Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, is a distinguished professor at Rutgers University. She served as the Journal of Financial Planning’s academic editor from 2016 through 2019.
Martie Gillen, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Florida.
For the past five years during December, the Military Families Learning Network personal finance team has presented a 90-minute webinar for financial educators and counselors that reviews key personal finance news stories that took place during the previous calendar year. It is one of just a few comprehensive annual reviews of personal finance research, events, legislation, trends, and educational resources in existence (NEFE and Next Gen Personal Finance also do financial trend reviews). The webinars are an eclectic collection of facts and figures on a wide variety of personal finance related topics.
This article presents a 2019 Personal Finance Year in Review webinar summary with embedded source links provided for additional information. Information is organized according to its placement in various webinar segments beginning with empirical research findings and concluding with a preview of 2020 annual limits related to financial planning.
Financial literacy and knowledge. The 2019 TIAA personal finance survey of American adults revealed that only 51 percent correctly answered the P-Fin Index questions; increasing slightly since 2017 (49 percent) and 2018 (50 percent). The highest levels of knowledge were in the area of borrowing and managing debt; the lowest area was comprehending risk.
It's important to note that financial literacy varies across demographic groups where males, older adults, those with higher income and education, and employed and retired persons answered more questions correctly. Video vignettes may be a useful tool to improve the viewer's financial knowledge. Researchers found that video vignettes of a conversation with a financial planner and client discussing Social Security options improved Social Security savvy among adults who viewed the short videos.
Emotions and finances. The FINRA Investor Education Foundation found that over 50 percent of individuals who completed the 2018 National Financial Capability Study experienced anxiety when thinking about their finances. Another study found that about 25 percent of older adults reported feelings of isolation, which could shorten life expectancy as much as smoking.
Financial goals. Researchers found that respondents often practiced sequencing financial goals instead of funding them simultaneously. To counter that mind-set, young adults should be encouraged to fund concurrent financial goals to not delay retirement savings.
Offering a master list of financial goals may help clients identify goals that are truly important to them and avoid "blind spots." Researchers found that about one-fourth of people changed their top financial goal when prompted with reminders about other goals. A key take-away for practice is to stop using unreliable top-of-mind financial goal discussions and, instead, offer clients a master list to identify goals.
Other researchers found that framing savings deposits in daily amounts instead of monthly amounts quadrupled the number of people who enrolled in savings programs. A key take-away for practice includes breaking down large goals into small steps.
Another study found that about 46 percent of respondents did not have a three-month emergency fund. Interestingly, another study found that mentioning dismal statistics like the one above actually motivated fewer people to save because they see themselves as a part of a large group and a growing trend.
Spending triggers. Researchers found that using peer pressure helped individuals reduce their spending. For example, individuals spent less when they were told that they have been spending more than others in similar circumstances. Other research found that 57 percent of millennials spent money they weren't planning to on products they saw in their social media feeds.
College expenses and student loans. In 2018–2019, tuition and fees averaged $35,830 for private colleges, and $10,230 for in-state public colleges. Students typically relied on a number of resources to fund their higher education including scholarships/grants (31 percent of costs); borrowed money/loans (24 percent of costs); family savings and income (43 percent of costs); and friends and family (2 percent of costs).
Twenty-five percent of families did not file a FAFSA, thereby missing potential aid. About 42 percent of student loan holders were late with a payment at least once in 2018. Other researchers found that high school personal finance course mandates were associated with smarter student loan borrowing decisions including applying for federal financial aid.
Second jobs or side hustles. According to FINRA, almost 30 percent of employed Americans earned money from work outside of their main employment in 2018. Bankrate's Side Hustle Survey found that this number held constant for 2019 and could be a result of income stagnation. Interestingly, they found that wealthier and more educated people were more likely to have side jobs. An average of about 12 hours per week were spent on side hustles resulting in an average monthly income of $1,122 or about $13,000 per year.
Home buying. Research from the JP Morgan Chase Institute found that liquidity is a more useful predictor of mortgage default than home equity. The researchers found that having a mortgage borrower put more of their own money down for a new home did not prevent them from defaulting on a loan. In fact, allowing borrowers to maintain the money in their bank instead of using if for a down payment helped them pay their mortgages and keep their loans in good standing. For example, borrowers who had savings equivalent to less than one monthly payment in the bank after closing defaulted five times more frequently than those with three to four months of mortgage payments in savings.
