The dramatic decline in union membership...What it takes to be middle class...We spend how much on weddings?!...Smart money choices you've got to make...And more

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Welcome to MUTUAL INTEREST, the first place to check for all of the news and information you need to manage your money and build financial security. It also helps you understand what's going on in the economy, and how that affects you. This page is constantly updated, so bookmark it and come back often for the latest posts.

Union membership has drastically fallen in 50 years

NPR recently put out an interactive map that shows how union membership has fallen over the last 50 years in each state. Nearly a third of U.S. workers belonged to a union in 1964. Today, just one in 10 workers belong. New York has the highest share of union workers, with 71% of government workers there in a union. Alaska and Hawaii have the second- and third-highest rates. Overall, the West Coast, Midwest and upper East Coast have the most union workers today.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Where did all the unions go? Back in 1964, there were plenty of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, and many of them were unionized, NPR notes. But the number of jobs in manufacturing has fallen, and fewer of the remaining manufacturing jobs are unionized. The unions, and the benefits they provided, are slowly fading.

What middle-class families actually make in U.S. cities

NPR recently put together a chart that shows what middle-class families living in the nation's 30 most populous cities make annually. The city with the highest median income — $103,000 — is San Jose, California. That's in the heart of Silicon Valley, where 13% of families have annual incomes of $250,000. The city with the lowest median annual income? Detroit, at $30,000. The national median is $64,000 per year. NPR used data from the 2013 American Community Survey, counting households with two or more people related by birth, marriage or adoption. Suburbs and rural areas, for the most part, weren't included.

SECOND THOUGHTS: This offers an easy way to judge where you fall on the income distribution ladder. Income and cost of living vary by location, but a better measure of how you're doing financially than income is how much wealth you're building. You can make $250,000 a year or more, but if you're not saving any of it, you're missing the goal: A secure retirement. Here's how to save $1 million for retirement.
March 28, 2015

On average, couples spent more than $31,000 on the big day in 2014

The amount of money couples are spending on their wedding day is on the rise, notes CNN Money. In 2014, that amounted to an average of $31,213, according to a new report from The Knot. That's a 4% increase from 2013, when couples spent $29,858. Most of the 2014 bill went to the venue (an average of $14,006). The engagement ring and band were next most expensive, costing $5,855 and $3,587, respectively. And the average price to cater per guest was $68.

SECOND THOUGHTS: With $31,213, you could almost max out your 401(k) twice, and you could certainly max out your 401(k) and IRA in the same year. Indeed, opting for a cheaper big day could be very beneficial to your retirement (assuming you tuck that extra cash away in a retirement account). Before you commit to spending a ton of money on your wedding, it's important to get a better understanding of how well you're managing your money — and what you need to do better. Here's how to measure financial success.
March 27, 2015

Many of us simply aren't saving enough for retirement

About 50% of U.S. households haven't saved a dime for retirement, according to a new study by the National Institute on Retirement Security. In fact, nearly 40 million working-age households don't even have a retirement account. Those who do save in a retirement account have an annual income nearly 2.4 times higher than those who don't, which highlights the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, notes a report from Yahoo Finance. Across all households, the median retirement balance is just $2,500. Bear in mind that Fidelity Investments recommends having five times your current income by age 55 to be on track for retirement.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Many of us are struggling to save. But if your employer offers a 401(k) plan, you've got to make the most of it. Contribute at least enough to get a full match. Here are 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account.

Choose your own retirement over your child's college costs

If you have to choose between your retirement security and your child's college costs, pick the former. Otherwise, your kids could end up paying for your expenses in old age, notes Time Money. That may seem obvious, but according to a recent T. Rowe Price survey, more than half of parents say spending retirement money on college costs is preferable to their kids graduating with debt. Around 58% of parents have dipped into their retirement account at least once for expenses. And about half of parents plan to work for as long as they can and don't see a reason to save. Those aren’t encouraging statistics.

