MONEY credit cards

3 Things Millennials Need to Know When Choosing a Credit Card

hand choosing credit cards from a fan of cards
David Malan—Getty Images

Here's what young adults should consider when they finally bite the bullet and sign up for a credit card.

Today’s young professionals have a complicated relationship with credit. A report last year found that more than three in five millennials did not own a credit card, while another survey, by Creditcards.com, found that 36% of 18-to-29 year olds have never had one.

Millennials, of course, had the distinct misfortune of entering the job market during the greatest recession in generations, which may have made the prospect of borrowing less appealing, says Creditcards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz. Unemployment can make the task of paying off your monthly bill rather onerous.

Nevertheless, those in Gen Y who eschew plastic endure real costs that can make borrowing later in life that much more difficult. “Credit scoring models look at the age of your credit history,” says Credit.com’s Gerri Detweiler. “Specifically they take into account the age of your oldest account, and the average age of all of your accounts.” The earlier you start, the better your score will be. And a higher credit score can save you thousands over the course of your life.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, here are three things to consider when you pick and use your plastic. (These are also good reminders for those who already carry a card.) Remember, credit cards are tools and can dramatically improve your bottom line when used correctly.

1. Make sure you reap the credit

One chief benefit of receiving a card is proving to the world that you can be responsible with credit. However, if your lender doesn’t actually report your pristine credit behavior to a credit bureau, you won’t get the benefit of a higher score. “Ensure that your card reports account activity to the three major credit bureaus—which it should if it’s issued by a major bank and is a Visa, Mastercard, or American Express card—so that this first card can help build a credit history,” says Ben Woolsey of CreditCardForum.com. You can confirm this with your lender before you sign up for the card.

2. Skip the annual fee

“Get a credit card with no annual fee, since the first card you will get will be the card you keep the rest of your life to maintain a long credit history,” says Nerdwallet.com’s Kevin Yuann. The point here is that you don’t want to be penalized for establishing credit. But when you finally get that more elite card, don’t get rid of the original. “As you start to qualify for better rewards, keep a phone bill or something recurring on automatic payment on this card to ensure it doesn’t get canceled,” Yuann advises.

3. Pay your bill

“Many millennials incorrectly focus on the potential interest rate when shopping for their first card,” says CreditSesame.com’s John Ulzheimer. “This underscores a larger problem, which is that they are thinking about the cost of carrying a balance before they’ve even used their first card.”

Instead Ulzheimer recommends you consider other factors, like potential credit limit. (Aim to spend roughly 10%-20% of your monthly limit in order to optimize your score, which is a bit easier with a higher limit.) “Using the card only to the extent that they can pay off the balance in full each month makes the interest rate irrelevant.”

Still, credit cards are useful in cases of emergency, and sometimes you may find yourself with a revolving balance. That shouldn’t stop you from contributing something to your debt, says LowCards.com’s Bill Hardekopf. “Even if you can’t pay off the entire balance, it is critical to make the payment on time every single month. If not, this will significantly damage your credit score. That is something that will haunt you on future loans,” such as for a car or house.

Need help figuring out which card is right for you? Check out MONEY’s credit card matchmaker tool.

Read next: MONEY’s Best Credit Cards

MONEY

Why Millennials Are in for a Worse Midlife Crisis than their Parents

senior man in motorcycle gear
Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

Marriage, it turns out, lessens the dip in happiness that happens in one's late 40s. But most Gen Y-ers have steered clear of the altar.

I’m a happily married 28-year-old with a beautiful wife and son. My life is good.

But if research is correct, I will grow increasingly more dissatisfied with my life over the next 20 years. Which is terrifying.

The midlife crisis is very real.

Studies show that people are pretty happy when they’re young and when they’re older—thank youthful exuberance and not having to work, respectively. But between 46 and 55, folks endure peak ennui.

That happiness ebbs as one ages is not particularly surprising. Careers plateau, dreams are deferred and bills increase in quantity and frequency.

This U-shaped happiness curve has been the focus of a lot of research recently and many nations (from Britain to Bhutan) have shown interest in augmenting citizens well-being with the intent that gross happiness is just as important to the economy as the gross domestic product.

One recent study on the topic—published in the National Bureau of Economic Research—has me feeling just a little bit less sad about my upcoming depression. It found that married folks like myself will experience a less dramatic midlife crisis than their non-married peers.