Other researchers found that millennials used "questionable tactics" that may affect their liquidity, such as tapping 401(k)s, moving in with others, or selling personal items to fund house down payments.
Charitable donations of stock. Based on Monte Carlo simulations that resulted in higher wealth and lower portfolio risk over time, researchers recommended that donors should donate appreciated shares equal in value to the cash contribution they were willing to donate. Donors should then use the available cash to purchase more of the least-weighted stocks in the investor's portfolio. Stock must be held for more than a year for this strategy to be beneficial.
Cryptocurrencies. Researchers identified a link between problem gambling and frequently trading cryptocurrencies, which would be considered a new risk-taking activity with a rush. In fact, more than 50 percent of regular gamblers (those who have gambled at least monthly in the past year) have traded cryptocurrencies.
Retirement health. The average 401(k) contribution rate was about 8.8 percent of a worker's salary in the first quarter of 2019 with an average employer match 4.7 percent.
Twenty-three percent of U.S. workers say they never plan to retire, despite realities of aging in the workforce. Researchers at Stanford found that workers who have a more thorough understanding of personal finance are likely to save more money and be more proactive about participating in an employer plan when it is optional (opt-in). However, they also found no evidence that financial literacy is associated with savings decisions under an automatic enrollment employer plan. A key take-away for practice is that defaults for contribution amount and investment choice shouldn't be viewed as one-size-fits-all.
Another concern for retirement health is physical health risks. Dementia is a major cause of disability and financial loss. In the next 30 years, the number of cases is expected to triple and could threaten not only the health of many individuals, but also the financial livelihood of many families.
Key Findings from Government Data
Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED). This survey revealed that about one-third of American adults have an inconsistent family income that varies from month to month. Further, about 25 percent of young adults under age 30 receive financial support from someone living outside of their home. Almost 40 percent of respondents could not cover a one-time $400 expense; 27 percent stated they would borrow or sell something to cover the expense; and 12 percent could not cover the expense at all. About 20 percent of respondents had experienced major unexpected medical bills while 25 percent skipped medical care because they could not afford the cost of care. Their typical student loan payment ranged from $200 to $299 per month. About 25 percent of non-retired respondents had no savings or pension.
Poverty and health insurance. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that fewer Americans are living in poverty but more lack health insurance. In fact, 27.5 million (8.5 percent of the population) lacked health insurance in 2018, compared to 7.9 percent in 2017. This is the first increase since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) took full effect in 2014. Meanwhile, the poverty rate fell to 11.8 percent—the lowest level since 2001.
Federal financial literacy reform. A report by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on coordinating and improving financial literacy efforts had the following key recommendations: coordination of existing federal financial literacy program to avoid duplicate activities; leverage the work of non-profits, the private sector, and state/local governments; identify best practices and metrics for evidence-based effective programs; and identify challenges and opportunities associated with technology.
Best practices for higher education. The U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission 2019 report had the following key recommendations regarding best practices for financial literacy and education at institutions for higher education: identify best practices for evidence-based, effective financial education programs; communicate the importance of graduation and major on repayment of student loans; and prepare students for financial obligations upon graduation.
Youth financial education. A 2019 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau included the following key take-aways: well-implemented state financial education mandates lead to clear improvements in financial behaviors; many U.S. financial education programs improve financial knowledge for students; and other countries have used more widespread randomized controlled trials to study program effects with useful information.
Key Financial Events and Trends
Income taxes. 2019 was the first tax filing season following the implementation of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which took effect primarily during 2018. More than 25 million taxpayers switched to claiming the standard deduction, instead of itemizing, and the share of tax returns with Schedule A deductions dropped to about 10 percent from 30% percent. The most common remaining itemized deductions were state and local taxes, charitable donations, and mortgage interest. As a result of the changes, 1.6 million people who received tax refunds in 2018 owed the government money during the 2019 tax filing season (more on this next).
Tax under-withholding penalties. The IRS acknowledged that 2017 tax law changes were confusing to many taxpayers and that its withholding calculator did not account for all relevant factors. As a result, more than 20 percent of taxpayers didn't pay enough taxes in 2018. In January, the IRS relaxed the penalty for having enough tax withheld for 2018 taxes and lowered the threshold from 90 percent of tax owed to 85 percent. In addition, the IRS introduced a new, more accurate, tax withholding estimator calculator during the summer of 2019.
New tax form for older filers. A new tax form, 1040-SR, was unveiled by the IRS in July and will be available for filing 2019 taxes in 2020. It has a larger font size than the standard 1040 form and a prominent chart for calculating the standard deduction. Taxpayers who use the new form must be at least 65 but not necessarily retired. Small business owners and itemizers, however, still need to use the standard 1040 form.
