MONEY College

The Important Talk Parents Are Not Having With Their Kids

College tuition jar
Alamy

The new Fidelity College Savings Indicator survey reveals that parents are only on track to pay a third of college tuition—and that they're keeping mum on the topic.

Moms and dads expect their children to pay for more than one-third of college costs—but only 57% of parents actually have that conversation with their kids, according to a new study out by Fidelity today.

The cost of college has more than doubled in the past decade, and parents are having a hard time saving for it, Fidelity’s 8th annual College Savings Indicator study shows. While 64% of parents say they’d like be able to cover their kids total college costs, only 28% are on track to do so.

That jibes with reality: For current students, parents’ income and savings now only cover one-third of college costs on average, according to Sallie Mae’s recently released report How America Pays For College. Kids use 12% of their own savings and income. Loans taken by students and parents account for 22% of the funds, while another 30% comes from grants and scholarships.

Experts urge parents to have a frank conversation well in advance with their children about how much college costs and how much they are expected to contribute, either through summer jobs, their own savings or part-time jobs while in school. “If children know that they are expected to contribute to their college funds, they are more likely to save for it,” says Judith Ward, a senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price.

A T. Rowe Price study released earlier this week found that 58% of kids whose parents frequently talk to them about saving for college put away money for that goal vs. just 23% who don’t talk to their parents about how to pay for school.

There’s also reason to believe that parents shouldn’t feel so bad about not being able to take on the full tab. A national study out last year found that the more money parents pay for their kids’ college educations, the worse their kids tend to perform. In her paper “More Is More or More is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College,” University of California sociology professor Laura Hamilton found that larger contributions from parents are linked to lower grades among students.

Apparently, kids who don’t work or otherwise use their own money to pay for school spend more time on leisure activities and are less focused on studying. It’s not that these kids flunk out, according to Hamilton. She found that students with parental funding often perform well enough to stay in school, but they just dial down their academic efforts.

Given all these findings, parents should feel less pressure pay the full ride for their kids—especially if it means falling behind on other important goals like saving for their own retirement. “Putting your kids on the hook for college costs is better for everyone,” says Ward.

MONEY 101: How much does college actually cost?

MONEY 101: Where should I save for college?

MONEY College

4 Best Credit Cards for College Students

Mom helping her daughter move in to college dorm
Make sure she's packed one of these cards. Blend Images—Alamy

Send your kid off with one of these options this fall, and you'll sleep better at night.

You’ve no doubt heard harrowing stories of college students applying for their first credit cards, then racking up thousands of dollars in debt. It’s the stuff of parents’ worst nightmares.

The CARD Act of 2009 lessened the potential trouble students could get themselves into. The law mandated that, in order to qualify for a card, applicants must be over 21, get an adult to co-sign or prove they earn enough money to make payments.

But it’s left many parents of underclassmen with a tricky decision. Do you sign on the dotted line for your kid—thus putting your own credit score on the hook if your kid doesn’t pay the bill?

Shielding Junior from having his own credit card may seem sensible, but it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish. Length of credit history accounts for 15% of one’s FICO score. So by protecting your son or daughter from plastic, you are inadvertently hurting his or her creditworthiness. You also miss out on the opportunity to handhold him or her through an important financial lesson.

Of course, striking a proper balance between the value of credit and the dangers of its excess is paramount. Revolving debt hurts a credit score, too, and can be very costly to a kid living on a ramen budget—with APRs averaging 15% and as high as 23%.

Three options for you to consider, depending upon how much risk you think your newly emancipated child can handle:

The Training Wheels: A secured card or a low-rate, low-limit unsecured card.

If you are worried that terms like “credit limit” and “due date” will be lost on your child, you might want to sign him up for a secured card, which uses cash as the credit limit collateral.

The benefit is that Junior won’t be able to spend beyond the cap, so it’s a good way to give him practice using a card of his own without doing a lot of damage to your finances or your credit score. The downsides: You’ll have to front the cash. And unless you set a large credit limit, he may use a high percentage of his available credit, which is bad for his credit score (ideally he should use no more than 20%).