Authors Shawn Grover and John Helliwell used data from two U.K. surveys and found that while life-satisfaction levels declined for those who married and those who didn’t, the middle-age drop was much less severe for the betrothed, even when controlling for premarital happiness.

Having a dedicated partner, it seems, eases the burden of watching your youth pass slowly through your fingers. Tying the knot can soften the blow, in the other words.

Moreover, people who consider their partner a friend enjoy the most happiness.

“We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a casual relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend,” the authors wrote.

These findings could leave many of my peers in an emotional nadir: According to data from the Pew Research Center, millennials just aren’t terribly interested in the institution of marriage. Only 26% of people aged 18 to 32 were married in 2013—10 points lower than Gen X when they were of a similar age in 1997, and 22 points below boomers’ marriage patterns in 1960.

My generation still has a few years before they hit the bottom of the U curve. And perhaps an improving economy will make the prospect of marriage more attractive to those in my cohort. Here’s hoping.

I didn’t plan to marry when I did—like most of my generation the thought really didn’t occur to me. But my longtime girlfriend and I walked down the aisle after we found out she was pregnant. And from my current pre-midlife-crisis vantage point, I can see why marrying someone I love and with whom I share a common worldview will make the process of aging slightly less pale and ugly.

Life’s hard, but it turns out that it’s nice to have someone you love to complain about it with.

More From the First-Time Dad:

MONEY currencies

Why the Strong Dollar Hurts Investors and What They Should Do About it

Johnson & Johnson products
John Raoux—AP Johnson & Johnson products

The strong dollar is hurting some multi-national corporations. That doesn't mean you should do anything.

Johnson & Johnson endured a difficult first quarter. Profits at the healthcare behemoth declined by almost 9%, and the company lowered earnings projections for the rest of the year.

Part of the blame went to poor sales of a particular hepatitis drug. But J&J also took a hit from something that its executives can’t in any way control: foreign exchange.

Over the past 12 months, the U.S. dollar has gained against every major currency, according to data from Bloomberg, including more than 20% against the euro.

That can be pleasant for American consumers and travelers, whose dollars can suddenly buy more imported goods and stretch further when spent abroad in places like Europe.

But a strong dollar can also have negative consequences, and the losers include multinational American companies like J&J that sell goods overseas, where American exports are suddenly more expensive than before and thus less competitive. Indeed, currency fluctuations sliced the company’s earnings by 7.2%.

What’s more, there’s reason to believe this kind of impact will be felt across the U.S. economy. The International Monetary Fund recently projected that currency effects would decrease U.S. economic growth this year by half a percentage point, to 3.1%.

In light of all this, investors may be wondering if they should make some changes to their domestic stock portfolio, perhaps lightening up on companies with lots of international business. Here are two reasons to hold off.

The Strong Dollar Is Already Baked Into Stock Prices

Intelligent folks can disagree on the efficient markets hypothesis, which holds that share prices always reflect all relevant information. But at least some of today’s currency issues are already cooked into company stock prices.

In other words, it’s probably too late to avoid the negative currency effects—and selling now might mean missing out when the currency pendulum swings the other way. You can see that in Johnson & Johnson: While the company’s numbers look bad on paper, they actually outperformed analysts’ expectations. The company’s stock was unchanged yesterday, and is actually up a bit over the past month.

That’s also true of the broader U.S. stock market: The S&P 500, which collectively takes in about half of its revenue from overseas, is up almost 2% so far this year.

Moreover, Europe won’t stay on its current economic path forever. Eventually the economies of its member nations will improve, the European Central Bank will stop buying bonds, and interest rates will one day rise. When that happens, demand for euros will increase.

The Dollar Won’t Stay Strong Forever

One reason the greenback has performed so well against other currencies is that our monetary policy looks downright hawkish by comparison. The Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank are holding down interest rates and buying up bonds in an effort to lower interest rates, stimulate spending, and improve economic growth. If that plan sounds familiar, that’s because the U.S. Federal Reserve spent years doing the same thing. These days the conventional wisdom is that the Fed will start to raise rates this summer or fall, thereby making dollars more desirable.

But the conventional wisdom isn’t always right—and in fact economic data over the past couple of weeks has revealed some weakness in the U.S. Last month’s jobs report showed employers adding fewer workers than expected, while retail sales underperformed as well. And while a plurality of economists polled by Bloomberg couple of weeks ago estimated that the Fed would raise interest rates in June, the most recent poll shows that a majority now think that increase won’t be announced until September. As a result, the dollar has actually underperformed the yen, euro and pound over the past month.

