TIME Budget

Lower Health Care Costs Brighten America’s Debt Outlook

Senate Deal on U.S. Debt Limit Emerging as Time Runs Short
A police officer rides a motorcycle past the United States Capitol building at sunrise in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. Pete Marovich—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Fiscal doom will be delayed thanks to lower health care inflation in recent years. But will Congress take notice?

For years, America’s health care costs grew at an unsustainable rate. That was the main reason America’s long-term fiscal position looked unsustainable as well; Medicare, Medicaid, and other health programs were spiraling out of control. But our health care cost inflation is no longer unsustainable. That’s huge news, because it means our long-term deficits should be manageable, too.

Louise Sheiner and Brendan Mochoruck of the Brookings Institution compared the Congressional Budget Office’s latest fiscal outlook with its projections from five years ago, and the shift is striking. In 2009, the CBO expected Medicare spending to skyrocket from 3% to 6% of GDP by 2030; it now expects much more modest growth to less than 4% of GDP. Overall, former CBO director Peter Orszag, President Obama’s first budget director, calculated the projected savings in federal health spending since the 2009 report at $7.9 trillion.

Those numbers, like all long-term budget estimates, could change radically. And while Obamacare’s cost controls contributed to the cost slowdown, it’s not clear how much they contributed. Policy wonks and political hacks will have plenty of time to argue about why the cost curve is bending. But the trend itself, as Orszag argues, is the most important trend in fiscal policy in decades. It’s the difference between a deficit crisis and a phantom deficit crisis. In 2009, graphs of projected federal health spending looked like ski slopes; graphs of all other spending looked like sidewalks. The long-term deficit problem was basically a medical problem.

Now it’s not such a problem. The question is whether Washington will notice.

Republicans have spent the last five-and-a-half years griping about the budget deficit, and most of their gripes have been absurd. They were wrong to accuse President Obama of creating a record trillion-dollar deficit, which he actually inherited from President Bush. They were wrong to criticize Obama for increasing the deficit with his 2009 stimulus bill, which was an amazingly effective Keynesian response to an economic crisis; the budget-balancing austerity approach the GOP was advocating led to much slower recoveries and double-dip recessions in Europe. And they were wrong to accuse Obama of turning the U.S. into Greece; the deficit has shrunk by more than half during his presidency, dropping from 10 percent of GDP to less than 4 percent as the recovery has progressed.

We still have a big national debt, and the CBO expects it to grow from 74% of GDP today to 106% in 25 years. We’ll spend trillions of dollars servicing that debt, and we should remember how Bush squandered President Clinton’s surpluses with unpaid-for tax cuts and unpaid-for wars every time we cut the check. But we are not Greece. Our finances are looking better in every way.

TIME Congress

Compromise Disrupts the Daily Vitriol in Washington, D.C.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (C) reacts after signing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act with (from left to right) Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Congressman George Miller, Republican Congressman John Kline, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, and Democratic Congressman Ruben Hinojosa in the Speaker's Conference Room in the US Capitol in Washington on July 11, 2014.
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (C) reacts after signing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act with (from left to right) Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Congressman George Miller, Republican Congressman John Kline, Republican Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, and Democratic Congressman Ruben Hinojosa in the Speaker's Conference Room in the US Capitol in Washington on July 11, 2014. Jim Lo Scalzo—EPA

The political war of words hasn't stopped, but Republicans and Democrats are proving they can still get stuff done together

The rhetoric in Washington Tuesday was as poisonous as ever, with President Barack Obama lashing out again at House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner returning the favor. “The American people have to demand that folks in Washington do their job, do something,” Obama said, in an attack. “Giving speeches about a long-term highway bill, it’s frankly just more rhetoric,” Boehner responded in kind.

But under the hood, things did not look quite so dire. With little fanfare, the tiny sounds of compromise on infrastructure funding and immigration policy echoed through the marbled halls of Washington. House Republican leadership decided to break with their conservative flank to support a ten-month highway funding bill that the White House endorsed. Then House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said Democrats would also support the measure, just a week after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized it.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans found themselves echoing the rhetoric of the White House as they push for a legal change that will allow for the quicker deportation of Central American children who cross the border illegally, a move that has infuriated liberals. “This would be done in a humane and responsible way,” said a Republican aide close to the House working group working on immigration, echoing the White House talking points on the proposal.

