graduated from college two decades ago, Jehan Chase had traditional expectations about money and marriage. She figured she’d soon fall in love, settle down, and, once she was wed, turn over managing the family’s finances to her husband. “I thought it would be nice not to have that responsibility,” she says. But life hasn’t followed the script. Instead, Jehan, 44, stayed single until two years ago; by then she’d built a successful career as a government attorney and had become accustomed to managing her own money. After her marriage to Seth, 40, an advocate for a nonprofit who makes a good deal less than she does, Jehan continued to take the lead in managing money for the Alexandria, Va., couple—partly out of convenience, since Seth already had his hands full taking care of his disabled mother and sister, and partly because she didn’t want to cede control. She says, “I’m comfortable being in charge of the finances.”
For his part, Seth, who had been the bigger earner in his previous marriage, says the income role reversal took some getting used to. Now, though, he’s happy with the way the couple manage their money. “Jehan works in a field that pays better than the one I work in, so the income difference isn’t an issue for me,” he says. “She seems to really like doing the finances—and she’s better at it than I am.”
The growing number of wives who, like Jehan Chase, make as much as or more than their husbands is having a profound impact on the way that married couples manage their money and how they feel about their financial union. That’s the clear takeaway from a new national MONEY survey of more than 1,000 married adults ages 25 and older. The responses reveal that as wives’ economic contribution to the household grows—on average, women in dual-earner households now bring in about half of the family income and nearly a quarter of wives earn more than their husbands —every aspect of couples’ lives together is affected. That means not just how they save, spend, and invest but also what they worry about, what they fight about, and even how happy they are in their relationships. “Traditionally women’s income was ‘pin money,’ used for extras like shoes or kids’ braces,” says Liza Mundy, author of The Richer Sex. “Now many families have fully integrated the woman’s earning power into their financial planning. That’s a real transformation.”
What’s clear from the MONEY survey is that this transformation extends far beyond the numbers in the family’s bank account. When women earn as much as or more than their spouses, the results show, they take a far more active role in financial planning, getting deeply involved in everything from budgeting to retirement planning. They bring a more collaborative style to managing the household’s money. And husbands, by and large, appear pleased with the results. “These days women are engaged in all aspects of personal finance,” says New York University sociology professor Kathleen Gerson, who is working on a study about how contemporary work habits are reshaping family life. “It’s not only acceptable; it’s expected.”
These new dynamics, however, are also creating new tensions, as women feel heightened financial stress, men come to grips (or not) with shared decision-making, and both spouses struggle to figure out a fair division of labor (financial and otherwise) at home. Meanwhile, no matter how much the husband or wife earns, the survey found that money remains the top source of friction for couples overall, with spending a particularly contentious issue. And while spouses overwhelmingly think they’re in sync about their finances, the survey results also make clear that when it comes to money, they are typically anything but: Husbands and wives often don’t agree on the roles they play and the financial skills they have, or understand what really matters to their partner.
How can you ensure that this conclusion doesn’t describe your relationship? The insights and advice in the story that follows—the first in a three-part MONEY series that looks at how major demographic shifts are changing the finances of American families—will give you a better understanding of the challenges you face and the ways that you and your spouse can work together to build a richer, happier life.
Finding No. 1: Women who bring home the bacon like to cook it too.
The more a wife earns relative to her husband, the greater her involvement in all aspects of the family’s finances—especially the responsibilities that have traditionally been the purview of men, such as investing and retirement planning. That insight from the MONEY survey makes intuitive sense and may not be surprising. What is startling: the extent to which a woman’s contribution to the family’s income drives her financial participation, either as chief decision-maker or in concert with her spouse, and the effect it has on how she feels about managing money. “There is a definite relationship between a woman’s earnings and her confidence with finances,” says psychologist and certified financial planner Brad Klontz, co-author of Mind Over Money.
Consider: About 80% of the wives in our survey who earn more than their husbands say they’re very or extremely knowledgeable about financial matters, compared with just over half of those who earn less (and lower-earning women are three times as likely to say they know very little). That greater confidence translates directly into action. For instance, wives who are the larger breadwinner are roughly three times as likely as lower-earning women to take the lead in investing and retirement planning. They’re also more apt to be in charge of the household budgeting and bill paying, and to buy insurance for the family.