Which all means that you can be made to look silly by trying to time the market.

“From the prospective of individual investors with an intermediate to long-term time horizon, you shouldn’t be focused on the dollar,” says John Toohey, head of equities at USAA Investments. “It all tends to even out over time.”

MONEY Jobs

March Jobs Report Disappoints

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Getty Images

A government report shows that the labor market struggled. What does that mean for your salary?

After months of impressive gains, employers slowed down hiring last month.

Employers added 126,000 jobs in March, while employment gains for January and February were revised down. Over the past three months, businesses have increased their payrolls by 197,000 workers a month. The unemployment rate held steady at 5.5%.

Hourly earnings, however, were a positive, rising 0.3% last month. Workers have seen a raise of 2.1% over the past 12 months, though, which is barely keeping pace with inflation.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen promised in a press conference last month that “we will be looking at wage growth,” adding that “we have not seen wage growth pick up.” A lack of sustained, accelerated wage growth is one reason the Fed has kept short-term interest rates near zero since the recession.

There have been other disappointments in the economy. As the dollar has strengthened against the euro, American exports have become less competitive in the global market place at the same time that economic weakness in Europe, China and Japan have reduced demand for U.S. goods. U.S. companies are starting to take it on the chin. According to S&P Capital IQ, large corporations are expected to see a 3.1% quarterly earnings decline in the first three months of 2015, the first drop since 2009.

Meanwhile U.S. productivity, measured by the growth of services and goods produced per hour worked, declined 2.2% in the last quarter of 2014.

“Wage growth will ultimately be constrained by productivity as employers cannot let paychecks increase faster than hourly output growth for years on end,” says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer for BMO Private Bank. “While job growth is the most important barometer of economic success, healthy wages play an important supporting role. Until productivity picks up, wage gains will likely be constrained.”

James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, points out that productivity has only grown 0.8% annually in the last five years, compared to a post-war norm of 2.4%.

What’s holding productivity back? “The problem has been a lack of investment spending,” says Paulsen. Since the recession, the private sector “has been noticeably reserved with capital spending plans. Moreover, as a percent of GDP, real public sector investment spending has been declining steadily since 2010, falling recently to a 65-year low.”

Corporations aren’t going to invest unless there’s a demand for its products, which has been muted as U.S. consumers have spent the past half decade or so dealing with debt. Government spending has been limited due to sequestration.

Whether or not the Federal Reserve will tighten monetary policy by raising interest rates before the end of the year, while key employment indicators lag, remains to be seen.

MONEY credit cards

These “Elite” Credit Cards Are Most Likely to Get Hacked

credit card on top of computer keyboard
Getty Images

It turns out that the fanciest cards aren't the safest.

So-called elite credit cards—those pieces of plastic with words like Black, Centurion, and Infinite attached to them—turn out to be the most prone to hacking, according to a recent study by Forter. The fraud-prevention software company looked at hundreds of thousands of credit cards over the course of a year and found that elite cardholders were subject to more than twice as much fraud as consumers with a basic credit card. Fraudsters attacked other products, like gold and platinum cards, less often than elite cards as well.

“Fraudsters operate as a business,” says Forter chief executive Michael Reitblat. “They would like to buy as many expensive items as they can using the stolen cards, but they lack the financial information of the original card holder—mainly how high is the credit limit. A proven way for fraudsters to guess the available credit is by targeting elite cards. Their owners have more money and better credit scores and thus enable the fraudsters to buy more with a single stolen card.”

Keep that in mind the next time you’re overcome with schadenfreude at the sight of someone else’s American Express Centurion Card. Elite cards saw fraud rates of 1.7%, compared with 1.0% for gold, platinum, and loyalty club cards. Basic and corporate cards saw fraud only 0.8% and 0.7% of the time, respectively.

Forter also found that most fraud is committed in the middle of the night (2am – 6am).

Simple steps like tracking purchases made with the card online and contacting your issuer if you see something funny can help you prevent fraud from doing lasting damage to your credit score. You should also get a free credit check from annualcreditreport.com from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year.

“Owners of elite cards are more likely to miss an unknown charge on their statement and not report it as stolen, which will allow the fraudster to be able to use the card for several transactions over a period of time,” says Reitblat.