Despite the hesitant cooperation, both sides tried to use the potential for agreement as a way score political points. “Breaking news,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said, dryly after he was asked about the transportation deal. “Maybe the presidential rhetoric is having an effect.” Republicans, similarly, tried to cast the fleeting agreement as a victory. “The point is there are ways to get things done—they rarely included campaign speeches by the President,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

To be sure, many areas of disagreement remain, and the limited cooperation with 10 legislative days before Labor Day is more a function of clearing the docket of urgent business before the long midterm-election-year recess than a genuine breakthrough. The GOP remains divided over the $3.7 billion budget request from the White House to deal with the border fix, and there is no sign of a larger deal on immigration reform. The historic standoff over deficit spending levels remains unresolved. And in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid has rejected proposal by Republican Whip John Cornyn to change deportation process for Central American minors.

But the week’s work proves that even in a city riven by division and broken trust, work still gets done on occasion, even if neither party shows any interest in ending the daily onslaught of recriminations over the coming months. “Now that President Obama has endorsed the House highway bill, we hope he will urge Senate Democrats to pass some of the nearly 50 House-passed jobs bills still awaiting action,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker of the House John Boehner. “The American people are still asking, where are the jobs? And it’s time for the president to fight the Senate gridlock from his own political party.”

At the White House, Earnest said the temporary bipartisanship wouldn’t change the president’s summer plans to continue on offense. “Republicans have put their political ambitions ahead of the interests of middle-class families so many times, but like I said, I’m willing to give credit where it’s due,” he said of the highway agreement. “But it’s not going to stop this administration from continuing to advocate for the kind of long-term highway reauthorization that’s in the best interests of the American economy.”

Additional reporting by Alex Rogers/Washington

MONEY Food & Drink

Cook Healthy, Tasty Meals on $4 a Day–Help the Poor Too

"Banana Pancakes" from Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown.
Short on cash? You can make this short stack for $0.70 per serving. Leanne Brown

Yes, it is possible. A crowdfunded cookbook could change the way you shop, cook, and eat--and what you think about food stamps

More than 4,000 people have contributed to a Kickstarter campaign created, of all reasons, to print a cookbook. The project’s original goal, $10,000, has been left in the dust, with more than $110,000 raised as of Wednesday, and the campaign doesn’t end until Sunday, July 13. (That total beats the viral potato salad recipe, at least so far.)

Most curious of all, the cookbook in question is one that can be downloaded for free. What gives?

The cookbook, Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day, serves up recipes that can be made, as the title indicates, on a bare-bones budget of just $4 daily. Author Leanne Brown designed the book while a graduate student at NYU as a resource for families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. (The average food stamp benefit per person per day is $4.) Brown posted Good and Cheap online as a free PDF in April, and there were 100,000 downloads in the first two weeks. The total has since topped 200,000 free downloads.

It’s been a huge hit. “I was getting all these notes from people saying how useful it was to them,” says Brown.

But something bothered her: not every family on food stamps has access to a computer and internet service.

So Brown turned her attention to a Kickstarter campaign based on a “buy one, give one” model, reminiscent of TOMS and Warby Parker. For $25, donors receive a hard copy of Good and Cheap, and an additional copy is donated to a low-income person who needs it. Heftier donations yield extra perks.

Donors readily opened their wallets, long ago surpassing the original goal of $10,000. “It seems to have really hit a chord,” says Brown. “I think people are getting away from the purely consumerist model of the world. Buying a cookbook and making it possible for everyone to eat well is more exciting.”

The free print books that thousands of Kickstarter backers are donating will be distributed by organizations that work with low-income families on food stamps. They have yet to be selected, but more than 240 organizations from all over the country have applied to become distributors, including food pantries, farmers’ markets and nutritional education organizations.