New tax withholding form. A draft of a redesigned W-4 federal income tax withholding form for 2020 was announced in July 2019. The 2020 form eliminates the term "withholding allowances," and instead includes a five-step process with steps two through four being optional. Eliminating allowances aligns with the suspension of personal exemptions from 2018 through 2025 as a result of the TCJA.
State health insurance penalties. Starting in 2019, there is no federal penalty (shared responsibility payment) for individuals not having health insurance. It was discontinued as part of the TCJA. However, certain states have enacted their own health care mandates and penalties for not having health insurance, including New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Vermont, and Massachusetts.
Health insurance coverage. By August 2019, the number of people buying health insurance coverage on the individual market and paying the entire cost themselves decreased by 651,000 (5 percent) following the repeal of the ACA individual mandate penalty. However, marketplace plans, where people are eligible for premium tax credits, saw their enrollment hold steady.
Credit card interest. The average annual percentage rate (APR) on credit cards in Fall 2019 was about 17 percent, near its highest rate in more than two decades. The increase is a result of creditors charging higher interest rates to offset generous rewards programs that are eating into their profits.
Lenders' average margin in August was 11.72 percent, the highest margin on record. According to Federal Reserve data, the average amount owed by U.S. households with credit card balances was $8,602. According to CreditCards.com, the average APR on private-label retail store cards reached a record high of 27.5 percent.
Housing affordability. The Wall Street Journal analyzed Census Bureau data and reported that even high-earning Americans are having difficulty buying homes, especially in expensive coastal housing markets. Reasons include high housing prices and lack of savings for a down payment. In 2019, about 19 percent of U.S. households with six-figure incomes were renters. Developers are responding to the increased demand for rental housing by building luxury apartment buildings and family-sized rental houses.
Crypto asset ratings. In October, the investment rating firm Morningstar announced that it is planning an evaluation system for "debt securities issued as tokens on a Blockchain." It is estimated that a formal rating system could attract billions of dollars to crypto-assets, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, because they will make the asset class more credible. Morningstar plans to launch public ratings and a premium service that will help clients evaluate crypto-assets as investments.
High interest savings. Robo-advisory firm Betterment announced in July 2019 that it is offering banking services and began offering a savings account called Betterment EverydayTM with FDIC insurance, a 2.69 percent promotional yield, unlimited withdrawals, and no minimum balance. It joined a number of fintech firms, including rival robo-adviser Wealthfront, that are offering returns that well exceed the national average of 0.1 percent on savings accounts. A companion checking account product by Betterment is also planned. The target market is young adults who want to avoid high fees and low yields.
ATM fees. For the 15th straight year, ATM fees reached a record high. The average surcharge for non-customers to use an ATM to withdraw cash was $3.09, and the fee charged to customers to use a foreign ATM was $1.63. The average overdraft fee was $33.36.
New car prices. Kelley Blue Book reported an estimated cost of $37,401 for new light vehicles in the U.S., an increase of $723 over the past year. According to Experian, the average new car loan amount is $32,119, and the average new car loan term is 69.17 months. According to AAA, every 12 months that a car loan is extended costs an owner nearly $1,000 in additional finance charges. AAA also reported a record average yearly cost of $9,282 ($773.50 per month) for vehicle ownership.
State-level fiduciary rules. A year ago, in 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor's proposed fiduciary rule was vacated by a federal court. In 2019, some states attempted to implement their own state-level fiduciary rules as a result of dissatisfaction with the SEC's new standard of conduct for broker-dealers. States that have been actively pursuing legislation, with varying degrees of success, include Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York.
Capital One hack. Once again, the personal identification information of millions of Americans was stolen in a hack that affected roughly 106 million Capital One customers and credit card applicants. The data were stored on Amazon.com cloud server, and a "poorly configured firewall" and "poor controls" were blamed for the breach. Take-aways for clients are to freeze your credit, change passwords, monitor your credit, and set up two-factor authentication such as challenge questions or a code sent via text messaging.
Equifax hack settlement. In 2019, the 2017 Equifax data hack that affected about 147 million people was settled in a deal totaling at least $575 million and as much as $700 million that included the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and all 50 states. This amount includes $300 million for free credit monitoring services, $175 million to the states, and $100 million in CFPB penalties. Consumers were offered up to 10 years of free credit monitoring or up to $125 (depending on the number of claims filed). Starting in 2020, they can also request up to six free Equifax credit reports each year for seven years and up to $20,000 in cost recovery if identity theft occurred after the breach. The deadline to file a claim is January 22, 2020.