Alternately, if you don’t want to put up your cash as collateral—or your kid has enough income to qualify on his own—you might start him off with an unsecured card that has a low rate and a low credit limit. This also pens him in until he demonstrates reliability.

Once he proves himself able to handle either of these cards, have him shift to one of the advanced cards in the next category.

The picks: MONEY’s Best Credit Cards winners Digital Credit Union Visa Platinum Secured or Northwest Federal Credit Union FirstCard Visa Platinum.

The APR on Digital Credit Union’s Visa starts at a low 11.5%. To apply for this secured card, you do have to be a member of the credit union, but that be accomplished with a $10 donation to Reach Out for Schools.

The FirstCard’s rate is even lower—a fixed 10% APR (most cards today are variable rate). This card, which has no annual fee, is designed for people who don’t have a credit history: It requires applicants to take a 10 question quiz on credit knowledge and has a credit limit of just $1,000.

The 10 Speed: A rewards card

Cards that offer rewards typically have higher APRs than those that don’t. So if you child revolves debt on one of these cards, he’ll likely erase the perks earned.

Thus, rewards cards are best reserved for those students who’ve already proven themselves capable of paying off a secured or low-limit card in full and on time for a year or so. These are also good choices for those students who are over 21.

The picks: Capital One Journey Student Rewards Card and Discover It for Students.

The no-fee Journey gets your kid 1% cash back on everything, but the reward is bumped up by 25% every month he pays his bill on time. “This is a good card for incentivizing students to have the right behavior,” says NerdWallet.com’s Kevin Yuann. There’s no foreign transaction fee (a plus for those studying abroad), but a late payment fee of up to $35 and a steep 19.8% APR should scare away parents who aren’t sure about their child’s bill-paying vigilance.

The It, which also has no annual fee and no foreign transaction costs, gets your kid 2% cash back on the first $1,000 at gas stations and restaurants each quarter, and 1% for everything else. Because of the extra rewards for gas, the It is a good card for commuters, says Yuann. Cardholders also receive a free FICO score, derived from TransUnion data, on monthly statements.

While there is no fee on the first late payment, your child will pay up to $35 after that; and after a six-month no-interest window, the APR ranges from 13% to 22%.

Whichever card you end up co-signing for your child, definitely make sure you ask to get account access—and sign up for balance alerts so that you know when you need to swoop in for a teaching moment.

RELATED:
Best Credit Cards of 2013
Money 101: How Do I Pick a Credit Card?

 

MONEY Banking

Get Paid Before Payday Without Any Fees, New App Promises

ActiveHours app screenshot

A payday loan alternative called Activehours promises employees that they can get paid immediately for the hours they've worked, without having to wait for a paycheck—and with no fees.

Payday lenders are often compared to loansharking operations. Critics say such lenders prey on people so desperately in need of quick cash that they unwittingly sign up for loans that wind up costing them absurdly high interest rates. According to Pew Charitable Trusts research from 2012, the typical payday loan borrower takes out eight short-term loans annually, with an average loan amount of $375 each, and over the course of a year pays $520 in interest.

These short-term loans are marketed as a means to hold one over until payday, but what happens too often is that the borrower is unable to pay back the loan in full when a paycheck arrives. The borrower then rolls over the original payday loan into a new one, complete with new fees, and each subsequent loan is even more difficult to pay off.

You can see how quickly and easily the debt can snowball. And you can see why payday loans are demonized—and mocked, as John Oliver just did hilariously on “Last Week Tonight”:

You can also see why many people would be interested in an alternative that isn’t as much of a rip-off. Payday loan alternatives have popped up occasionally, with better terms than the typical check-cashing operation. Now, Activehours, a startup in Palo Alto that just received $4.1 million in seed funding, is taking quite a different approach: Instead of offering a short-term loan, the app allows hourly employees to get paid right away for the hours they’ve already worked, regardless of the usual paycheck cycle.

What’s more (and this is what really seems like the crazy part), Activehours charges no fees whatsoever. In lieu of fees, Activehours asks users to give a 100% voluntary tip of some sort as thanks for the service.