SECOND THOUGHTS: If it doesn't derail your savings plan, paying for college for the kids is great, notes Time Money. If it does, leave it up to your kids to find an alternative way to pay for their education. It's not worth sacrificing your retirement. Instead, boost your investing knowledge and build up your retirement. Here's how to become a smarter investor in your retirement plan.
March 23, 2015

Real estate agents are deliberately causing bidding wars

Real estate agents are intentionally listing homes below their value to create bidding wars, according to The Washington Post. In the past, the list price of a home was typically the seller's ceiling, and buyers could negotiate down from there. But now. bidding starts at the buyer's floor. Real estate agents are using this tactic to boost the number of bids on a home, creating something of an auction. That's making the market confusing and difficult to gauge for prospective buyers. For instance, a home might be priced at $200,000, but the sellers may intend to sell it for much more after bidding starts.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Be careful and try to remain unemotional when purchasing a home, especially if you're in a bidding war. Otherwise you could end up paying more than you should. That's why it's crucial to figure out how much house you can afford before you go house hunting.
March 20, 2015

Fed signals it could start pushing interest rates up in June

By removing the word “patient” from the policy statement released after today's meeting of its rate-setting committee, the Federal Reserve has opened the door for increasing rates as early as this June. Once the central bankers start nudging rates higher, the return savers get on their certificates of deposit, money market and savings accounts should also start to grow. That move will feel long overdue to millions of Americans who’ve watched their savings languish for more than six years as the Fed has kept rates at record lows to bolster the economy.

March 18, 2015

Fixing errors on your credit report is about to get easier

The three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — have agreed to new guidelines to handle disputes on credit reports, according to a settlement announced by the New York attorney general. The deal will require the agencies to use trained employees to work with lenders to resolve mistakes flagged by consumers on their credit profiles, notes CNN Money. Right now, only about 15% of all disputes are resolved internally by credit-reporting firms. The settlement will also change how companies report unpaid medical bills, which account for about 52% of all debt on credit reports, and will take aim at predatory lenders.

SECOND THOUGHTS: It's wise to check your credit report for errors. By law, you're allowed one free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus annually. Correcting errors may give your score a boost. And scores are a major player in the terms you get on a mortgage, an auto loan and whether you qualify for a credit card.
March 18, 2015

Americans are saving a record amount in 529 college plans

Americans are saving more for higher ed. In 2014, the amount in 529 college savings plans hit a record $248 billion, up 9% from 2013, according to the College Savings Plans Network. We're also saving earlier — 31% of the plans were opened by parents when their child was under a year old. "You really should be starting to save for college as soon as your child is born," Betty Lochner, chair of the College Savings Plans Network, told CNN Money. State 529 plans allow holders to save money and withdraw it tax-free for approved college costs.

SECOND THOUGHTS: We still need to save more. The average amount in individual 529 accounts hit an all-time high of $20,474. But as CNN Money notes, in-state public school tuition, fees and room and board average about $19,000 per year. Before you decide to invest in a 529 plan, crunch the numbers and make sure you're meeting your own retirement needs. Here's how to figure out if a 529 plan is right for your family.
March 17, 2015

Child care is starting to cost more than college

Child Care Aware America says day care can cost up to $14,508 a year for an infant and $12,280 for a 4-year-old in a center. And in 31 states, it's more expensive to send an infant to day care than it is to send a kid to a public university. Fact is, parents don't have time to save for day care like they do for college, notes Yahoo Finance. Only 12 U.S. states meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' benchmark for affordable care: 10% of a family's income. Costs for single moms average well more than that: 40% of median incomes in all 50 states.

SECOND THOUGHTS:Do everything you can to save on day care. Yahoo Finance notes that sibling discounts are available at some centers. Take advantage if your employer offers a flexible spending account for child care. And turn to family members to watch your kids when possible.

If you're feeling envious or depressed, leave Facebook behind

Feeling down? Blame Facebook. Researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Bradley University and the University of Missouri-Columbia find that heavy Facebook users can feel envy, which can lead to depression. Their survey of 736 college students concludes that following your friends on Facebook can make you feel sad. "If Facebook is used to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially or how happy an old friend is in his relationship — things that cause envy among users — use of the site can lead to feelings of depression," Margaret Duffy, a Missouri journalism professor, told CNN Money.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Give Facebook the boot. Or at least cut down your time on the site. There are plenty of apps out there now — SelfControl, Freedom — that can help you limit your time on social media. Just think about all of the productive things you can do instead — managing your finances, for example — when you're not idling away hours on Facebook.