And it’s not just the women who say so. Husbands in the survey who didn’t earn as much as their wives were far less likely to say they were the primary decision-maker, although they remained a lot more involved than wives who earn less or no salary in nearly all areas. “Money management is still a role men pride themselves on,” says Seattle sociologist Pepper Schwartz, co-author of The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples.
What’s apparent is that while men typically feel ownership in the family’s finances no matter how much they earn, women often need to be making a direct and substantial monetary contribution before they feel the same. “I do the research on our investments and spearhead those decisions, and a lot of that does have to do with the fact that I make more,” says Amanda Austreng, 27, a medical lab scientist in St. Paul who out-earns husband Nick, 26, a preschool teacher. “I want to make sure my money is doing as much as it can.”
For greater harmony:
- Manage based on interest, but decide together. Who earns what is a lousy way to determine who does what when it comes to your money. One person is usually more interested in financial chores or available to handle them, and as long as you agree on who is best suited to a particular responsibility, it’s fine for that spouse to take charge of, say, paying bills, picking mutual funds, or preparing the taxes. Just be sure to draw a clear distinction between tasks and decisions, says psychologist Jonathan Rich, author of The Couple’s Guide to Love and Money: “No one has the right to single-handedly guide the family’s goals.”
- Master the basics. While it’s understandable that women step up their game as they earn more, both partners, regardless of how much they earn individually, need to be clued in about the family’s finances, says Atlanta financial planner Mary Claire Allvine. It’s particularly dangerous for women to remain in the dark, as they tend to outlive men:“I see my older female clients having wealth management thrust on them, and it’s uncharted territory,” Allvine says. Schedule uninterrupted time, a minimum of twice a year, to sit down with your spouse and review what you own and what you owe. Then discuss how these numbers jibe with your immediate and future financial goals.
Finding No. 2: The spouse who earns more drives the financial style.
When husbands are the bigger earners, they take the lead in managing the couple’s money—especially in their own estimation. When asked who is primarily responsible for major decisions about retirement planning and portfolio management, for example, six in 10 higher-earning men claimed the title, with only 39% saying they share the role with their wife.
By contrast, in the view of both husbands and wives, households in which the woman makes the same as or more than her spouse have a collaborative money management style—“We decide” vs. “I decide.” Overall, nearly two-thirds of respondents from these families say they share financial decision-making with their partner, compared with less than half from households in which the man earns more. Perhaps most telling: Only 4% of lower-earning husbands feel they’re not a financial decision-maker in the family, vs. 28% of lower-earning wives.
These gender-driven differences in approach echo the contrasting professional styles that researchers have observed in the workplace, says University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen. He notes that female managers tend to be more collaborative and relationship-oriented than their male counterparts. When it comes to money, higher-earning women may also work harder at being inclusive because they worry that their husbands will be unhappy in a nontraditional family role. Says Liza Mundy: “Female breadwinners are more likely to want to empower their husbands.”
That rings true for Roopal Carbo, 40, of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., a pharmacist whose husband, John, 41, is a stay-at-home dad to their three kids, ages 6 to 11. “My husband thinks that because I earn the money, I should decide where to spend it,” she says. “But just because I earn it doesn’t mean he’s not playing an important role in the family and that he doesn’t have just as much right to voice concerns.” John says it took him a few years to get comfortable offering his opinions on financial matters. “My wife still drives the major decisions, but now we discuss everything,” he says. “Each year we get better at this, and the conversations are easier to have.”
For greater harmony:
- Play to your combined strengths. Sorry, guys, but when it comes to money, a joint approach typically trumps managing solo. Besides the fairness factor (income power shouldn’t automatically confer decision-making power), there’s a practical reason: Men and women, it’s been well documented, often have different but complementary financial skills that work better together than separately.
Men, for instance, are usually more willing to act when it comes to investing and planning and to take risks for greater gain. That works to temper women’s often expressed conservatism. Men are also prone to overconfidence, which can lead them to trade excessively, ultimately hurting their investment returns. Women are more patient, buy-and-hold investors and tend to thoroughly research each financial decision before they act. “Balancing your styles is ideal,” says psychologist Jonathan Rich.
Finding No. 3: Husbands are happiest when their wives earn as much or more.
The downsides of marriages in which women are the bigger breadwinner have been well catalogued in research and by the media. The husbands suffer from bruised egos and feelings of emasculation; the spouses fight more than other couples, have lousy sex lives, and are more prone to divorce.