There may be more than one reason you’re now thinking, “Huh?” On its FAQ page, Activehours explains that the service is available to anyone who gets paid hourly via direct deposit at a bank and keeps track of hours with an online timesheet. Once you’re signed up, you can elect to get paid for some or all of the hours you’ve worked (minus taxes and deductions) as soon as you’ve worked them. In other words, if you want to get paid for the hours you worked on, say, Monday, there’s no need to wait for your paycheck on Friday. As soon as your Monday workday is over, you can log in to Activehours, request payment, and you’ll get paid electronically by the next morning. When official payday rolls around, Activehours withdraws the amount they’re fronted from the user’s account.

As for voluntary tips instead of service or loan fees, Activehours claims the policy is based on something of a philosophical stance: “We don’t think people should be forced to pay for services they don’t love, so we ask you to pay what you think is fair based on your personal experience.” Activehours swears that the no-fee model is no gimmick. “Some people look at the model and think we’re crazy,” Activehours founder Ram Palaniappan told Wired, “but we tested it and found the model is sufficient to building a sustainable business.”

“People aren’t used to the model, so they think it’s too good to be true,” Palaniappan also said. “They’re judging us with a standard that’s completely terrible. What we’re doing is not too good to be true. It’s what we’ve been living with that’s too bad to be allowed.”

Yet Activehours’ curiously warm and neighborly, no-fee business model is actually one of reasons consumer advocates caution against using the service. “At first glance, this looks like a low-cost alternative to other emergency fixes such as payday loans,” Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling said via email in response to our inquiry about Activehours. “However, a person who is so grateful, so relieved to have the $100 runs the risk of becoming a big tipper, not realizing that their way of saying thanks just cost them a very high APR on an annualized basis. A $10 tip on a $100 loan for two weeks is 260% APR – ouch!”

Consumer watchdog groups also don’t endorse Activehours because it’s a bad idea for anyone to grow accustomed to relying on such a service, rather than traditional savings—and an emergency stash of cash to boot. Access your money early with the service, and you’re apt to be out of money when bills come due, Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, warned. “If there isn’t enough paycheck at the end of the week this week, then that may be a sign of longer-term financial imbalance,” he explained.

“Everyone thinks they’ll use the service ‘just this once,’ yet it becomes such an easy fix that they end up addicted to the easy money,” said Cunningham. “A much better answer is to probe to find the underlying financial problem and put a permanent solution in place. I would say that if a person has had to use non-traditional service more than three times in a 12-month period, it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and meet with a financial counselor to resolve the cash-flow issue.”

The other aspect of Activehours that could be a deal breaker for some is the requirement of a bank account and direct deposit: Many of the workers who are most likely to find payday loans appealing are those without bank accounts.

Still, for those who are eligible and find themselves in a jam, Activehours could be a more sensible move once in a blue moon, at least when compared to feeling forced to turn to a high-fee payday loan outfit over and over.

MORE: I am unable to pay my debts. What can I do?

MORE: How can I make it easier to save?

MONEY Credit

WATCH: Credit Score Calculations Just Changed In Your Favor

FICO is decreasing the impact of medical debt on credit scores, which should make it easier for consumers to get loans.

MONEY Credit

Here’s Why Your Credit Score Is About To Improve

Sunlight coming out from behind a cloud
A Schneider Mark—Getty Images

Unpaid medical bills will carry less weight on FICO scores -- and late bills that get paid off won't count at all.

A change in the way credit scores are calculated means consumers may soon have an easier time getting a loan and could begin paying lower interest rates on their credit cards.

Fair Isaac, the company behind the widely used FICO credit scores, announced Thursday that it will no longer reduce a consumer’s score for late bill payments if those bills have been paid off.

It will also reduce the impact of unpaid medical bills on FICO scores. Under the new model, which will become available this fall, consumers with a median credit score would generally see their score rise by 25 points if their only major late payment is an unpaid medical debt.

“The new ruling looks great,” says Credit.com’s Gerri Detweiler. “These are changes consumers and consumer advocates have been hoping for for a long time. The one big warning is that these changes won’t happen over night.”

