Student loans grow old...Social Security statements return to our mailboxes...Savings rates finally rising...And more

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Welcome to MUTUAL INTEREST, the first place to check for all of the news and information your 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.

Student loans become a bigger burden for millions of seniors

An estimated 2 million Americans 60 and older are now carrying $43 billion in unpaid student loan debt, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That's up from 700,000 seniors, who owed just $8 billion in 2005. Worst of all, about 140,000 of those debtors are having their Social Security benefits garnished after falling behind on the payments. Some loans were taken out decades ago for their own education. Some are more recent to pay for their kids' or grandkids' schooling.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Saying no to your children can be hard, especially when it’s for something you wish they could have. But this is why we think more Americans need to say no to their children when it comes to cosigning college loans. As this data shows, a growing number of moms, dads and even grandparents are getting stuck with a debt they can't hope to repay. And if you have already cosigned a loan for one of your kids or grandkids, you need to have your name removed as soon as the terms allow.

Social Security statements are coming back to your mailbox

The Social Security Administration is once again sending printed benefit statements to all Americans. You'll be receiving a statement every five years until you turn 60 and then annually after that. Social Security began phasing out mailed statements to most workers in 2011 to save an estimated $70 million a year, hoping workers would track their benefits online ( But few used the website, and Congress passed a bill reinstituting paper statements.

Fed seems committed to higher short-term interest rates in 2015

The Federal Reserve maintained its commitment to hold short-term interest rates at record lows for a "considerable time." But documents released after Wednesday's policy meeting showed that it definitely expects to begin raising rates sometime in 2015. The federal funds rate is expected to rise from essentially 0% today to 1.125% by June and 1.375% by the end of next year, and to top out at 3.75% by the end of 2017. For savers, that should mean a return to reasonable returns on CDs, money market and savings accounts over the next three years.

SECOND THOUGHTS: The government's bank-for-banks controls short-term interest rates through what's called the federal funds rate, which is what commercial banks pay to borrow money from each other through the Fed. That rate has been essentially zero since December 2008, which has allowed commercial banks to get virtually all of the money they need for free and allowed them to drive all types of savings rates to practically nothing. But the Fed's governing body seems increasingly committed to reversing that policy sometime next year, and banks are beginning to realize they'll need to rebuild their deposit base. Indeed, some banks have already begun to offer slightly better returns in an attempt to corral as much money as they can before deposits become substantially more expensive. (See, for example, how that's affecting top 5-year CD rates. With the Fed clarifying its plans for future rate hikes, that trend should accelerate.

$3 per gallon gas could be a reality in the near future

You read that right: You could be paying under $3 per gallon at the pump. There's a lot of supply on the world oil market, which is pushing prices of crude oil down. At least one gas station in Missouri is already selling at $2.95 per gallon, according to Marketplace. Even if we don't quite cross the $3 line everywhere in the U.S., AAA predicts that average winter prices will be $3.10 a gallon.

You don't need to make your Thanksgiving travel plans right away

Flying for Thanksgiving this year? No need to rush to buy your tickets. That's because flight prices will remain constant until 10 days before departure. This is according to a study by Hopper, a consumer group that studies ticket costs. They also found that fares available around the holiday are 14% lower than last year. But that doesn't mean they're cheap. Expect flights around the holiday to be 35% more expensive than at other times in November.

Cadillac to introduce 'hands-free' driving in 2017 model

Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors Co., says a new car her luxury brand is developing will feature "Super Cruise" control when it debuts in 2017. The system will take control of steering, acceleration and braking at highway speeds of 70 mph or in stop-and-go traffic, making it unnecessary for the driver to work the wheel or pedals. Barra says the technology will be included in “an all-new Cadillac that’s going to enter a segment where we don’t compete today."