The problem with these characterizations? They’re not necessarily accurate. The most publicized recent studies are based on data from couples interviewed during the early to mid-1990s, missing a generation’s worth of shifting expectations and experience when it comes to working women and marriage. In fact, the responses from the MONEY survey suggest unions in which women earn as much as or more than their husbands are at least as happy and as hot as marriages with a traditional earner relationship—and, in some cases, more.
Take marital satisfaction. Spouses in households where women earn as much as or more than men were as much in love as everyone else (six in 10 gave their relationship a five— “very much in love”—on a scale of one to five). They were a bit happier—83% were very or extremely happy, vs. 77% of families in which the wives earned nothing or less than their husbands. As for heat, marriages in which the partners earn roughly the same took the prize: They reported the best sex life, with 51% saying that their romantic encounters were “very good” or “hot,” vs. 43% of spouses overall.
What’s more, the most satisfied partners of all were the husbands in egalitarian and female-breadwinner marriages. For example, 56% of men wed to women who make as much as they do characterized their sex lives as “hot” or “very good,” vs. 43% with wives who made less. Men married to women who earn the same or more also expressed the greatest happiness with their relationship (see below). Psychologist Klontz theorizes that these husbands may be a self-selecting group: “Men who are attracted to higher-earning women probably desire more egalitarianism in their relationships.” For her part, sociologist Schwartz says her studies have also found a strong link between egalitarianism and sexual satisfaction.
The results of the MONEY survey may also reflect ongoing changes in men’s socialization and expectations, says Cohen at the University of Maryland. “Men are now being raised on the assumption that the woman is going to have a career, so there’s no shame that she ‘has’ to work,” he says. “They might not want their wife to make more, but they also might not care if she does.”
The tough economy of the past several years may also play a role. “We have found that it is burdensome for many men to have full responsibility for the family’s income,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. Andy Wen, 49, a music professor in Bryant, Ark., whose wife, Debra, 60, a special-education teacher, earns roughly the same salary, agrees. “Because neither of us is the main provider, there is no imbalance of power in our relationship, and it takes some of the pressure off both of us,” he says.
For greater harmony:
- Emphasize the team, not the score. What’s driving satisfaction in more egalitarian marriages probably has less to do with who has the bigger W-2 and more to do with both partners feeling they are working in tandem to build their family’s security. Neither one carries the burden alone. Make financial togetherness easier by ensuring that all information is relayed jointly, suggests Manisha Thakor, co-author of Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey. “If you have investments, for example, make sure both your names are copied on the trade confirmations,” she says. You can also set up your online banking accounts so that you each get the same alerts—say, when a deposit over a certain amount has posted to your account or a bill payment is due.
Finding No. 4: Female breadwinners are feeling the stress.
Not everything is peachy in marriages where women are the bigger breadwinners. Husbands in these relationships may be happier than most, but the wives? Well, not so much. Higher-earning women are not as likely as other spouses to say they’re very much in love (58% say so—15 percentage points less than men married to higher earners). These wives worry considerably more about finances than men and lower-earning women do, and they are also more apt to identify money as an area of tension in their relationship (one particular sore point cited by nearly a quarter of these wives: their husband’s lack of career ambition).
What’s going on here? In a word, pressure. Many studies have documented the strain that working women feel juggling their jobs while having to keep up with their regular chores at home. Add the stress of being primarily responsible for the family’s income, and the reasons for female-breadwinner discontent don’t seem that difficult to fathom.
In fact, the MONEY survey tapped into this resentment: In marriages where the wife earns more, household chores rivaled money as the subject couples fight about most frequently, and arguments about grocery shopping, cooking, and taking out the garbage were more frequent than in homes with a male primary breadwinner. That’s true even though men in these relationships seemed to be doing considerably more around the house than their higher-earning counterparts, and female breadwinners were doing less than lower-earning women and stay-at-home wives.
Part of the problem, says San Diego psychologist and marriage counselor Jonathan Kramer, is perception. “Men often magnify the extent to which they’re doing chores at home,” he points out. Meanwhile, some wives may not recognize how much more their husbands are doing, especially if the guys do the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and child rearing differently than the woman would do them herself.
Whatever the reasons, women like Ashley Papke, 31, an office manager in St. Louis who makes almost twice as much as her attorney husband, Erik, 34, are feeling the weight keenly: “It’s a constant struggle to be the best at my job, the best mom, the best wife, the best financial planner for our lives, the best homeowner, the best coach,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like there is so much expected of me that I may just explode.” Though the Papkes theoretically divide financial-planning tasks, Ashley says she feels “more responsible” for the family’s financial success. “Erik is helpful, but since I earn more and worry more, I feel it’s on my shoulders,” she says.
