Fewer families need food stamps...Average employer contribution to 401(k) plans reaches 4.3%...How much it costs to raise a kid...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.

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 comes 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.

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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

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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.

Zillow gobbles up Trulia in a $3.5 billion merger

After nine years of unprofitable competition, Zillow has struck an all-stock deal to buy Trulia, combining the nation's largest real estate websites. Acquisitions that combine the top providers of any service rarely help consumers. Indeed, the impact on consumers is rarely even considered. (See Comcast wants to buy Time Warner Cable.) In this case, Zillow sees the big advantage of the merger as the ability to offer real estate agents and advertisers a larger platform to market homes and reach potential buyers.

SECOND THOUGHTS: How dominant would Zillow be if the Trulia deal closes sometime in 2015? According to ComScore, the two sites accounted for 89% of all traffic to the 15-most-visited real estate sites on the Web. (And yet neither site is profitable. The tech bubble lives.)

Pathetically few mutual fund managers routinely trounce the market

When the stock market rose 30% last year, many mutual fund managers were crowing. But can they provide a top return year after year? A new study by S&P Dow Jones Indices analyzed the performance of 2,862 broad, actively managed stock funds and asked how many were able to remain in the top quarter of all funds for five successive years. The answer: 2. Several other measures of fund performance led to the same conclusion — very few funds consistently outperform the market.

SECOND THOUGHTS: So there you have it, yet another reason to invest your retirement savings in passively managed index funds that are designed to match, not beat, the performance of the overall stock market. (Or even better, put your money into target date funds that invest in index funds.) Index funds charge much lower fees than managed funds, too.

Saving is just one benefit to long-term thinking

Do you contribute to the 401(k) retirement plan where you work? Then you're more likely to take care of your health as well. That provocative correlation comes from a couple of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. Their two-year study following employees at industrial laundries in eight states also provides evidence that the failure to save and chronic health problems are at least partially driven by the same common bias. It's what psychologists call "time discounting" — the often irrational preference of smaller immediate rewards over larger future rewards.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Becoming a saver, and taking the first step toward financial security, isn't as hard as you might think. Our 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account can walk you through the process and help you make all the right decisions.

Consumer watchdogs want to hear about prepaid debit, gift cards

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has just begun accepting, and investigating, consumer complaints about all types of prepaid or reloadable cards. The bureau requests that companies respond to complaints within 15 days and describe the steps they have taken, or plan to take, to resolve the problem. So if you're having trouble with anything from undisclosed fees to long delays in dealing with fraudulent charges, you can:

  • Go to the complaint page on the CFPB's website and click on "Credit card or prepaid card."
  • Call the toll-free phone number at 1-855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 1-855-729-CFPB (2372).
  • Fax the CFPB at 1-855-237-2392.
  • Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Since the CFPB opened in July 2011, it has been tackling consumers' problems with mortgages, bank accounts, private student loans, auto and other consumer loans, credit reporting, debt collection, payday loans and money transfers. So if you've got an issue with any of these financial services, you can contact the bureau in the same way.

Does your employer have one of the best, or worst, 401(k) plans?

ConocoPhillips and Abbott Laboratories provide their employees with the most lucrative retirement benefits, according to a first-of-its-kind ranking of 401(k) plans by Bloomberg News. ConocoPhillips, a Houston oil and natural gas producer, contributes 9% of annual salaries for employees who save as little as 1% of their pay. Among the least generous of the 250 big companies Bloomberg ranked are Facebook, Amazon and Whole Foods Market. The grocer offers a maximum contribution of $152 annually.

SECOND THOUGHTS: It's very hard to compare the benefits companies provide their employees, and Bloomberg reporters spent six months tracking down and studying company filings to come up with these rankings. Here's where you can find the complete list of companies to see how your benefits stack up.

Debt repayment scams have a new target: Student loans

We probably should have seen this coming. Disreputable companies that charge big up-front fees with big promises to help borrowers reduce their debt and monthly payments have a new target — student loans. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued two debt-settlement companies this month, alleging that Broadsword Student Advantage and First American Tax Defense, tricked customers into paying as much as $1,200 for services they did not, and could not, possibly provide. One of the defendants went so far as to tell customers they'd be enrolled in a nonexistent “Obama forgiveness program.” All these debt settlement companies did —  if they did anything at all —  was enroll customers in government repayment plans they could sign up for themselves. For free.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Too many troubled borrowers are not taking advantage of repayment plans that would tie monthly payments to their income and forgive part of the debt after they make 120 on-time payments. Here's how those student loan repayment plans work.

All the books you can read for $9.99 a month

Amazon launched its highly anticipated e-book subscription service today. Kindle Unlimited allows users to read as much as they want from a catalog of over 600,000 books for a flat fee of $9.99 a month. The Hunger Games, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the new Michael Lewis book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt are among the popular titles available through the service. Some audiobooks are also included.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Interest.com Assistant Managing Editor Mike Cetera, who uses the Kindle app for iPad, says he’s excited about this service. “Look, I spend $10 or more to purchase an e-book book now, so this $9.99 monthly subscription seems like a good deal — if Amazon offers books I want to read.” That’s a big if. The New York Times reported today that “few of the biggest publishers will be making their titles available through the service.” HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House are among the publishers that are not allowing their books into the Kindle Unlimited catalog —  at least not yet.

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