Remembering The Millionaire Next Door and author Thomas Stanley

Thomas J. Stanley, author of The Millionaire Next Door, recently passed away after a car accident. The personal finance book he wrote was arguably one of the most important ever written. It provides a well-rounded road map for building financial security. Its main lesson: Most of the rich grow wealthy because of modesty, thrift and prudence, notes The New York Times. Those people are happy to live in starter homes, they don't shell out cash for irresponsible adult children and they certainly don't buy luxury cars.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Get your hands on The Millionaire Next Door and read it through. Pick it up at the library, borrow it from a friend or purchase a used copy on Amazon. It's well worth a read. Everyone has a shot at accumulating a healthy nest egg and financial comfort by saving well and not spending lavishly. Take a look at these 10 secrets to successfully save for retirement.

Defaulting on student loans means postponing wealth-building

Student loan debt, even just a little, can drastically eat into your ability to build wealth, notes The Atlantic. It cites a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that a whopping 34% of students owing as little as $5,000 default on their loans. A default can have a major negative impact on your finances, resulting in garnished wages and even Social Security benefits. Plus, it can ruin your credit, hurting your opportunity to purchase a home or get other loans.

SECOND THOUGHTS: If you can, avoid student loans. And if you're a parent, see if a 529 plan is right for your family. A state-sponsored, tax-free college savings plan might be exactly what you need to save for your child's college future.

Fidelity unveils program that will match IRA contributions

Fidelity Investments is offering retirement savers a little more incentive. With its new IRA Match program, customers transferring a traditional, Roth or rollover IRA worth at least $10,000 can get up to 10% of their annual IRA contributions matched by Fidelity, according to Yahoo Finance. That's a perk often reserved for corporate 401(k)s. Accounts with $10,000 to $50,000 will have 1% of their contributions matched for three years. That rises to a 1.5% match for accounts between $50,000 and $100,000, 2.5% over $100,000, 5% over $250,000 and 10% for accounts over $500,000. Depending on account size, you'll get a match of $55 up to $550 per year.

SECOND THOUGHTS: The government created IRAs to encourage people to save more for retirement and provided tax benefits to make them more attractive. Fidelity's new program further sweetens the deal. Generally speaking, IRAs are easy to use. But there are still some things you need to know. Check out these 7 IRA mistakes to avoid.

Genetics help determine your savings habits

Whether you stash away cash at every chance or spend it like there's no tomorrow, it may be partially due to your genetics. A new report in the Journal of Political Economy tracked changes in the net worth of twins between 2003 and the end of 2007. It found that identical twins are significantly more similar in savings behavior than fraternal twins. Genetic differences explained about 33% of the variations in savings rates. In other words, your genes could have a lot to do with how much you save, notes Quartz.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Genes are no excuse for failing to save. Regardless of what your biology says, saving for retirement is a must. Here are 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account.

Unemployment rate hasn't been this low in 7 years

The latest Labor Department report shows the U.S. economy added 295,000 jobs in February, causing the unemployment rate to fall to 5.5%. That's the lowest it's been since May 2008, right before the financial crisis hit. And it's also the 12th month in a row that the economy has added over 200,000 jobs. Just a year ago, the unemployment rate was at 6.7%. "We have the wind at our back and confidence across so many sectors of our economy," Labor Secretary Tom Perez told CNN Money. Last month, jobs were added in retail, health care and business services, with retail adding the most — 32,000.

SECOND THOUGHTS: The jobs are coming back. What about wage growth? In February, wages rose only 2%. That's dismal compared with wage gains in a healthy economy — usually between 3.5% and 4%. When will we see wage growth get back on track? Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at the research firm High Frequency Economics tells CNN Money that "it's not unreasonable to think, at some point in the next year, we're going to get more clear-cut wage acceleration."

There's a student loan debt strike going on

According to The Washington Post, 15 students of the failing Corinthian Colleges are refusing to repay their federal student loans in protest, hoping the government will forgive their debt. “Corinthian took advantage of our dreams and targeted us to make a profit,” the Corinthian 15 wrote to the U.S. Department of Education. “You let it happen, and now you cash in. We paid dearly for degrees that have led to unemployment or to jobs that don’t pay a living wage. We can’t and won’t pay any longer.” While many private loans in Corinthian's Genesis program will be forgiven, it's up in the air whether the government will forgive its loans.