Beyond families on food stamps, Good and Cheap has found fans of many different stripes. Brown’s inbox has flooded with thank-yous from students, single parents, families saving to buy a home, and general foodies and chowhounds who appreciate that she’s busting up the myth that eating healthfully entails spending a ton of money.

Many of the meals in Good and Cheap cost less than 75¢ cents per serving to make: the 132-page book features recipes for 65¢ vegetable jambalaya, 60¢ lentil soup, and 70¢ banana pancakes. You don’t need Bobby Flay’s kitchen prowess or an arsenal of fancy cooking utensils to prepare the recipes, either. Most require short lists of ingredients and minimal advance preparation, making the recipes feasible even for absolute rookies in the kitchen.

Brown became interested in the American food stamp program as she worked toward her master’s degree in Food Studies at New York University. She comes from Canada, where food stamps are not used as a form of social assistance.

“Because we don’t have a similar program I came at it with a different perspective,” she says.

When it came time to write her thesis, Brown wanted to create something that would live on outside of academia. A free cookbook, she thought, could serve as a resource to America’s 47 million SNAP recipients while meeting her thesis requirements. Thus her viral cookbook was born.

We in the Money.com test kitchen were curious about the recipes–for both journalistic and purely personal reasons–and took a stab at a couple from Good and Cheap. Our favorite was the sweet potato recipe featured on the book jacket, a dirt cheap, simple meal. The price for a sweet potato, a 16 oz. tub of sour cream, and a bunch of scallions came in at $4.30, just about lining up with the book’s total estimated cost of $4.80 (though we bought one sweet potato, not four as the recipe outlined). We had four leftover servings of sour cream and scallions, leaving the total price per serving at just over a buck, in line with the book’s estimated price tag of $1.20 per serving. The recipe doubles as a great way to use up leftovers: just pile on yesterday’s chicken, beans, tomatoes or whatever else is in the fridge, Brown suggests.

We’re not the only ones sharing our Good and Cheap cooking experiences online. Thrifty cooks around the web are posting photos of pierogi parties and blogging about learning to cook using the book.

“It feels like this has become this ‘Good and Cheap’ movement,” Brown says. “Making things from scratch sounds intimidating, but really it’s just mixing ingredients up. Cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be difficult.”

It obviously doesn’t have to be expensive either.

MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Hit a High for 2014—but the News Isn’t All Bad

Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

Right now, prices at the pump are as expensive as they've been all year. With any luck, though, it'll be all downhill from here.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, as of Monday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline reached $3.70. That’s 13¢ higher than a year ago at this time, and it matches the previous high thus far in 2014, set in late April.

The bad news, beyond the obvious—you know, having to pay more to fill up and all—is that prices have been creeping upward just at a time the opposite was supposed to happen. The expectation was that gas prices would actually decrease in June, as they have in each of the past three years. The summer forecast from AAA called for a 10¢ to 15¢ per-gallon drop in prices at the pump this month, and predicted that the national average would remain in the vicinity of $3.55 to $3.70 through the summer. We’ve already hit the high end of the predicted price range long before anticipated—and gas prices have tended to rise toward summer’s end in recent years.

That said, prices at the pump aren’t exactly spiking. Nationally, the per-gallon price is only up a few pennies compared to a week ago, or even a month ago for that matter. Still, because everybody was expecting a significant decline this month, drivers are justified in feeling like they’re paying a lot more than they should to gas up right now. Turmoil in Iraq is being blamed for the persistently high gas prices.

So what’s the good news here? While drivers in 41 states and Washington, D.C., are currently paying more for gas than they did at this time last year, a handful of states are starting to see price breaks. According to the gas-pricing monitoring site GasBuddy, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan drivers have all seen a per-gallon price decrease of 9¢ to 12¢ over the past week. And areas that have experienced a gas price hike lately can expect prices to flatten out going forward. “Many areas that saw gains over a nickel should see a calmer, cooler week at the pump,” a GasBuddy post on Monday explained. “So far this morning, oil prices are down 55 cents a barrel while gasoline spot prices are generally negative, a good sign for motorists.”

What’s more, the analysts generally say that it’s extremely unlikely the national average will reach $4 per gallon, or even close to $3.90 as happened in September 2012.