The changes comes after May report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that consumer credit scores are “overly penalized” for medical debt, which it said often does not accurately reflect their credit worthiness.

“Getting sick or injured can put all sorts of burdens on a family, including unexpected medical costs. Those costs should not be compounded by overly penalizing a consumer’s credit score,” said CFPB director Richard Cordray in a statement at the time. “Given the role that credit scores play in consumers’ lives, it’s important that they predict the creditworthiness of a consumer as precisely as possible.”

It also comes two weeks after the release of a study by the Urban Institute found that more than 35% of Americans have debt that has been reported to collection agencies.

Related:

9 Ways to Outsmart Debt Collectors

Money 101: What is my credit score and how is it calculated?

Everything You Need to Know About Managing Credit and Debt

TIME Argentina

Argentina Slides Into Default as Debt Talks Fail

Argentina Debt
Axel Kicillof, Argentina's Economy Minister, addresses the media after a negotiation session in New York on July 30, 2014 Craig Ruttle—Associated Press

Argentina slipped into its second debt default in 13 years after Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof and U.S. creditors failed to come to an agreement by the deadline on Wednesday at midnight

(NEW YORK) — The collapse of talks with U.S. creditors sent Argentina into its second debt default in 13 years and raised questions about what comes next for financial markets and the South American nation’s staggering economy.

A midnight Wednesday deadline to reach a deal with holdout bondholders came and went with Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof holding firm to his government’s position that it could not accept a deal with U.S. hedge fund creditors it dismisses as “vultures.” Kicillof said the funds refused a compromise offer in talks that ended several hours earlier, although he gave no details of that proposal.

“We’re not going to sign an agreement that jeopardizes the future of all Argentines,” Kicillof said after he emerged from the meeting with creditors and a mediator in New York City. “Argentines can remain calm because tomorrow will just be another day and the world will keep on spinning.”

But court-appointed mediator Daniel Pollack said a default could hurt bondholders who were not part of the dispute as well as the Argentine economy, which is suffering through a recession, a shortage of dollars and one of the world’s highest inflation rates.

“The full consequences of default are not predictable, but they are certainly not positive,” Pollack said.

An earlier U.S. court ruling had blocked Argentina from making $539 million in interest payments due by midnight Wednesday to other bondholders who separately agreed to restructuring plans with the country in 2005 and 2010.

There was no immediate comment from the hedge funds, which refused to participate in the debt restructurings and won a U.S. court judgment that they be paid the full value of their bonds plus interest — now estimated at roughly $1.5 billion.

Kicillof dismissed a decision by ratings agency Standard & Poor’s to downgrade Argentina’s foreign currency credit rating to “selective default” because of the missed interest payments.

“Who believes in the ratings agencies? Who thinks they are impartial referees of the financial system?” he said.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez had long refused to negotiate with the hedge fund creditors, often calling them “vultures” for picking on the carcass of the country’s record $100 billion default in 2001.

The holdouts, led by New York billionaire Paul Singer’s NML Capital Ltd., spent more than a decade litigating for payment in full rather than agreeing to provide Argentina with debt relief. They also sent lawyers around the globe trying to force Argentina to pay its defaulted debts and were able to get a court in Ghana to temporarily seize an Argentine naval training ship. The threat of seizures forced Fernandez to stop using her presidential plane and instead fly on private jets.

Restoring Argentina’s sense of pride and sovereignty after the 2001-2002 economic collapse has been a central goal of Fernandez and her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner.

Argentina has made efforts to return to global credit markets that have shunned it since the default. The government paid its debt to the International Monetary Fund and agreed in May with the Paris Club of creditor nations on a plan to begin repaying $9.7 billion in debts unpaid since 2001. It also agreed to a $5 billion settlement with Grupo Repsol after seizing the Spanish company’s controlling stake in Argentina’s YPF oil company.

Analysts say a new default undermines all of these efforts.

“This is unexpected; an agreement seemed imminent,” said Ramiro Castineira of Buenos Aires-based consultancy Econometrica.