For greater harmony:
- Outsource what you can. Yes, a monthly or biweekly housecleaner, and takeout or prepared foods, can get expensive. Still, if you can afford at least a few time-and-energy savers without sacrificing important goals, go for it, says MONEY contributing editor Farnoosh Torabi, author of When She Makes More (check out an excerpt here). Harmony on the home front is worth something too.
- Be appreciative. Ladies, your husband may not cook, clean, and take care of the kids as you would. When he takes on a task, though, you have less say in how it gets done and vice versa. Say “Thank you” and move on.
Finding No. 5: Spending is everyone’s hot-button issue.
No matter which spouse earns more, money has traditionally been the greatest source of friction for couples, and our survey found the same: Money is the topic that spouses argue about the most, ahead of household chores, spending quality time together, sex, snoring, in-laws, and what’s for dinner.
The most contentious issue was spending, with 46% of respondents citing frivolous purchases as the top cause of money fights. And both men and women think their partner is the one with the bad spending habit.
Still, the more wives contributed to the family income, the less an issue spending appears to be. That’s what Lisa Dieter, 33, a certified financial planner in Mettawa, Ill., learned when she swapped breadwinning roles with husband Matt Miller, 38. Until last year, when Miller launched an online dining guide business, he had earned about 70% of the household income as the manager of an online certification website. “I used to check with him first before making a big purchase,” says Lisa. “Now it’s my income, so I feel like I can make my own decisions. Before I felt like he had the final say. Now I do.”
For greater harmony:
- Work off the facts. The majority of us marry our money opposites, says Scott Palmer, co-author with his wife, Bethany, of The 5 Money Personalities: Speaking the Same Love and Money Language. If you’re a worrier and saver, you may find it hard to understand why your free-spending spouse craves a pricey vacation—and she, in turn, may be frustrated by your claims that you can’t afford to take one. Remove the emotion from the discussion by looking at hard numbers to figure out whether your spouse’s spending is actually interfering with your ability to, say, build an adequate emergency fund or save for retirement. If so, discuss it, framing the conversation about the goal (a positive), not your partner’s errant ways.
Yet you may well find that, while you don’t see the value in what your spouse is buying, there’s no actual financial harm to your family in the purchases. As Bethany Palmer points out, judgments about spending go deeper than whether a couple can afford the purchases: “It’s really about having control and ownership of the money we make.”
- Agree on a wish list. You and your spouse should separately jot down five to 10 things you want to spend money on, suggests Deborah Price, author of The Heart of Money, and then compare notes. “Where the items overlap is where you allocate your resources, putting most of the money in shared values,” she says. “Then negotiate the differences so that both people’s different needs are still met with any leftover discretionary income.”
Finding No. 6: We don’t agree on roles and goals.
Most couples think they’re on the same page when it comes to money, or so eight in 10 spouses in the MONEY survey said. Yet when it comes down to the particulars, not so much.
Asked to name their spouse’s greatest financial worry, for example, both sexes think their partner is more concerned with keeping up a certain lifestyle than most husbands and wives actually say they are. Women believe their husbands are more worried about losing their jobs than men say they are. And both sides underestimated how important the opposite sex rates goals such as emergency savings and paying off debt. Men were especially off base about women—only 42%, for instance, said their wives cared about having the right investments, vs. 64% of women who rated that as a top goal.
Spouses also don’t agree on who pays the bills, does the budgeting, or takes care of long-term planning. And each partner gives himself or herself more credit for everything from financial know-how to who worries more about money.
The disconnect can seem amusing, like a familiar plot from a TV sitcom—until you realize that being out of sync with your spouse can really get in the way of attaining your goals. As Klontz puts it: “If you’re not on the same starting line, there’s no way you can cross the finish line together.”
For greater harmony:
- Get help, as needed. Frustrated by conflicting goals and styles? Sometimes a neutral third party can help—say, meeting with a financial adviser or attending a money seminar. After years of being at odds over money, Karl and Lucinda Harms, both 54, of West Liberty, Iowa, decided to jointly attend a financial-management workshop last year. “My wife is a budget person, I am not, and we weren’t on the same page about what to do with our money,” says Karl, a design draftsman. The course made them realize that getting out of debt was the top priority for them, and they devised a plan to achieve it, primarily by cutting back spending. “It was an eye-opening experience,” Karl says. “I wish we’d done it 30 years ago.”