Then again, the analysts have been wrong before. Like when they were making predictions just a few weeks ago, for instance.

MONEY Shopping

5 Ways to Trim Your Meat Budget During Barbecue Season

140527_EM_Grilling_1
Flamed grilled steaks on a barbecue Carlos Davila—Alamy

Smart, simple ways to keep the soaring price of beef from ruining your grilling season.

Just in time for prime barbecuing season, there’s been an across-the-board rise in meat prices. Many reasons have been cited for higher prices at the supermarket—lingering drought conditions tend to be blamed the most—but farm groups point to another culprit: you.

Strong consumer demand, especially for high-quality meats, is the primary reason, according to Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Consumers are feeling better about themselves and their income situation and willing to pay up for good meat,” Young told The Atlantic recently. “I think that given the stronger demand, folks are going to find not quite the cut they want for the price they want. They might have to downmarket a bit.”

Here are five smart ways to cope without giving up your barbecue fix.

Buy in bulk. Maybe from the back of a truck. No matter if you’re at Costco, Walmart, or your local grocer, you’ll almost always pay a lower per-pound price for steaks, ground beef, and more by purchasing meats in larger packages—over 3 pounds, typically. Foodies and frugality gurus alike often recommend the strategy of buying a side of beef or an entire pig straight from a trusted farmer, though this isn’t always practical for folks who don’t have the freezer space or the desire to sharpen up their butcher’s skills.

One of the more odd and intriguing means of buying in bulk comes from a Washington-based company called Zaycon Foods, whose curious sales procedure—and terrific prices, under $2 a pound for chicken breasts—started attracting national attention more than a year ago. You won’t find the Zaycon brand at any store; instead, the company uses a no-middleman approach to business, in which customers place orders online and pick them up at a prearranged time from the back of a truck that’s waiting in, say, a church parking lot. The meat is never frozen; it’s taken from the farm and loaded onto the refrigerated trucks that wind up at pickup locations. “The products are as fresh as if you had your own farm, but without all the chores,” the Zaycon site explains. This is truly a buy-in-bulk operation, with huge packages you won’t see at the supermarket, or even Costco. An individual order of ground beef or chicken breasts is 40 pounds worth of meat.

The Seattle Times described the typical pickup scene: “The driver arrives at the designated parking lot, spreads out yellow parking cones to create a path for the customers’ cars, and hands off the boxes while checking names on an iPad.” Yet despite the quirkiness (or maybe partly because of it), Zaycon’s business has been thriving. At last check, Zaycon had roughly 1,300 drop-off locations in 48 states. Some 325,000 customers have signed up with the company around the country, up from just 84,000 registered users at the end of 2011.

Freeze now, eat later. It goes without saying that if you’re going to make use of Zaycon, or Costco’s meat section for that matter, owning a large freezer is in a must. Of course, smart grocery shoppers also stock up on meats for grilling when their favorite supermarket has a good sale, or there’s a great coupon circulating, rather than right before the July 4 weekend, when you’ll have to pay top dollar. Yet again, a good—and good-sized—freezer is in order, as is some basic knowledge about defrosting meat safely, without losing flavor.

Master of the art of leftovers. Today’s grilled steak is tomorrow’s shabu-shabu. Sure, you could simply heat up the leftovers and eat, but where’s the fun in that? If done correctly, leftovers won’t taste like leftovers, and they can be stretched out and incorporated into several days’ worth of eating. To spice things up, consult SuperCook and enter the foods and ingredients you have handy to see what new dish you can make. For leftover grilled meats, Real Simple recommends sprinkling barbecue sauce, a marinade, or just water over what you have, then wrapping it in foil and warming over indirect heat for a few minutes. Plain old reheating can dry out the meat.

Don’t be snobby about cheap cuts. Ground beef that’s 90% lean will be more expensive than ground chuck that’s 70% or 80% lean. And guess what? The fattier stuff offers far superior taste in a burger. Whereas burgers made with lean ground beef tend to be dense and dry, a 70% lean burger will be juicy and tasty. As a bonus, a lot of the fat drips off in the grilling process. As for grilling steaks, consider less expensive cuts like the skirt and hanger steak over the pricier strip or ribeye. When seasoned and cooked wisely, the cheap cuts won’t taste cheap.