Which card is right for you? Find out here.

MONEY First-Time Dad

Here’s How to Save on Summer Camp and Child Care

Luke Tepper

Money writer and first-time dad Taylor Tepper learns some strategies to keep more money in your wallet without compromising quality care

My son Luke is 14-months-old, so our summer child care plan follows our fall, spring and winter’s—that is to say, we’ll be sticking with our nanny share. Mrs. Tepper and I aren’t particularly thrilled to see so much of our income siphoned away for this purpose, but at least we don’t have to figure out an entirely new care arrangement from June through August.

Parents of school-aged children aren’t so lucky.

With spring barely in the air, this is the time of year that many working moms and dads are hustling for stopgap measures. “Summer care is this mishmash, patchwork quilt,” says Care.com’s Katie Herrick Bugbee. “It can be incredibly stressful for parents.”

And expensive. Babysitters earned a nationwide average of $13.44 an hour last year, according to a recent report from Care.com, up more than 11% in 2013. At that rate, assuming you get coverage for 40 hours a week—because of course you’ll leave at 5 p.m. each day—for 14 weeks, you’re dropping $7,500 easy. Day camps average $304 per week, according to the American Camp Association, but can hit as high as $1000—and that’s not including the sitter you’ll need to pick up and mind your kid until you return from work. Sleep-away offerings can set you back even more.

Year-long schooling suddenly seems more reasonable.

In empathy for my more veteran compatriots in parenting, I asked Bugbee to offer some suggestions to help navigating this challenge.

Think of Camp as Dessert

While summer camp is still a few years away for Luke, I did some preliminary research to get a sense of the market. A cooking camp in Manhattan ran $430 for the week, a Brooklyn music camp would set me back $630 a week, while a nature camp on the New York/ New Jersey border cost about $1,000 a week. All three would let him out at 4pm or earlier—the relatively affordable cooking option ended at noon—which meant that we’d have to arrange for after-camp child care, too.

There are a few strategies you can enlist to make camp a bit cheaper, says Bugbee.

If you have the flexibility to leave work early one day a week to participate, you’ll save a lot by not hiring someone to collect your child. But also get to know the parents of your kid’s camp-mates. “If you can’t do a 3 p.m. pickup everyday, you’ll need to find carpool arrangements,” she says.

Another option recommended by Bugbee is to scour silent auctions offered by your kid’s school and other schools in the neighborhood for camp discounts. Bugbee herself has bid on a couple weeks of camp.

Hire the Best Babysitter for Your Buck

If camp is out of your budget, or only doable for a week or two, you’ll need to look for a full-time summer nanny. And the time to start your search is nigh.

“This is the time of year when we start to see huge increases in summer care positions,” says Bugbee, who estimates that there are 30 times more openings in April than March.

Which means that it’s a sitter’s market. Based on the national average hourly wage, expect to shell out $110 a day, or $550 a week.

Just because sitters or nannies are in demand, though, doesn’t mean you have to accept bottom of the barrel. Look to friends and other families in your communities for referrals, but don’t stop there. “Run a background check, go through a lengthy interview process and check references rather than just relying on referrals,” says Bugbee. Only 36% of families run a background check, per Care.com.

Especially if you can’t afford camp too, you’ll want to look for a nanny that will be active with your kids. You could get at this by asking a prospective candidate for five activities to make a day more fun, or what he or she would do with your children on a rainy day. “Empower this person to come up with a plan,” says Bugbee.

Also, don’t hesitate to add on additional responsibilities—like light children’s laundry and cooking a few healthful meals a week—that will help ease your burden and stretch your dollar.

Create Your Own Camp-Lite

You can also hook up your nanny with other caregivers in the neighborhood to create a kind of nanny-camp collective.

Bugbee, for instance, lived in a community with lots of nannies. So she created a Google Drive spreadsheet, and each nanny signed up for a day to host the other kids.

On Monday, the neighborhood kids could gather at one house for a sprinkler party, while Tuesdays would entail a trip to the zoo. “Whoever wanted to show up, this is what they were doing,” says Bugbee. “It was special. The kids felt like they always had friends around, there was always something going on, and no one was sitting in the living room watching television.”

Plus it didn’t involve any extra money.

Of course, your caregiver needs to be on board with such a proactive schedule. Look to college RAs home for the summer, applicants with camp counselor experience and teachers looking for supplemental income.