SECOND THOUGHTS: There are serious consequences for those who don't repay their student loans. In addition to losing your paychecks, tax refunds and a portion of your Social Security, it can also ruin your credit. So it's not a good idea to stop paying your loans. But there are other ways to make college more affordable after you graduate. Check out these tips to rid yourself of student loans without paying.

The salary bump you can expect from a graduate degree

A report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says the salary bump you can expect from a graduate degree largely depends on your major. At $30,000, a computer science graduate degree offers the biggest bump. Economic and finance graduate degrees have the next-biggest bumps, at $28,000. Of course, getting such a degree also increases the likelihood that you'll be employed, especially in the hard and social sciences, notes Quartz.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Can't foot the bill for a graduate degree? No worries. Just stay in your field. Spending at least three years in the market offers a substantial bump as well, across several majors, no extra schooling required, notes Quartz.

Stereotypes about millennials are off the mark

A new survey from IBM debunks the conventional wisdom that millennials are "lazy narcissists or energized optimists bent on saving the world." In fact, millennials were less likely than baby boomers to say their top career goal is to solve social or environmental problems and do work they’re passionate about. They were also less likely than Gen Xers to say they would leave a job to "follow my heart" and less likely than baby boomers to leave a job to "save the world." Like other generations, however, they would leave a job to "enter the fast lane" or work in a more creative, innovative environment.

SECOND THOUGHTS: What's the big takeaway? According to The Washington Post, it's that millennials want, for the most part, pretty much the same thing as other generations. All generations want an ethical and fair boss, the opportunity to move up and inspirational leadership.

Millions of Americans still make under $10 an hour

The Economic Policy Institute says 15 million workers still make between $7.25 and $10 an hour. That will soon change for workers at Walmart, which will raise its minimum wage to $9 an hour in April and $10 by February 2016. But what about the millions of others who still make under $10 an hour? The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and hasn't moved since 2009. Many experts say it needs to increase. EPI economist David Cooper tells CNN Money that a federal wage hike would help 27 million workers, because those earning near that level would also get a bump.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Will we see a federal wage hike anytime soon? Congress is divided. Of course, states can raise their minimums as well. Currently, 29 states have higher minimums than the federal minimum. But around 3 million workers still earn just $7.25, notes CNN Money.

Why we're paying more for a poorer flight experience

The U.S. Department of Transportation says airline ticket prices shot up about 15% faster than the rate of inflation from 2005 to 2013. Comfort on flights, meanwhile, seemed to get worse — less legroom, no meals. And we've started to see more fees for bags, meals and everything else involved in air travel. "Consumers are clearly getting the short end of the stick," Charlie Leocha, head of the advocacy group Travelers United, told CNN Money. A lot could be due to airline consolidation. There are now just four major U.S. airlines, down from 10 just 12 years ago. Airlines say the new air transportation model is better overall for everyone.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Game the system. CheapAir.com recently put out a study on how to get the best price on flights (check out our Mutual Interest post about it below). Basically, if you want the best deal on a domestic flight, buy your ticket 47 days in advance.

Having just a little student debt is worse than having a lot

Students who borrow the least amount of money are having the most trouble paying it off, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In fact, the highest default rates are among those who owe less than $5,000 (34%). Those with balances of less than $10,000 had the next-highest default rates. And 43% of Americans who had loans due in 2009 owed less than $10,000, notes Bloomberg. The report notes that these borrowers may not have completed school or may have gotten credentials with less of a payoff than a four-year college degree.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Pay off your debts. Defaulting on a student loan can hold down your credit score and put you at risk of having wages garnished or part of your tax return withheld, notes Bloomberg. If you're a parent, keep in mind that to even pay for a portion of your kids' college, you should start putting money aside as soon as possible. Here's how to know if a 529 savings plan is right for your family.