Finding No. 7: Spouses aren’t coming clean with each other.
MONEY’s survey found that nearly a quarter of married people don’t tell their spouse about things they’ve bought. About the same number fib about cost—and expect that their spouse does the same. And about 6% of spouses even have a separate financial account that they don’t want their partner to know about.
Why so secretive? “The No. 1 reason we do this is because we want to avoid a fight,” says Klontz. “If your partner is really anxious about money, even a totally appropriate purchase can become a point of contention.” And in fact, the top reason spouses gave for their subterfuge, cited by 35%, was to avoid a lecture from their mate.
For greater harmony:
- Allow for some money autonomy. You don’t have to justify your desire for the latest-model iPad or to opt for Laura Mercier over Maybelline. With your spouse, agree on a monthly amount that you’ll each put into separate accounts, to be used at your discretion. “Research has found that the happiest couples have a joint account for the essentials and then some discretionary money,” says Schwartz.
The system is working for Adam Hall, 31, a middle school band director, and his wife, Kristen, 25, an art teacher, who set aside $50 a month for each to spend, no questions asked. “We trust each other with our accounts, but it’s nice to have a little money of our own,” he says. “We both just wanted a little bit of financial freedom.”
Additional reporting by Kerri Anne Renzulli.
Money's exclusive survey reveals mixed emotions when it comes to our personal economy: We're feeling pretty good today, but worried about our prospects for the long run.
At first glance the Brough family of Dallas seems to have emerged from the tumultuous economic events of the past six years unscathed.
Sole earner Richard, 44, a project manager in software consulting, worked steadily throughout the financial crisis — even landing a new job that pays $45,000 a year more than his old one, which pushed his salary comfortably into six-figure territory. The value of the home he shares with wife Kelley, 46, and two of their four children (ranging in age from 15 to 27) has rebounded to pre-2007 levels, and so has his 401(k).
Yet five years after the official end of the downturn, Brough feels anything but confident about his finances.
“I’m more obsessed with security and worried about the future than I was during the recession,” he says. “Even though I was making less then, our money seemed to go further. I’m anxious about being able to pay for everything we need, anxious about our savings, anxious about staying out of debt.”
The results of MONEY’s new national survey of more than 1,000 Americans age 18 and older reveal that most people share Brough’s concerns: The Great Recession may be over, but a Great Insecurity seems to have emerged in its wake.
True, the majority of respondents acknowledge that their finances are better now than they have been in some time. About three-quarters report that their situation has stabilized or improved compared with a year ago; less than half felt that way when MONEY posed that question in 2009.
Indeed, in that earlier survey, only about 10% said they were doing better than the year before, vs. 30% now. And far fewer folks seem to feel as if they’re teetering at the edge of a financial cliff: Just 24% say their circumstances have gotten worse over the past year, vs. 51% in 2009.
Meanwhile, people are even more optimistic about the year ahead: Almost nine out of 10 expect that their finances will be the same or better 12 months from now.
Yet while the outlook for today and tomorrow has brightened, the day after tomorrow appears decidedly grayer. Six out of 10 respondents own up to being worried about their family’s long-term economic security, and even greater numbers register anxiety when getting down to specifics; they’re really worried about having enough money for retirement, how they’d manage if a financial emergency arose, whether safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare will be intact when they need them, and how they’ll pay for health care.
Moreover, that undercurrent of anxiety cuts across virtually all groups: Young and old, men and women, married couples and singles, even the affluent — all shared the same concerns.
Some of the fretting may be the result of a lingering hangover from the financial crisis. “People are influenced by what is more recent and most vivid, and that is still the recession,” says behavioral finance expert Meir Statman, a professor at Santa Clara University in California. “We fear that what happened in 2008 will happen again.”
The current state of the economy is also cause for continuing concern. “The unemployment rate is still pretty high, and there are a lot of questions about what the government is going to do,” says Olivia S. Mitchell, a Wharton economics professor who has studied the impact of the financial crisis on U.S. households. “We’re in an environment of pervasive uncertainty that’s not going to go away for years.”
What is causing the most agita about our financial future — and why? How has that affected the way we manage money? And what are the best steps to alleviate our anxiety and move forward? The answers follow, along other insights from the 2014 Americans and Their Money survey.