Two out of five workers won't use all of their vacation this year

The summer vacation season is over. But for many workers, that doesn't really matter. About 40% of us don't plan on using all of our paid time off this year, according to a new survey by the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm. The two most common reasons survey respondents cited for not taking a break: They dread the pile of work awaiting them when they return, and no one else can do what they do at the office. These people suffer from what the researchers called a "martyr" complex, believing that they’re the only ones who can do their jobs.

SECOND THOUGHTS: More than 20% of workers said one of the main reasons they aren't taking all of their vacation days is because they don’t want to appear replaceable. “Fundamentally what’s going on there is fear,” Michael Leiter, a psychology professor at Acadia University, told the Huffington Post. Leiter, who studies our relationship with work, says, “People are afraid if they’re not present and they’re not continually churning stuff out that bad things are going to happen.”

Falling corn prices help push commodity prices lower

Who would've thought we could grow too much corn? The industrial food companies put it in almost everything we eat, and, of course, corn is also used to make the alcohol blended into motor fuel. Yet months of timely rain and mild weather have resulted in a bumper crop that's sent prices down 20% since the end of May. Indeed, the Bloomberg Commodity Index is down 6.3% percent this summer, moving in the opposite direction of the major stock indexes.

Only 1 in 8 California homeowners have earthquake insurance

After Saturday's big shake near Sonoma, a lot of us might be wondering why so few homeowners in the most quake-prone part of the country have protection? The reason: high premiums and high deductibles. Earthquake coverage is like flood insurance; it must be purchased in addition to the routine property insurance everyone must have for fire and wind storms. The average California quake policy cost $676 last year, which is about $40 more than the national average for flood policies. The typical quake insurance deductible is 10% or 15% of a home's value. So if you have a $750,000 home, the first $75,000 or $112,500 in damage isn't covered. Deductibles for flood insurance can be as low as $1,000 for structural damage and another $1,000 for ruined contents.

Fewer families need food stamps as economy improves

One measure of economic distress has now fallen for six straight months — participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. About 46.25 million people were enrolled in May, according to the most recent report from the Department of Agriculture. That’s down 3.2% from a high of almost 47.8 million in December 2012. The number of recipients rose 27% during the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009 and continued to grow during the first few, frustratingly slow years of recovery. This year's turnaround indicates the economy is finally improving enough to improve the finances of even the hardest-hit households.

Average employer contribution to retirement plans 4.3% of pay

How much does your employer contribute to your 401(k) or other defined-contribution retirement plan? That's a serious question for each of us to ask because Fidelity Investments says more than one-third of all contributions made to the 13 million accounts it manages come from employers. As of June 30, the average employer contribution was 4.3% of each employee's pay, or $3,540 a year, which is more than $1,000 higher than the average employer contribution 10 years ago. A new Fidelity survey says about two out of every five employees would be willing to take a cut in pay if employers would boost that even more.

SECOND THOUGHTS: If the only retirement plan your employer offers is a 401(k) account, you've got to sign up and make the most of it. We can't guarantee that you'll be able to build the nest egg you need for the retirement you want. But we can guarantee this: Some savings will always be better than no savings. You'll be incredibly grateful for every dollar you set aside. Our 7 simple rules for a successful 401(k) account can help you do as well as possible by making all the right decisions about your retirement plan.

Middle-income families will spend $245,340 raising a kid born last year

The government's annual report on how much it costs to have children is out, and that's how much the typical family (those with a household income of $61,530 to $106,540) will spend getting one to 18 years old (in constant 2013 dollars). It works out to $12,800 to $14,970 a year, and housing is projected to be the largest cost, accounting for 30% of the total. The total expense is up a modest 1.8% from the cost of raising a child born in 2012.