Apple Inc. is racing to have an electric car by 2020

The next big product from Apple could be an electric car. Bloomberg reports the company has been secretly working on an electric car that could debut as early as 2020. If Apple succeeds, it could be battling it out with Tesla and General Motors, both of which plan to have electric cars by 2017 that can go more than 200 miles on a charge and cost less than $40,000. “Now you have Apple coming in, and this is critical mass. Was GM really going to be able to match Tesla? Apple can," Steve LeVine, author of The Powerhouse, a book about the automotive battery industry, told Bloomberg TV.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Would you purchase an Apple car? As part of the "Appleverse," your Apple car (iCar?) would likely connect seamlessly with your other Apple devices — iPhone, iPad, iCloud. But don't get too excited just yet. Bloomberg notes that Apple could scrap its car effort or delay it if the executives are unhappy with progress — just as it has done before. But its car team already has 200 people, and Apple has reportedly sought out experts in battery and robotics technologies.

See how close you are to the top 1% of income

CNN Money recently put out a calculator that allows you to see where your income ranks. Specifically, it lets you figure out how close you are, in terms of income, to the top 1% of earners. It's an easy-to-use graphic that tells you exactly where you stand. Let's say you bring in $60,000 per year. That would put you in the top 43%. To be in the top 1%, you'd have to earn at least $400,000 per year.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Income isn't wealth. It's how much you save, not how much you earn, that makes you rich. You can make $400,000 per year, but if you spend it all on assets that decline in value, you're not building wealth. And that's the goal — to save as much as possible and build wealth. Here's how to save $1 million for retirement.

Here's when to buy airline tickets for the best deal

If you want the best deal on a domestic flight, buy your ticket 47 days in advance. According to a study by CheapAir.com, that's when fares are likely to be cheapest. The online airfare shopping engine tracked the prices of about 1.5 billion airfares from 320 days in advance up to the day before a flight. But CheapAir.com notes that the best time to buy can vary substantially depending on the destination, time of year and travel days. In general, the prime time to book is one to four months ahead of your departure date.

SECOND THOUGHTS: There's no exact science to finding the cheapest flight. "As much as everyone wants an answer for an exact number so they don't have to worry about finding the best price, it's not that simple," Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, told CNN Money. But you'll have a better chance if you keep these five tips in mind: When you buy matters. Waiting for last-minute deals is a bad plan. Don't book too early. Book one to four months out. The rules are different for summer and holiday travel. Check out CheapAir.com for the details.

The newest software makes income tax season easier on you

According to The New York Times, the newest tax software from TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct is making it easier to switch seamlessly between doing your tax return on your computer, tablet and smartphone. But the three tax tools will likely appeal to different types of people. The Times concludes that TurboTax will appeal to technophiles, worriers will use H&R Block and the thrifty will choose TaxAct. TurboTax costs $80 for Home and Business and $37 for each state return. H&R Block charges $50 for Premium and the same for state returns. TaxAct is $20 for the Ultimate Bundle, which includes federal and state returns.

SECOND THOUGHTS: All three programs work well for a family with a house, additional freelance income and an investment portfolio that mostly includes mutual funds, notes The Times. But each has its pros and cons. The Times says TurboTax is headache-free to use, but customer service isn't as helpful as H&R Block's, with its easy access to tax advisers. TaxAct is a bargain, but the software isn't as seamless as the other two. The takeaway: You've got to find the one that fits your needs best.

The number of 401(k) millionaires doubles in 2 years

There were 72,379 individuals in the Fidelity database with over $1 million or more in their 401(k)s in 2014, according to Fidelity Investments, one of the largest 401(k) providers. That's more than twice what it was in 2012, when there were just 34,920. The booming stock market certainly helped. Typically, their portfolios are 72% invested in equities, and they contributed $21,400 annually to their accounts. Their average age is 59.8 years, and their average income is $359,000. But more than 1,000 earned less than $150,000. So it's not all about income.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Becoming a 401(k) millionaire may seem like a daunting task, but keep in mind that many are in or entering their sixties. It takes an entire career of saving to get there. Here's what it takes to amass $1 million in your 401(k) retirement account..