Federal Reserve interest rate cuts. In October, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates for the third time. In doing so, it reversed nearly all of 2018's rate increases. Reported reasons for the interest rate cuts included heading off a possible recession sparked by trade tensions and global troubles and insulating the American economy to continue its record 10-year expansion. The Fed also announced that it would pause any future interest rate changes to assess new economic data. The rate decreases have helped to lower mortgage interest rates and other consumer borrowing costs.
Stock market performance. The stock market rebounded to start the year and overcame a bout of volatility in May. Strong returns were reported by the end of the second quarter and, by late November the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite indexes closed at record highs. Key factors affecting stock market performance in 2019 were Federal Reserve actions, monthly jobs reports, and the U.S.-China trade war and tariffs. By mid-November, the current bull market, which started on March 9, 2009, was declared the best-performing bull market since World War II with a gain of 468 percent for the S&P 500 through the first day of November. On November 15, 2019, the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached 28,000 for the first time.
Child savings accounts. For years, people in politics and public policy circles promoted the concept of child savings accounts. Starting in 2019, Pennsylvania has turned this concept into reality by investing $100 for every baby born or adopted in 2019, to be used for the child's future higher-education expenses. Called the Keystone Scholars program, the pilot program is grounded in research that indicates that having any type of bank account increases the chances fourfold that a child from a low-income family will attend college.
Small business 401(k)s. A July 2019 Department of Labor rule makes it easier for small businesses to band together and offer a joint 401(k) plan, called an Association Retirement Plan or ARP, for their employees. ARPs can be offered by employers within a city, county, state, or multi-state metropolitan area or in a nationwide industry. ARPs address the problem that about 38 million private sector workers lack access to an employer retirement savings plan.
Working baby boomers. A majority of baby boomers (ages 55 to 73 in 2019) are still in the labor force with 29 percent of the oldest Boomers age 65+ working or looking for work. This is the highest labor force participation rate for this age group in more than half a century. While about 10,000 boomers turn 65 every day, only about 5,900 exit the labor force daily. Key factors related to this trend are labor force participation of boomer women and workers' expectations that they will work past age 65 for a variety of reasons.
Millennials near middle age. The oldest members of Gen Y (millennials) turned 38 in 2019. The youngest are 23. The Wall Street Journal reported that they are "approaching middle age in worse financial shape than every living generation ahead of them." Millennials have less wealth, less property, lower marriage rates, and fewer children, resulting in U.S. birth rates at their lowest levels in 32 years. The current birthrate is expected to create a Social Security deficit of nearly $2 trillion.
Social Security and Medicare. According to 2019 projections by the Social Security Board of Trustees, the program's expenses will exceed its income in 2020 for the first time since 1982. Social Security's reserve fund is expected to be depleted in 2035, at which time beneficiaries will receive smaller payments than scheduled if Congress does not take action. Medicare is expected to be insolvent even sooner—in 2026. There have been increasing calls to establish a bipartisan commission to address the program's future sustainability, as was done in 1981 when Social Security trust funds were nearly empty.
Payday loan protections. The CFPB rolled back proposed regulations from the Obama era that would have required payday lenders to ensure that borrowers could repay their loans before issuing cash advances. The agency said that there was "insufficient evidence and legal support for the verification requirements" and that "rescinding this requirement would increase consumer access to credit." The move affected millions of people who have taken out these high-cost loans.
The demise of Money magazine. The last print copy of Money magazine was published in June 2019 after a 47-year run. The magazine will keep its website and continue to develop digital content. One reason given for the folding of Money is that constantly updated financial news is widely available online, often for free.
Financial fragility. The 35-day federal government shutdown that ended in January 2019 exposed what happens when large numbers of Americans without emergency savings miss several paychecks. A follow-up study of 350 unpaid federal workers and contractors by Prudential found that nearly half fell behind on their bills during the shutdown and more than a quarter missed a mortgage or rent payment. In a majority of cases, the workers burned through most or all of their emergency savings.
State financial literacy course requirements. A record number of new course mandates or proposals for courses were considered by state legislatures during the past year. A commonly cited reason for the recent flurry of activity is the steady rise of student loan debt over the past decade. In July, North Carolina became the 20th state to require a financial literacy class for high schoolers.