Get Help from Uncle Sam

You can make up for some of your costs with a few simple tax steps. If your kids are under 13, sign up for a dependent-care flexible spending account at work. You can use pretax dollars to pay up to $5,000 of child-care bills—equivalent to a little more than eight weeks of sitting in our example. You’ll save around $1,400 in the 28% bracket.

If your employer doesn’t offer an FSA, you claim the child-care tax credit for up to $3,000 in expenses for one kid, $6,000 for two. A married couple filing jointly with adjusted gross income over $43,000 can write-off 20% up to these amounts.

I’m sure that when the time comes in a few years that Mrs. Tepper and I will need to figure out what to do with Luke for the summer, we’ll attack the issue with the same vigilance we do with every other facet of his life. With Bugbee’s advice in mind, we’ll look early for a camp or two, extensively interview prospective part-time nannies and help coordinate playtime with other kids on the blocks.

Just another parenting stress to look forward to.

MONEY stocks

3 Ways to Profit by Going Against the Crowd

fish jumping from crowded fishbowl to empty one
Yasu+Junko—Prop Styling by Shane Klein

Though it's scary, your best move in today's choppy market is to do what others fear.

Take a deep breath. After a whirlwind start to the year, you can be forgiven for feeling nervous about the state of the financial markets.

Yes, the Dow and the S&P 500 are back up after sharp declines earlier this year. But stocks are still on pace for their most volatile year since 2011. Sure, plunging prices at the pump are good for consumers, but they’ve taken a hammer to energy stocks. And interest rates around the world keep sinking. While falling yields boost the value of older bonds in your fixed-income funds, they sure make it hard to generate any income.

Rather than following the crowd that’s selling on today’s fears, take advantage of falling prices and do a little bargain hunting. Here are three places where that’s possible.

THE ROCKY STOCK MARKET

The worry: In 2013 and 2014, the S&P 500 experienced daily swings of 1% or more about once every six trading days. So far this year, it’s been one in three.

What the crowd is doing: Racing into low-volatility funds that focus on boring Steady Eddie companies like Procter & Gamble. As a result, the price/earnings ratio for stocks in the PowerShares S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF is 12% higher than the broad market. Yet “low vol” shares have historically traded at a 25% discount.

The smarter move: Look to an industry that’s not particularly thought of as a safe harbor in a storm: technology. Mature tech anyway. “On a relative basis, older, established tech firms look really attractive,” says BlackRock global investment strategist Heidi Richardson. Many tech giants, such as Apple APPLE INC. AAPL -1.09% , trade at P/E ratios of around 15 or less.

They also have a ton of cash, which lets them invest in research and development while still paying dividends. Moreover, the recent volatility in stocks has stemmed from fears that the Federal Reserve may start hiking rates this year. Well, tech has historically outpaced the S&P 500 in the six months following rate hikes. Lean into this group through iShares U.S. Technology ISHARES TRUST REG. SHS OF DJ US TECH.SEC.IDX IYW -1.61% . Apple, Microsoft, and Intel make up more than a third of this ETF’s holdings.

THE ENERGY CRISIS

The worry: Oil prices may not be done falling. UBS, in fact, believes that the price of a barrel of crude may not return to recent highs for another 60 months.

What the crowd is doing: Ditching blue-chip energy stocks, including giants such as Conoco-Phillips and Halliburton, which have sunk 20% to 40% lately.

The smarter move: Play the odds. The Leuthold Group found that a simple strategy of buying the market’s cheapest sector—now energy, based on median P/E ratios—and holding on for a year has trounced the broad market. “Value surfaces without even needing a catalyst,” says Doug Ramsey, Leuthold’s chief investment officer.

You can gain broad exposure through Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF ENERGY SELECT SECTOR SPDR ETF XLE -0.73% , which beat 99% of its peers over the past decade and charges fees of just 0.15% a year.

THE THREAT OF DEFLATION

The worry: Rates around the world will keep sinking, as conventional wisdom says deflation is a bigger threat than inflation.

What the crowd is doing: Pulling billions from products such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities that are meant to guard against rising prices—investments now yielding even less than regular bonds.