Many Americans are hiding their cash in secret places

Banks are still the go-to option for most Americans, but a surprising number of us (29%) say we're keeping some savings in cash, according to a new survey of 1,820 adults from American Express. And 53% of those holding cash are hiding it in a secret spot. Millennials are most likely to hide cash, with 67% saying they are keeping a secret stash. The most popular hiding place? The freezer, according to a 2012 Marist College survey, followed by the sock drawer, under the mattress and the cookie jar. No, really, the cookie jar.

SECOND THOUGHTS: This is a bad plan. Keeping large amounts of cash in the house makes personal finance experts cringe, notes CNBC. And rightfully so. While it can be good to keep a little cash at home, hiding large amounts is risky. "Keeping money stashed around the house leaves you at tremendous risk of theft or loss due to fire or some sort of unforeseen disaster," Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, tells CNBC. There are wiser choices. Here are 7 smart things to do with $1,000.

Middle-class families lack emergency savings

The typical middle-class American family, making between $36,500 and $60,000 per year, couldn't take a major financial hit. They'd only be able to replace 21 days of income by tapping cash reserves, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. And even if they liquidated all retirement savings and investments, they'd only replace 119 days of income. Families with the lowest incomes, under $20,300 per year, only have a nine-day cushion. And the richest, earning more than $101,800, only have 52 days on hand.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Stagnant wages may be one reason families aren't saving more emergency cash. Nor have families been building their nest eggs, notes CNN Money. The bottom 60% of Americans have the same amount of wealth as they did in 1989. If you're not sure where you stand financially, here's how to measure financial success.

Our 401(k) balances hit record highs last year

Our 401(k) balances hit record highs in the fourth quarter of 2014, jumping to an average of $91,300, according to an analysis from Fidelity Investments, the nation's largest provider of 401(k)s. That average is up 3% from the third quarter and 2% year-over-year. On average, employees contributed $9,670 in the fourth quarter, up 4% year-over-year. And when combined with employer contributions, the average savings rate for employees in 2014 was 12.2% of their salary.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Fidelity says conditions like lower unemployment and a raging stock market helped make 2014 a great year for retirement savers. But the ultimate value of your 401(k) will depend on a lot of things — what you make, how much you save, the length of time before you retire and market performance. You can make the most of it if you're a savvy investor. Here's how to become a smarter investor in your retirement plan.

Millennials are feeling very financially secure

Millennials feel more positive about their finances than any other age group, even older people with a high net worth, according to the January Financial Security Index from Bankrate.com. About 46% of millennials say their overall financial situation is better than a year ago. No more than 30% of other age groups thought so. Yet millennials have a savings rate of negative 2%, according to the Federal Reserve of New York. That means they're going into debt instead of saving, notes MarketWatch.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Among all age groups, feelings about financial security were up in January. "Americans' feelings of financial security hit a record high, not because things got better as much as they got less bad," Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate, said in a news release. We still need to fight for financial security. So if you get a bonus at work or a tax refund, use it wisely. Here are 7 smart things you can do with $1,000.

Middle-class incomes are finally rising

Median household income grew 3.3% in December 2014 compared with the year before, according to data from Sentier Research. That's the strongest year-over-year increase since October 2006. The number is adjusted for inflation, so the typical middle-class family really is starting to see some income gains. December's median income was $54,417, which is 3.2% lower than the level at the end of 2007, when the recession began. “We’re still not back to where we were, but incomes are coming back,” Gordon Green of Sentier tells Yahoo Finance.

SECOND THOUGHTS: More income means more money that can be stashed away to build a secure retirement. Anything extra helps. If you can max out your 401(k) plan at work, do it. Washington is letting us make slightly larger contributions to our plans this year.

Women are struggling to save for retirement

Just 62% of women are saving for retirement, according to a recent study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. And just 15% of that group are saving enough; 22% are barely saving at all. CNBC notes that the reasons include lower pay and taking time off to care for children or elderly parents. Women are still paid just 78% of what men with equal qualifications receive, according to the American Association of University of Women. Divorce also has a bigger impact on women's income.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Fortunately, there are ways women can give their retirement savings a boost. Taking advantage of and maxing out employer-sponsored 401(k)s is a big one. Check out these 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account. Contributing to a Roth IRA also helps. And seeking advice from a financial expert can be beneficial. "If you have access to some kind of a planner or you can even get help in your community, that's a start," Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, told CNBC.