Embrace meatless Monday. It’s an easy way to save a little cash and get a little healthier: At least once a week—it doesn’t have to be a Monday—go meatless. You can still fire up the grill. The Meatless Monday movement offers plenty of suggestions for meals planned around grilled vegetables. Quinoa and white bean burgers anyone?

TIME Opinion

Here’s What’s Behind Washington’s Strange Mars Report

The Red Planet: Don't pack yet
The Red Planet: Don't pack yet NASA& Getty Images

Washington breaks the headline-making news that the U.S. is not ready for a crewed Mars mission. Why this is all about one Senator's career

Correction appended June 5, 2014

Here’s something that will surely come as a surprise: America is not yet able to go to Mars. I know, I know, I’m disappointed too. I was sure we had the rocket on the pad, the crew selected and the quonset huts waiting on the Martian surface, ready to welcome the new American settlers.

What’s that? You didn’t think we had all that nailed down? You may then wonder why the National Research Council (NRC) just released a 286 page report making that point. The headline-making thrust of the study is this:

Pronouncements by multiple presidents of bold new ventures by Americans to the Moon, to Mars, and to an asteroid in its native orbit, have not been matched by the same commitment that accompanied President Kennedy’s now fabled 1961 speech—namely, the substantial increase in NASA funding needed to make it happen.

Stipulated. Space travel ain’t about coach seats. It costs lots of money—but that’s something most people knew without being reminded. Still, you can read the rest of the blue-ribbon NRC report here—or at least a PDF of it. A bound, paper copy, which wouldn’t keep you shackled to your computer for 286 pages, will cost you $47. This might also leave you wondering why U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) raced to issue a triumphal statement the moment the report was released, announcing in its opening line that the study was the handiwork of, well “U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.” Perhaps U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson would like to front you the 47 bucks then.

Here’s what’s behind this particular bit of space kabuki. The NRC study was mandated by a piece of 2010 pro-NASA legislation that Nelson co-sponsored with former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Why the common cause between the Democrat and Republican in the first years of the hyper-partisan Obama era? Geography. He’s from Florida, she’s from Texas, the twin lode stones of the American space community. The 2010 bill provided multi-year funding for NASA at a level sufficient to keep at least a slow-walked manned program going. Under the plan, NASA would aim for deep space destinations, while private industry handled the low-Earth orbit work. The report that was just released appears to have been tucked into the act as a sort of time-released capsule that would open in a few years and remind people that if we really want to achieve all of this cool stuff the funding spigot would have to remain open. And which two states would get a lot of that money again?

In fairness, the report’s conclusion is well-taken. As recently as yesterday, I spoke to Greg Williams, a policy chief in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations division, and asked him why it’s taken so many years for NASA’s new heavy-lift manned booster to be built and why it will take so many more before it actually carries people. The Saturn V moon rocket, by contrast, took its first, unmanned flight in November 1967, and 13 months later had the Apollo 8 astronauts orbiting the moon.

“Look at the funding curve back then,” Williams said. “It was always going up. We’ve been doing this work on what amounts to a flat budget.”

But lack of cash, plus lack of commitment is what’s always been the difference between the do-it-now ethos of the old Space Race and the do-it-eventually-(maybe) ethos of all the space endeavors that have come since. For Nelson, who, as a member of the House in 1986 leveraged himself a ride aboard the space shuttle Columbia—one mission before the Challenger crew died in an explosion during launch—this is little more than a big kiss for home state voters anxious to keep the space coast going.

A strong case can indeed be made for why we should go to Mars, both in terms of pure research and human inspiration—which counts for something. And a self-evident case can be made that if we want to do it within the lifetimes of any person on the planet today, we need to pay for it. Space isn’t cheap—never has been. But you don’t need a Senator tending his home fires to demand a book-length report telling you that’s so. “This affirms that the mission to Mars is a go,” Nelson said in his statement.