SECOND THOUGHTS: You know what's not in those numbers? The cost of sending your kids to college. Those are expenditures you usually incur after they've turned 18. So maybe we can add a couple of thoughts about saving — and borrowing — for college. First, a state-sponsored, tax-free college savings plans might be exactly what you need. Here's how to decide if a 529 plan is right for your family. If your son or daughter needs to borrow money for their education, you shouldn't cosign their loans. That may sound cruel, but unless you’re very careful when taking on debt for your child’s education, you could be endangering your own financial livelihood — and you might not be doing your child any favors, either. A growing number of moms, dads and even grandparents are getting stuck with a debt they can't hope to repay. In some instances, they wind up having their Social Security benefits garnished to cover the student loans their kids or even grandkids defaulted on.

Time to get your workload under control

Many of us need to work a little less — and stress about work a lot less. The United States ranked a poor 28th among industrialized nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's most recent Better Life Index. It's not just a matter of how much time you have to spend with your family. Your health is at stake here, too. A 2010 study conducted by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that social stress, the kind anxiety associated with work, can cause long-term metabolic changes that make us more prone to obesity.

Average contribution to IRAs reach all-time high of $4,150 a year

How much are you contributing to your IRA? Fidelity Investments says the average contribution to the 7 million Individual Retirement Accounts it holds reached $4,150 for tax year 2013, a 5.7% increase from 2012 and an all-time high. That's closing in on the maximum amount we're allowed to put in our Individual Retirement Accounts — $5,500 for savers under 50 and $6,500 for savers over 50. (The caps are the same for 2013 and 2014.) The average balance in those accounts rose nearly 10% to $89,100. Account holders in their 50s had an average balance of $83,100. Those in their 60s, $138,200.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Saving for retirement isn't always easy, but you'll have an easier time building financial security if you avoid some major pitfalls and make a few savvy decisions along the way. Our 10 secrets to successfully save for retirement can help.

Average round-trip airline ticket rises to over $500, outpaces inflation

If you think your summer airline travel cost more than last year, you're probably right. A new Associated Press analysis of ticket data found the average price of a round-trip flight within the U.S. for the first half of 2014 was $509.15. That’s around $14 more than we were paying last year. After adjusting for inflation, airfares have risen 10.7% over the past five years.

Median net worth down by about one-third over the past decade

A new study from the Russell Sage Foundation found that media household wealth — the point at which half of all households have more money and half have less — has not still not recovered from the Great Recession. According to the foundation's report, the inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household fell by about a third, from $87,992 in 2003 to $56,335 last year. More affluent families, whose wealth fell into the top 5% of all households, saw their net worth increase 14% during those same 10 years.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Where does your net worth fall? Above or below the household median. (Not sure? Use our net worth calculator to see where you stand.) The reason median household wealth has not fully recovered from the Great Recession has to do with who owns what. Affluent households are more likely to own stocks, which have fully rebounded from the market crash of 2009 to reach new record highs. Less affluent families had far more of their net worth tied up in real estate, primarily their homes. By mid-2013, home prices were still 20% below their mid-2007 values.

Surging oil production moves us toward energy independence

The Middle East is in turmoil again, but we're decreasingly dependent on the region for our energy supplies. The United States produced 347 million barrels of oil in May, far outstripping the 280 million barrels of oil we imported. Domestic production was up more than 15% from May 2013. As a result, we spent only $27.4 billion on foreign petroleum that month —  the smallest amount since November 2010 — and helping to reduce the overall trade gap by 7%.

Disposable income is up, but personal savings still lags

Our real disposable income — what the typical worker earns after taking inflation and taxes into account — rose to $37,492 in June. Although that's a modest 1.6% increase over the past 12 months, it beats the average annual growth of less than 0.9% a year that we've seen over the past decade. We saved 5.3% of what we earned that month, a pretty typical personal savings rate for the first half of the year (average savings rate for January through June: 5.1%).