Gas isn't actually that cheap compared with the last 30 years

Gas prices have declined sharply, but when adjusted for inflation, a gallon of gas is still more expensive than it was from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, according to The New York Times. From the start of 1986 to the end of 2002, the price averaged $1.87 a gallon. Today, it's around $2.03 a gallon. But falling gas prices are still a boon. If energy costs stayed at current levels, it would put $180 billion into Americans' pockets, according to Moody Analytics. That's about 1.2% of income and a higher share for poorer families, notes The Times.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Take advantage of low energy costs, and put that savings into a retirement account. It's not enough to simply save. If you really want a fighting chance at a secure retirement, you're going to have to become a smart investor. Here's how to become a smarter investor in your retirement plan.
February 12, 2015

The middle class is steadily declining

The middle class — households earning from $35,000 to $100,000 a year — has been steadily shrinking for 50 years, according to The New York Times. That was OK until 2000 as Americans primarily moved up the income ladder. But since then, people have been falling into lower rungs as household income dropped 9%. Just 43% of all households are now considered middle class. People 65 or older now make up the fastest-growing segment. And the share of married couples with children — once 60% of the middle class — has fallen to 25%.

SECOND THOUGHTS: With income stagnant, it's even more important to tuck away retirement savings. You can't rely on income bumps to get you there. So max out your 401(k) and your IRA, if possible. And become a smarter investor in your retirement plan.
February 11, 2015

More income can reduce your sadness

A new study released in Social Psychology & Personality Science says greater income does reduce unhappiness, but it doesn't increase happiness. Confused? That could be due to a misunderstanding of the relationship between the two emotions, notes NYMag.com. The researchers from the University of British Columbia write, "… because happiness is not simply the absence of sadness, or vice versa, income may have a different relationship to each of those emotions."

SECOND THOUGHTS: The researchers think being well-off offers more options for dealing with adversity. If you have the money to quickly deal with a leaking roof, you'll feel more in control and less sad than someone without the funds. That's why it's crucial to build an emergency fund — for life's leaky roofs. Here's how to measure financial success. The first measurement? An emergency fund.
February 10, 2015

Free FICO scores are becoming more available

More banks and other companies are offering free FICO scores, a once tightly guarded number you'd have to shell out cash to get, notes The New York Times. Citigroup just began making free FICO scores available to its cardholders. Chase says it will soon make them available to Slate cardholders. Ally's car loan borrowers will be able to get them in February. And even Sallie Mae is making them available to private student loan borrowers.

SECOND THOUGHTS: FICO, the Fair Isaac Corp., which created the FICO score, says the scores are used in 90% of credit decisions in the U.S. So if you can get a free score, use it to improve your credit. Check out our 7 smart moves to boost your credit score and improve your life.
February 9, 2015

Financial infidelity is fairly common in U.S. households

About 20% of Americans admit they've spent $500 or more without their spouse or partner's knowledge, according to a new poll by CreditCards.com. What's more, about 6% admit to using hidden checking or savings accounts or secret credit cards. The website surveyed 843 American adults living with a spouse or partner. The results suggest 7 million Americans are keeping secret accounts — men more than women and young people more than old. "In most cases, the secret is mostly to avoid conflict and to make sure they get what they want," Paula Levy, a family therapist in Connecticut, tells the website.

SECOND THOUGHTS: There's no single correct way for couples to approach finances. But with a little bit of planning, you can achieve financial security together. Check out our money advice for a lasting marriage.

Food prices are on the march in the United States

If you think you're paying more for food than you were a year ago, you're not crazy. Food prices in the U.S. are climbing, notes Yahoo Finance. The consumer price index for food rose 3.4% in 2014, a 1.1% increase from 2013, according to the most recent CPI report from the Labor Department. Over the last 10 years, the index's average annual rise was just 2.7%. For food eaten at home — items bought at the grocery — the index rose 3.7% compared with an increase of just 0.4% in 2013. And for food eaten at restaurants and other establishments, the index rose 3% in 2014, higher than the 2.1% rise the year before.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Make a little extra room in the budget for food or cut back. You'll see the biggest price increases for beef and veal, which rose 18.7%. Meats, poultry, fish and eggs were up 9.2%, the largest year-over-year rise in December in that category since 2003. And dairy and related products were up 5.3%. Need to create a budget? Use our Home Budget Calculator.