“Argentina would have benefited more from complying with the court order in order to get financing for Vaca Muerta,” he added, referring to an Argentine region that has one of the world’s largest deposits of shale oil and gas.

Only a few international companies have made commitments to help develop the fields as many fear the government’s interventionist energy policies. The government has also struggled to get investors because it can’t borrow on the global credit market.

Prices for Argentine bonds had surged to their highest level in more than three years on the possibility that Argentina would reach a deal with the holdout creditors. Argentina’s Merval stock index also climbed more than 6.5 percent in midday trade on a likely deal.

Optimism had been buoyed by reports Wednesday that representatives of Argentina’s private banks association, ADEBA, were set to offer to buy out the debt owed to the hedge funds. In return, the reports said, the U.S. court would let Argentina make the interest payments due before midnight Wednesday and avoid default.

The deal failed to materialize.

“It is an unfortunate situation which is pushing the country into another default. As defaults go, we all know when we get into one but it is very unclear when and how to get out of it,” said Alberto Ramos, Latin America analyst at Goldman Sachs.

“We just added another layer of risk and uncertainty to a macro economy that was already struggling,” Ramos said.

___

Associated Press writers Almudena Calatrava, Ben Fox and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Luis Andres Henao in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.

MONEY Debt

9 Ways to Outsmart Debt Collectors

iPhone submerged in water
Henrik Sorensen—Getty Images

More than a third of Americans have debts reported to collection agencies. If you're one of them, here are the repayment and negotiating strategies you need to know.

Today’s encouraging economic news notwithstanding, plenty of Americans are still struggling with their own personal economies. According to a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute, more than 35% of Americans have debt that has been reported to collection agencies. What’s more, the share of consumers in collections hasn’t changed, even as overall credit-card debt has decreased in recent years.

If you’re one of the many people being dunned for delinquent credit-card, hospital, or other bills, it’s easy to feel intimidated by collection agencies and confused about the repayment process. But rather than panicking and avoiding your collector’s many calls—and there will be many—here are 9 ways to gain the upper hand in negotiations and, most important, keep from paying a penny more than you have to.

1. Don’t Get Emotional

When a debt collector calls, he’s trying to assess your ability to pay and may attempt to get you to say or agree to things you shouldn’t. You’d be best served by keeping the initial call short and businesslike. Collection agencies are required by law to send you a written notice of how much you owe five days after initially contacting you. Wait to engage with them until after you receive this letter.

2. Make Sure the Debt Is Really Yours

If the debt sounds unfamiliar, check your credit reports. Request a report from each of the three credit bureaus for free from annualcreditreport.com and scan for any incorrect data. A study by the Federal Trade Commission found that one in 20 consumers could have errors in their reports, and 24% of the mistakes people reported were about a debt collection that wasn’t actually theirs. (Learn more about how to fix costly credit report errors.)

3. Ask for Proof

Once you get written notice, contact the debt collector. If you are disputing the debt because of an error or identity theft, send a letter to the collector by certified mail within 30 days of receiving your notice stating that you will not pay and why. Also notify each of the three credit bureaus by mail, explaining the error and including documentation so that the problem can be removed from your report. If you are unsure about whether you owe money or how much you owe, ask the collector by certified mail for verification of the debt. That should silence the calls for a while; collectors must suspend activity until they’ve sent you verification of the debt.

4. Resist the Scare Tactics

Some debt collectors may try a range of tricks to get you to pay up, but it’s important to know your rights. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, collectors cannot use abusive or obscene language, harass you with repeated calls, call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m., call you at work if you’ve asked them to stop, talk to a third party about your debt, claim to be an attorney or law enforcement, threaten to sue unless they intend to take legal action, or threaten to garnish wages or seize property unless they actually intend to. If the agency commits a violation, file a complaint with the FTC and your state Attorney General, and consider talking to an attorney about bringing your own private action against the collector for breaking the law.