SECOND THOUGHTS: Use these numbers to see where you stand with regard to how much you make and save. We keep watching disposable income to see if the improving economy might finally provide workers with a serious boost in buying (and savings) power. But while some economists have predicted that wages will rise 4% in 2015 — a rate we haven't seen since the '80s — there's no indication of that yet. As for savings, we're keeping more of our paychecks than before the recession (when the savings rate fell below 3%) but not as much as during the downturn (when the savings rate reached as high as 6%). Of course, it's nowhere near the 12% to 15% we need to be investing in ourselves to ensure a safe and secure retirement. See if our 10 secrets to save for retirement can help you build financial security.

Kim Kardashian takes our money with a smartphone game

The Colbert Report
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"Free games" for smartphones are getting to be a joke. They virtually all encourage players — especially kids — to make in-game purchases that can add big bucks to your wireless bill. Take, for example, the new "free" game called "Kim Kardashian Hollywood." Players are prompted to spend anywhere from $4.99 to $99.99 for game-aiding "koins" as they climb from celebrity's "E list" to "A List." Reports say Kardashian is making $700,000 a day from those purchases. Click above to get a full report from Stephen Colbert on this dreadful waste of money.

Families abandoning coasts, moving inland for affordable housing

The New York Times reports that the country’s fastest-growing cities are now those where housing is more affordable than average, a decisive reversal from the early years of the millennium, when easy credit allowed cities to grow without regard to housing costs and when the fastest-growing cities had housing that was less affordable than the national average. Among people who have moved long distances, the number who cite housing costs as their primary reason has more than doubled since 2007.

Take advantage of this deal on 15-month CDs

Synchrony Bank has a new deal on 15-month CDs that pays 1.2% APY with a $2,000 minimum deposit. Although these certificates of deposit are available to savers nationwide, they must be bought online using the promo code BON12. They pay slightly more than the top nationally available offer on 1-year CDs — 1.10% APY — which is also from Synchrony. It's one of the two FDIC-insured retail banks owned by GE Capital, the financial arm of the big manufacturer.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Odd-term specials are always something to consider when investing in CDs, and you won't find them in our database of the best CD rates for more common terms, from 3 months to 5 years.

Fed follows plan, cuts bond purchases for August and September

The Federal Reserve continues unwinding its bond-buying binge. The nation's bank-for-banks began buying $85 billion worth of debt a month in September 2012, a fairly even split between Treasury bills and bonds backed by thousands of home loans. By flooding the mortgage market with money, it pushed mortgage rates to record lows in an attempt to boost real estate sales and property values. In a process the Fed refers to as tapering, it began reducing those purchases this January and bought only $35 billion worth in June and July. At the Fed's policy committee meeting on Wednesday, that amount was cut again, to just $25 billion for August and September. If all goes according to the plan laid out in Fed minutes, the bank will buy a final $15 billion in October and that will be that.

SECOND THOUGHTS: When the Fed began cutting back its bond purchases, economists expected mortgage rates would go up. But that hasn't happened. They've gone down because the demand for home loans has crashed to a 17-year low. Whether the Fed is buying mortgages or not has become kind of irrelevant. Click here to read more about the state of summer mortgage rates.

Economy bounces back from cold, bad winter

Everyone needs to take a good, deep breath. The economy expanded at a stronger-than-expected annual rate of 4% during the spring. It was exactly the kind of rebound everyone expected after severe winter weather caused the nation's GDP (gross domestic product) to contract at a rate of just over 2% in the first three months of the year. Consumer spending was up 2.5%, driven by the biggest gain in durable goods — cars, appliances, that sort of thing — in almost five years. “The economy is looking pretty darned good,” Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group Inc. in Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg News. So we can all stop worrying. The recovery is still on track.

Students borrow less if they know the future monthly payments

Troubled by an increase in student loan defaults, Indiana University decided to take a simple step that every college should follow. It began to tell prospective borrowers what their monthly payment would be after graduation and how much they would owe. BloombergBusinessweek says that information had a dramatic effect on students’ willingness to borrow. Federal undergraduate Stafford loan disbursements dropped 11%, or $31 million, in the nine months that ended March 31 from a year earlier.

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