Millennials seek financial stability before having children

Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, seem to be putting off having children until they feel financially stable. And there are worries that the declining birth rates could hinder the economy. Birth rates among 20- to 24-year-olds were down 2% between 2012 and 2013. Among 25- to 29-year-olds, rates have fallen by 1% each year since 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But older millennials, those 30- to 34-years old, are having kids. Birth rates rose among that group by 2% in 2013. Considering that millennials have higher levels of student debt, poverty and unemployment than their parents and grandparents did at the same stage, it's no wonder they're putting off having kids.

SECOND THOUGHTS: The average cost of raising a child in the U.S. has reached $250,000, not including college. But if you want kids, there's no right time to have them, notes Yahoo Finance. The best you can do is prepare yourself for what's to come. And planning for college costs is part of that. Here's how to figure out whether a 529 plan is right for your family.

European travel is about to get cheaper

If you've always wanted to visit Europe and just couldn't foot the bill, or if you just like Europe, it's nearly time to book your trip. Travel to Europe is about to get cheaper. The euro is falling so fast against the dollar that it shouldn't be too long before it's worth the same amount, notes The Washington Post. In fact, it's down to around $1.15 per euro from a high of $1.45 a few years ago. So if you're going anywhere in Europe other than Switzerland (which recently stopped pegging its currency to the euro), you'll have a much cheaper trip than you would have just a few years ago.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Take advantage of the booming U.S. economy, and go for a trip across the pond. Our economy is currently in a lot better shape than Europe's. It's good enough that the Federal Reserve is starting to think about raising short-term interest rates this year. And by the time you book your trip to Europe, the dollar may even be worth more than the euro, making it even cheaper.

Baby boomers will pass the torch to millennials this year

Millennials are expected to surpass baby boomers as the nation's largest living generation in 2015, according to new numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of those ages 18 to 34 is expected to hit 75.3 million this year, surpassing 74.9 million boomers (ages 51 to 69). Millennials have immigration on their side, adding more numbers to their generation than any other, notes the Pew Research Center. By 2036, the population is expected to peak at 81.1 million.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Is Millennial Nation on track for retirement? A recent Gallup poll found that only half of investors start saving for retirement in their 20s. We can do better. Without traditional pensions to help us out, taking control of our own retirement is a must. Do you know what kind of return you can expect from your 401(k)?.

More than half of Americans say they are falling behind financially

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that about 55% of Americans say they are falling behind on finances. That's despite the fact that unemployment is down, companies are hiring and the economy is growing. In fact, most Americans say their income isn't keeping up with the cost of living, and it's not just one segment of society. Those earning more than $100,000 say they also are having problems — only 20% feel they are getting ahead. But older Americans, those with lower incomes and those with only high school diplomas feel the most left behind.

SECOND THOUGHTS: What's going on here? Stagnant income seems to be a big part of the problem. The current median income — $51,939 — is about where it was in 1995 after inflation, notes CNN Money. But we have to push through and save more. If you have an extra $1,000, here are 7 smart things to do with it.

Financial stress due to medical bills is on the decline

The Affordable Care Act seems to be achieving one of its major goals. A recent survey by the health research group the Commonwealth Fund shows the percentage of Americans who had trouble with a medical bill or debt in the last year dropped from a high of 41% in 2012 to 35% in 2014, the first decline in a decade. The percentage of Americans who avoided medical care because of cost concerns also dropped, from 43% in 2012 to 36% in 2014. “We don’t know yet that the law is improving people’s health, but this is a first indication that people are affording care that they weren’t able to get in the past,” Sara Collins, a Commonwealth vice president who worked on the study, told The New York Times.

SECOND THOUGHTS: More than a third of all Americans struggle with the cost of medical care, The Times notes. If you don't have health insurance or your deductible is high, you already know the high cost of a simple checkup. But that doesn't mean you should skip tests or leave prescriptions unfilled. Here are 8 smart moves to save on health care.