The smarter move: Embrace that lower-yielding debt, at least with a small part of your portfolio. Joe Davis, head of Vanguard’s investment strategy group, says inflation may not spike soon. But the time to buy inflation insurance is when no one is scared, and it’s cheap. Consumer prices would only have to rise more than 1.8% annually over the next decade for 10-year TIPS to outperform.

Conservative investors should look to short-term TIPS, which are less sensitive to rate hikes, says Davis. Vanguard Target Retirement 2015, for instance, allocates about 8% of its portfolio to the Vanguard Short-Term Inflation-Protected Fund VANGUARD SH-TRM INF-PRTC SEC IDX IV VTIPX 0.08% .

This won’t seem fruitful—until, that is, inflation finally rears up.

MONEY inflation

What Today’s Inflation Report Means for Fed Rate Hikes

150324_INV_LowInflation
Getty Images—(c) Brand New Images

While slightly improved, inflation remains below the Fed's target. What does that mean for interest rates?

U.S. consumer prices rebounded slightly from last month’s precipitous drop-off, while prices were flat over the past 12 months.

The Consumer Price Index increased 0.2% last month as oil stopped its dramatic fall, and was unchanged compared to this time last year, according the the Labor Department. So-called core inflation, which strips out volatile energy and food prices, rose by 1.7%, still well below the Federal Reserve’s 2% target.

Prices had fallen the three previous months.

While firmer than previous months, these low inflation rates come at a critical time for the Federal Reserve.

Investors have received mixed messages from central bank officials and economic data recently. For months, the Fed had reassured Wall Street that it would be patient when it comes to removing its accommodative monetary policy. Last week, though, the Fed dropped the word “patient” from its statement, implying that interest rates could rise soon—perhaps as early as June.

Yet in the same breath, the Fed lowered its growth and inflation expectations in the near term and signaled that even if rates are lifted soon, they won’t climb as rapidly as previously thought. That caused the stock market to soar.

“Just because we removed the word ‘patient’ from the statement doesn’t mean we are going to be impatient,” Yellen said in a press conference after the statement was released. “Moreover, even after the initial increase in the target funds rate, our policy is likely to remain highly accommodative to support continued progress toward our objectives of maximum employment and 2% inflation.”

Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer said yesterday that rates would likely rise this year. The federal funds rate, Fischer said, will be determined by economic conditions, rather than by a predictable path.

Competing economic indicators and measurements are complicating the Fed’s dual-mandate of price stability and maximum employment. Employers hired nearly 300,000 workers last month, and the unemployment rate dipped to a post-recession low of 5.5%.

Yet wages aren’t growing strongly and the strong dollar, while a boon for U.S. tourists traveling abroad, has made U.S. exporters less competitive globally. Low oil prices save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for drivers annually, but have weighed heavily on the bottom line of energy companies.

The Fed seems to be inclined to raise rates given the improving labor market, but has been hamstrung by a lack of meaningful inflation and consistent wage acceleration. By increasing the cost of borrowing, the Fed runs the risk of slowing down economic activity in the midst of a burgeoning recovery. Will interest rates really rise before economists can see the whites of inflation’s eyes?

MONEY inflation

Why You Should Hate Low Inflation

two balloons tied to one another
Robert Warren—Getty Images

The Federal Reserve hates near-deflation inflation too. Which is why the Fed hinted that the pace of interest rate hikes will be more gradual than expected.

You may think that you like abnormally low, bottom-of-the-barrel, near-non-existent inflation, but you don’t. Or at least you shouldn’t.

The first thing you have to understand is that inflation—or the general rise in the price of basic goods and services—has been historically low since the financial crisis. Some folks may have a tough time believing that, since the cost of some goods like meat and education, seem to only increase.

Nevertheless, over the last 24 months overall consumer prices have rested at or well below the Federal Reserve’s 2% target. Last month inflation dropped on a year-over-year basis thanks to very cheap oil. If you strip out volatile food and energy prices, inflation only rose at a rate of 1.6%.

So inflation is low. But why is that bad, exactly? Isn’t it a good thing for consumers that prices in general are growing only slightly? Who wants to pay more for things?

In a word: wages. There has been no sustained accelerated income growth for American workers since the Great Recession.

Despite an unprecedented fiscal stimulus effort, despite years of near-zero interest rates, despite three massive rounds of unconventional bond buying to lower long-term interest rates that many economists and politicians wrongly predicted would cause soaring prices, despite a year in which the economy has been adding 200,000 or more jobs a month, there just hasn’t been any meaningful wage growth.