5. Be Wary of Fees

Typically, the contract you agreed to when you took out the loan or signed up for the line of credit states how much interest a collector can charge on your debt. Most states have laws in place capping the amount of interest agencies can tack on. Check the balance the original creditor listed as “charged off” on your credit report. If there is a big increase in the amount the collector wants, consult your original contract. Your verification letter may also give you more info about how fees are calculated. If you believe the debt has been inflated, reach out to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which might be able to resolve your issue with the collector.

6. Negotiate

Collection agencies will push you to pay the full debt at once, but if that is not an option for you, tell them how much you can afford to pay and ask if they will settle for that amount. If they accept these terms, get confirmation of the deal in writing before you pay. This way, you avoid any miscommunication about the total to be paid and time frame for the payments.

7. Call In Backup

If you and the debt collector can’t reach an agreement and it appears likely they will take you to court, consider hiring an attorney. While the fees and costs of doing so may be prohibitive, the collection agency is more likely to drop the case in favor of easier targets, a.k.a debtors without attorney representation.

8. Know the Time Limits

Creditors may imply that court action can be taken against if you don’t pay up, and while that’s true, there is only a certain window of time—typically three to six years—in which a creditor can sue you over the debt. While you’ll still owe the money, and collectors may still call about it, creditors cannot take you to court over it once it’s past your state’s statute of limitations. Statutes vary widely by state and type of debt, so check your state’s specific rules if the collector is calling about older debts.

9. Don’t Get Tripped Up By Your Own Good Intentions

Collectors can’t legally “re-age” your debt by giving it a new delinquency date, but you can inadvertently extend the statute of limitations or restart the clock in some states by making a payment on old debt, agreeing to an extended repayment plan, or even acknowledging that the debts is yours.

More Help for Conquering Debt:

3 Simple Steps to Get Out of Debt

7 Ways to Improve Your Credit

Which Debts Should I Pay Off First?

 

 

TIME Money

Study: 35% of Americans Facing Debt Collectors

The word "Bankruptcy" is painted on the side of a building in Detroit on Oct. 25, 2013.
The word "Bankruptcy" is painted on the side of a building in Detroit on Oct. 25, 2013. Joshua Lott—Reuters

The delinquent debt is overwhelmingly concentrated in Southern and western states

(WASHINGTON) — More than 35 percent of Americans have debts and unpaid bills that have been reported to collection agencies, according to a study released Tuesday by the Urban Institute.

These consumers fall behind on credit cards or hospital bills. Their mortgages, auto loans or student debt pile up, unpaid. Even past-due gym membership fees or cellphone contracts can end up with a collection agency, potentially hurting credit scores and job prospects, said Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank.

“Roughly, every third person you pass on the street is going to have debt in collections,” Ratcliffe said. “It can tip employers’ hiring decisions, or whether or not you get that apartment.”

The study found that 35.1 percent of people with credit records had been reported to collections for debt that averaged $5,178, based on September 2013 records. The study points to a disturbing trend: The share of Americans in collections has remained relatively constant, even as the country as a whole has whittled down the size of its credit card debt since the official end of the Great Recession in the middle of 2009.

As a share of people’s income, credit card debt has reached its lowest level in more than a decade, according to the American Bankers Association. People increasingly pay off balances each month. Just 2.44 percent of card accounts are overdue by 30 days or more, versus the 15-year average of 3.82 percent.

Yet roughly the same percentage of people are still getting reported for unpaid bills, according to the Urban Institute study performed in conjunction with researchers from the Consumer Credit Research Institute. Their figures nearly match the 36.5 percent of people in collections reported by a 2004 Federal Reserve analysis.

All of this has reshaped the economy. The collections industry employs 140,000 workers who recover $50 billion each year, according to a separate study published this year by the Federal Reserve’s Philadelphia bank branch.

The delinquent debt is overwhelmingly concentrated in Southern and Western states. Texas cities have a large share of their populations being reported to collection agencies: Dallas (44.3 percent); El Paso (44.4 percent), Houston (43.7 percent), McAllen (51.7 percent) and San Antonio (44.5 percent).

Almost half of Las Vegas residents— many of whom bore the brunt of the housing bust that sparked the recession— have debt in collections. Other Southern cities have a disproportionate number of their people facing debt collectors, including Orlando and Jacksonville, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; Columbia, South Carolina; and Jackson, Mississippi.