No, it doesn’t. But his 2018 re-election campaign may already be underway.

An earlier version of this story failed to mention that the PDF of the report is free.

TIME Saving and Spending

Your Gym Membership Is a Waste of Money

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Hero Images—Getty Images

It’s bathing suit season again, and that means gyms are shedding dollars from their membership prices faster than we’re ditching long pants and sleeves. According to Charles Tran, founder of credit card comparison and personal finance site CreditDonkey.com, June is a good month for gym discounts, especially on daily deal sites. “I’ve been seeing discounts of about 35% to 60%,” he says. “In June, you have more negotiating power when everybody else wants to enjoy the outdoors.”

Since most gyms offer memberships to couples at a discounted rate, it might seem like joining with your partner would be the best way to score a good deal.

Weirdly, it isn’t, and you’re probably throwing money away as a result.

A new study finds that when couples sign on to do something together — start a savings account, diet, get fit and so on — their level of commitment defaults to the least-motivated member of the pair. A lot of people probably think the more conscientious partner would set a good example for and inspire their boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse, but it turns out they’re not the one wielding the primary influence in these situations.

“Self-control is essentially a social enterprise,” writes Hristina Dzhogleva, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College and lead author of the new paper. In a series of experiments with both real couples and lab simulations, the researchers found that the people with higher self-control tend to cave and give into the more indulgent preferences of their partners in order to keep peace in the relationships.

Given that opposites attract, Dzhogleva points out, it’s likely that there are a lot of couples out there with this dynamic of mismatched motivation levels. People with more self-control have that higher level of discipline because they focus on the long-term rather than immediate gratification.

Ironically, this tendency makes them more likely to give in under pressure from their partner. For one thing, they’re thinking about preserving the relationship long-term; they also have the self-control to squelch what would make them happier in order to please their partner.

But the upshot of these good intentions is that otherwise-motivated people wind up blowing off the gym yet again for takeout and a Netflix marathon, Dzhogleva concludes. Unless both people in a couple are both motivated to hit the weights or the treadmill, neither is going to be using that couple’s membership that seemed like such a good deal at the time.

“Higher self-control individuals should be wary of partnering with low self- control individuals,” the paper says. “[It] may negate their innate advantages in pursuing long-term goals.”

Dzhogleva’s findings also hold true for personal finance activities like making a budget or splurging on a vacation, so if your sweetheart is a spendthrift, it could pay to take a close look at how your financial decisions are impacted by that relationship.

 

TIME Budget

Postal Service Loses Almost $2 Billion

U.S. Postal Service Truck
U.S. Postal Service trucks are seen parked near the loading dock at the U.S. Post Office sort center in San Francisco on Aug. 12, 2011. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The government-backed mail carrier is still losing truckloads of money, despite cost-cutting efforts and recent delivery deals with Amazon. The Postal Service faces significant challenges as first-class mail and other sources of revenue decline

The United States Postal Service netted a loss of $1.9 billion in the second quarter of its 2014 fiscal year, it said Friday.

Despite cost-cutting and recent delivery deals with Amazon, the Postal Service faces significant challenges as first-class mail and other sources of revenue decline. The agency owes close to a $100 billion in benefit payments to its workers, the New York Times reports. But the Postal Service says it has other major problems it needs to correct for it to stay afloat in the future. In March, Jeffrey C. Williamson, the Postal Service’s chief human resources officer, testified before a congressional committee and said it could not return to profitability without comprehensive reform legislation. Bills are pending in the House and Senate.

“Some comments in recent news reports suggest that all we need from Congress is help with restructuring our retiree health benefit plan,” Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President Joseph Corbett said Friday, Reuters reports. “Nothing can be further from the truth. Our liabilities exceed our assets by $42 billion and we have a need for more than $10 billion to invest in new delivery vehicles, package sortation equipment, and other deferred investments.

“We haven’t been making the retiree health benefit prefunding payments because we can’t,” Corbett added. “If legislation reduced the required retiree health benefit prefunding payment, it doesn’t provide us with any more cash to pay down our debt or put much needed capital into our business. Only comprehensive postal legislation that includes a smarter delivery schedule, greater control over our personnel and benefit costs, and more flexibility in pricing and products will provide the necessary cash flows.”