A good metric that illustrates this point is the “employment cost index,” which measures fringe benefits and bonuses in addition to wages. In the last three months of 2014, total compensation grew at rate of 2.3%, or about a full percentage point lower than before the recession. If you look at median hourly wages, you see a similar picture. Workers just haven’t seen meaningful raises in a long time.

fredgraph (2)

This has a harmful effect on the economy. My spending is your income, so if I don’t see more money in my paycheck, chances are neither will you.

The Federal Reserve is clearly concerned about this problem.

The central bank’s most recent economic projections lowered the outlook for core inflation and economic growth in 2015, while simultaneously predicting that the unemployment rate will decline as well.

Which means that the labor market has some more to tighten.

And these worrisome economic indicators are allowing the Fed to be extra cautious about raising rates. “The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement.

If we are in a prolonged period of low-growth, as economists like Paul Krugman and Larry Summers have written, then the Fed should wait until the threat of inflation becomes real before pulling away the punchbowl.

Of course there is a real fear that if you let inflation run, it could quickly get out of hands. Inflation soared by more than 14% in the spring of 1980, while unemployment ran high and the economy ping-ponged between recessions. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker dramatically hiked interest rates to tame inflation, which pushed the U.S. into another painful recession just as Janet Yellen was beginning her career as an economist.

The Fed has certainly not rushed to raise interest rates this time, even when the economy blew past certain benchmarks. But there has been a tone that the time is nigh for an interest rate increase despite the lack of inflation. Rates have been very low for a very long time.

Whether it’s this summer or fall or next year, interest rates will eventually rise. (Although as MONEY’s Pat Regnier points out, they won’t rise as much as fast as the Fed originally thought.)

When they do, you should hope that inflation has moved much closer to, or even slightly beyond, the 2% target. The quality of your paycheck may depend on it.

MONEY mutual funds

The Easy Way Even Newbies Beat 86% of Professional Money Managers This Year

150313_INV_SmartMoney_1
Hiroshi Watanab/Getty Images

And there's an easy way to be on the winning side.

Mutual funds generally fall into one of two camps: On the one hand, there are actively managed portfolios that are run by stock pickers who attempt to beat the broad market through skill and strategy. Then there are passive funds, which are low-cost portfolios that simply mimic a market benchmark like the S&P 500 by owning all the stocks in that index.

The question for individual investor is, which one to go with.

On Thursday, yet more evidence surfaced demonstrating just how hard it is for actively-managed funds to win.

S&P Dow Jones Indices releases a report every six months which keeps track of how well actively-managed funds in various categories perform against their particular benchmark. The “U.S. S&P Indices Versus Active Funds (SPIVA) Scorecard” came out yesterday and told a familiar tale: active fund managers struggled mightily.

Last year only 14% of managers running funds that invest in large U.S. companies beat their benchmark. That means 86% of professionals who get paid to beat the market lost out to novices who simply put their money in a fund that owned all the stocks in the market.

It’s further proof that the genius you invest your money with isn’t that smart — or isn’t smart enough.

It’s not that professional stock pickers don’t have skills. The problem is, actively managed funds come with higher fees than index funds, often charging 1% or more of assets annually. And those fees come straight out of your total returns.

What this means is that even if your fund manager is talented enough to beat the market, he or she would have to consistently beat the market by at least one to two percentage points — depending on how much the fund charges.

A similar rate of futility appeared even if you extend the investing horizon to five or ten years. If you look at all U.S. stock funds, 77% of them lost out to their index.

International funds fared no differently. Only 21% of global active managers enjoyed above-index returns over ten years. Active managers also fell short in most fixed-income categories, for instance 92% underperformed in high-yield bonds.

One area where active managers have outperformed over the past one, three, five, and 10 years is in investment-grade intermediate-term bonds.

MONEY has warned investors against indexing the entire U.S. bond market because so much of such fixed-income indexes are made up of government-related debt, which happens to be very expensive right now.

So where should you put your money?

Look to MONEY’s recommended list of 50 mutual and exchange-traded funds. With a few of our “building block” funds you can cover achieve broad diversification in domestic and foreign stocks and bonds.

To be fair, our list also includes several actively managed funds, which can help you customize your portfolio by tilting toward certain factors that tend to outperform over time, such as value stocks.

Still, the bulk of your portfolio belongs in low-cost index funds.

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