We’ve regained some stability — and faith
When MONEY polled Americans about their finances in 2011 and 2009, the nation was hunkered down and wrestling with post-recession panic. Families had pulled back drastically on spending, postponed vacations and major purchases, and even curtailed giving to charity. People were deeply worried about losing their jobs or getting a pay cut, concerned about the eroding value of their homes, and anxious about big losses in the financial markets.
Five years ago, when asked whether they’d be better off putting money under the mattress or in stocks, half of the respondents chose the bed.
Now that home values and stock prices are up and unemployment is modestly down, a lot of that fear has abated. This year, for instance, 71% of those surveyed opted for stocks instead of the mattress. Folks are once again comfortable tuning out the daily movements of the market: Only about a third of those surveyed said they were laser focused on financial news, vs. two-thirds in 2009.
There’s also a greater willingness to stretch for risk: In the most recent poll just over half of Americans said it was more important to keep investments safe than to aim for a higher return. While that’s a substantial number, it’s down from 64% three years ago. In general, concerns about losing money in the market, declining home values, and being laid off have dropped to close to the bottom of the collective worry list.
Other signs bolster the notion that Americans are backing away from the financial bunker mentality that swept the nation after the recession. A Challenger, Gray & Christmas analysis of employment data, for instance, found that more Americans are quitting their jobs, reflecting growing confidence in their ability to find a better position elsewhere.
After years of relative frugality, Americans are loosening the purse strings a little. Sales of big-ticket items such as cars and new homes recently hit six-year highs, and the fourth quarter saw the largest quarterly increase in outstanding credit since before the recession.
Among those feeling calmer is Ralph Schmitt, 69, of Fortson, Ga., whose savings fell by a third in the crash.
When the recession arrived, Ralph, who had planned to retire in 2008, decided to postpone that step. He and his wife, Kathleen, did not sell any investments, however, and by late 2009, with their portfolio growing again, Ralph felt confident enough to quit for good.
“I was still worried about the uneven recovery and our retirement savings,” he admits, “but I believed in the resilience of the U.S. economy and the momentum of the stock rebound.”
Besides, he says, he and Kathleen, 67, who stopped working in 1993, felt they could live on less, having drastically cut back on their spending for travel, fine dining, and theater.
Today the Schmitts’ portfolio is back to where it was in 2007, and the couple have “kicked up” their spending accordingly. “I wanted to travel extensively with my wife while we still had our health,” says Ralph.
Good habits have held
We may be opening our wallets again, but that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned the fiscally prudent practices adopted after the crash. Nearly three-quarters of those in the MONEY poll reported that over the past three years they’ve been cutting back on luxury purchases and eating at home more often — a modest drop from 2011, when consumers were still shell-shocked from the financial crisis, but a big increase from the 2009 survey.
Nearly six in 10 say they feel guilty about buying something they don’t need, virtually unchanged from three years ago. And six in 10 say they’re trying to beef up their emergency cushion, a huge jump from 2009, when less than a quarter said the same. Indeed, the national savings rate, while down from its post-crash peak, is now 4%, about where it’s been for much of the past three years and substantially above the 1% rate of the pre-crisis boom years.
Whether we’ll be able to maintain that restraint for good, however, is unclear. “We’re not back to a status quo environment that would allow you to make those kinds of judgments,” says Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics at Moody’s. He thinks consumers will let loose eventually: “Underestimate the desire to spend at your own peril,” he says.
It’s particularly tough to assess the long-term trend while the recovery is still so uneven, notes Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, pointing out that some groups, such as high-income baby boomers and retirees whose wealth is tied to the stock market, are feeling more flush than others these days.
Jim Durkis says the improving economy has not changed his habits — yet. The government lawyer and his wife, Deborah, an elementary-school teacher, both 50, were looking to buy a bigger house near where they now live in Albuquerque but decided against the move when housing values in the area declined.
Since the recession, the family, which includes Jason, 22, and Kaja, 21, have switched insurance companies, delayed vacations, and cut cable — though they signed up again last summer after Deborah, a former-spender-turned-bargain-hunter, found a good deal.
Though both spouses are working and he has a solid pension plan, Durkis says he’s still focused on saving. “I’m not convinced there’s been a true recovery,” he says. “I’d rather have extra money, just in case.”
Additional reporting by Kerri Anne Renzulli.