On Thursday, Amazon announced it had signed a deal with the Postal Service to add 15 additional cities for Sunday delivery, including Austin, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Dallas. Amazon launched Sunday delivery for Los Angeles and New York in November 2013.

MONEY Economy

What’s Your Money State of Mind?

Money magazine's exclusive poll reveals both improved confidence and lingering anxiety about our financial well-being.

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.

Related: How we feel about our finances

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.

Related: 5 ways to reduce your financial anxiety

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.

Part 2 of Money magazine’s survey: The long term still looks uncertain

TIME Internet

So Far, Online Gambling Revenues Have Been Pathetic

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Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

State budget makers and gaming interests have drastically, laughably overestimated the amount of money that would be generated with the advent of legalized online gambling, especially in New Jersey.

In March 2013, New Jersey officials forecast that online gambling would yield somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 million in tax revenues for the state during the first fiscal year Internet gaming was legal. But the estimates have been falling ever since—to $160 million when Christ Christie signed the state budget last summer, and down to just $34 million earlier this year, after a few months of legalized online gambling had passed. More recently, the state treasurer said that no more estimates on online gambling revenues would be made public, which seems wise considering how previous predictions have fared.

From the end of November, when legalized online gambling in New Jersey, through February 2014, a mere $4.2 million in tax revenues has been collected by the state, leading one legislative budget officer to now project an estimate of $12 million in revenues for the year, the Associated Press reported. The revised estimate for next year’s revenues was listed at $48 million. At that pace, it would take four or five years for the state to take in revenues equal to the amount it was supposed to collect in tax revenues during the first year of legal online gambling.

It’s not just state officials who seem mystified by the lackluster returns. Caesars Entertainment recently informed the New Jersey Star-Ledger that its online gaming operation was experiencing decent success in a few parts of the state—Jersey City, Toms River, Cherry Hill—but that it couldn’t explain why interest was strong in some areas and almost nonexistent in others.

New Jersey isn’t the only state that seems to have drastically overestimated online gambling’s potential as a budgetary savior. When Delaware’s gambling sites launched, there were often only a couple dozen players online at any moment, and almost immediately it became apparent that revenues wouldn’t come anywhere near to the first-year estimates. Toward the end of March, Morgan Stanley issued a note regarding longer term prospects for online gambling in the U.S. “We are lowering our estimates to better reflect the insights we have gained following the first few months of operations in New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware,” the note stated, lowering the anticipated gross online gambling spending for 2017 from $5 billion to $3.5 billion, and for 2020 from $9.3 billion to $8 billion.

Toward the end of 2011, mind you, Morgan Stanley was estimating an online gambling market of $14 billion annually, though that was based on broader legalization.

Casino companies give plenty of reasons why online gambling hasn’t taken off in New Jersey and other states, including the continued existence of unregulated (illegal) gambling site competitors, the fact that some banks aren’t allowing their credit cards to be used for placing bets online, and basic lack of awareness among consumers. Surely, some if not all of the factors holding online gambling back can be addressed in time.

That’s assuming legalized online gambling will be around for a while. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., who obviously has no problem with people gambling in person because he runs casinos, has been waging a war against online gambling for months, at one point penning an op-ed calling Internet gaming “a societal train wreck waiting to happen.” With the backing of Adelson, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently sponsored a bill that would effectively outlaw online gambling throughout the country.

A group supported by Adelson, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling, has released a series of online ads warning about the risks posed to children and their families in a world where gambling is available on screens 24/7, and it’s not always possible to tell who is using an online account. As the National Journal pointed out, one of the ads shows how a kid with a smartphone can be playing Angry Birds one minute, then be addicted to blackjack the next:

“I was playing Angry Birds and then, you know, I just found it,” the teen narrates, as images of online blackjack and poker tables flash on screen. “It’s a lot cooler knowing that I’m playing a real game, not just, like, Candy Crush or Fruit Ninja.”

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