Other cities have populations that have largely managed to repay their bills on time. Just 20.1 percent of Minneapolis residents have debts in collection. Boston, Honolulu and San Jose, California, are similarly low.

Only about 20 percent of Americans with credit records have any debt at all. Yet high debt levels don’t always lead to more delinquencies, since the debt largely comes from mortgages.

An average San Jose resident has $97,150 in total debt, with 84 percent of it tied to a mortgage. But because incomes and real estate values are higher in the technology hub, those residents are less likely to be delinquent.

By contrast, the average person in the Texas city of McAllen has only $23,546 in debt, yet more than half of the population has debt in collections, more than anywhere else in the United States.

The Urban Institute’s Ratcliffe said that stagnant incomes are key to why some parts of the country are struggling to repay their debt.

Wages have barely kept up with inflation during the five-year recovery, according to Labor Department figures. And a separate measure by Wells Fargo found that after-tax income fell for the bottom 20 percent of earners during the same period.

MONEY The Economy

Think the Fed Should Raise Rates Quickly? Ask Sweden How That Worked Out

Raising interest rates brought the Swedish economy toward deflation Ewa Ahlin—Corbis

Some investors are impatient for the Fed to raise interest rates. They may want to be a little more patient after hearing what happened to Sweden.

If you’re a saver, or if bonds make up a sizable portion of your portfolio, chances are you’re not the biggest fan of the Federal Reserve these days.

That’s because ever since the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has kept short-term interest rates at practically zero, meaning your savings accounts and bonds are yielding next to nothing. The Fed has also added trillions of dollars to its balance sheet by buying up longer-term bonds and other assets in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

Thanks to some positive economic news — like the recent jobs report — lots of people (investors, not workers) think the Fed has done enough to get the economy on its feet and worry inflation could spike if monetary policy stays “loose,” as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher recently put it.

If you want to know why the argument Fisher and other inflation hawks are pushing hasn’t carried the day, you may want to look to Sweden.

Like most developed nations, Sweden fell into a recession in the global financial crisis. But unlike its counterparts, it rebounded rather quickly. Or at least, that’s how it looked.

As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post back in 2011, “unlike other countries, (Sweden) is bouncing back. Its 5.5 percent growth rate last year trounces the 2.8 percent expansion in the United States and was stronger than any other developed nation in Europe.”

Even though the Swedish economy showed few signs of inflation and still suffered from relatively high unemployment, central bankers in Stockholm worried that low interest rates over time would lead to a real estate bubble. So board members of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, decided to raise interest rates (from 0.25% to eventually 2%) believing that the threat posed by asset bubbles (housing) inflated by easy money outweighed the negative side effects caused by tightening the spigot in a depressed economy.

What happened? Well…

Per Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

“Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.”

And deflation is a particularly nasty sort of business. When deflation hits, the real amount of money that you owe increases since the value of that debt is now larger than it was when you incurred it.

It also takes time to wring deflation out of the economy. Indeed, Swedish prices have floated around 0% for a while now, despite the Riksbank’s inflation goal of 2%. Plus, as former Riksbank board member Lars E. O. Svensson notes, “Lower inflation than anticipated in wage negotiations leads to higher real wages than anticipated. This in turns leads to many people without safe jobs losing their jobs and becoming unemployed.” Svensson, it should be noted, opposed the rate hike.

image (8)
Sweden

Moreover, economic growth has stagnated. After growing so strongly in 2010, Sweden’s gross domestic product began expanding more slowly in recent years and contracted in the first quarter of 2014 by 0.1% thanks in large part to falling exports.

As a result, Sweden reversed policy at the end of 2011 and started to pare its interest rate. The central bank recently cut the so-called “repo” rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%, more than analysts estimated. The hope is that out-and-out deflation will be avoided.

So the next time you’re inclined to ask the heavens why rates in America are still so low, remember Sweden and the scourge of deflation. Ask yourself if you want to take the risk that your debts (think mortgage) will become even more onerous.

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