Consumer debt. For the first time ever, Americans' collective debt exceeded $4 trillion. The increase was attributed to 2018 holiday spending, rising student loan balances, and an increase in the cost of automobile financing. Consumers, on average, are spending about 10 percent of their disposable income on non-mortgage debts including credit cards, car loans, student loans, and personal loans.
Rising car loan delinquencies. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, some 7 million Americans are 90-plus days behind on car loan payments. This is the highest level in the bank's 19-year history of collecting this data and more than a million more "troubled borrowers" than there were at the end of 2010. The New York Fed also reported that the overall performance of auto loans "has been slowly worsening." Younger Americans are struggling with car loans the most.
50th anniversary of financial planning. 2019 saw the celebration of the 50th anniversary of a meeting held in December 1969 where 13 people from different areas of the financial planning industry met at a hotel in Chicago and planted the seeds of what would become the financial planning profession. The participants wanted to focus holistically on clients' needs and goals rather than selling financial products. Subsequently, the first class of 42 Certified Financial Planners graduated in 1973. Today, there are about 85,000 CFP® practitioners in the United States and about 181,360 worldwide. 2019 also marked the 40th anniversary if the Financial Planning Associations' Journal of Financial Planning.
30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. People today take fintech apps, social media, and financial services company web sites for granted. Thirty years ago, they did not exist. The start of the World Wide Web (Internet) is attributed to a computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, who published a paper in 1989 that proposed a web of hypertext documents that could be viewed through a browser.
Government Legislation and Policy Changes
SECURE Act passes. The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act was enacted as part of a year-end budget appropriations bill that passed on Dec. 19, 2019. It was subsequently signed by President Trump. Among its key provisions are:
- The start date for Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) was pushed back from age 70.5 to 72.
- Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) from traditional IRAs can still begin at age 70.5.
- Traditional IRA contributions are no longer prohibited at age 70.5 and beyond.
- Replacement of "stretch" provisions with a new 10-year rule for non-spouse beneficiaries of IRAs and defined contribution plans.
- Provisions to encourage the adoption and use of retirement plans by small businesses.
- 401(k) plan loans may no longer be made via credit cards.
- The "hurdle" for deductible qualified medical expenses remains at 7.5 percent of AGI for 2019 and 2020.
For a comprehensive summary of the SECURE Act, review this blog post by Michael Kitces.
"Surprise" medical bills. "Surprise" medical bills expose millions of people to out-of-network charges that can cost thousands of dollars. Common examples are emergency transportation to a hospital that is not in an insurer's network and emergency room physicians and anesthesiologists that are not contracted with an insurer. The Kaiser Foundation estimates that roughly 1 in 6 times that someone is taken to an emergency room or checks into a hospital, a surprise medical bill follows. Legislation to protect patients was debated by Congress during 2019 but stalled following intense lobbying against it by deep-pocketed opponents.
New Financial Education Resources
A very useful document that gets updated every year is the College for Financial Planning's Annual Limits Relating to Financial Planning. This publication includes key numbers related to income taxes, retirement savings plans, Social Security and Medicare, estate planning, and more.
Next Gen Personal Finance (ngpf.org), a California non-profit that provides curricula and professional development for financial educators, reported the addition of several materials during 2019, including a nine-week personal finance course for teachers, resources and course material for teaching alternative to four-year college, and several activities and games to engage students.
Looking Ahead to 2020
Modest changes were announced for the Social Security earnings limit, which will rise from $17,640 per year in 2019 to $18,240 per year in 2020. The amount of earnings required to earn a quarter of coverage will increase from $1,360 in a three-month period in 2019 to $1,410 in 2020. And, the maximum monthly Social Security benefit will rise from $2,861 (2019) to $3,011 (2020). Maximum taxable earnings subject to Social Security tax will be $137,700 in 2020, up from $132,900 in 2019. The cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits in 2020 is 1.6 percent.
Modest changes were also announced for tax-deferred savings plans. The contribution limit for self-only health savings accounts (HSAs) will increase by $50 in 2020 from $3,500 to $3,550. Family plan contributions will increase by $100 from $7,000 to $7,100, and catch-up contributions for people age 55 and older ($1,000) will remain the same.
In 2020, the required amount for high-deductible health plan (HDHP) minimum deductibles is $1,400 (self-only) and $2,800 (family), respectively, and the HDHP maximum out-of-pocket amounts are $6,900 and $13,800, respectively. The 2020 contribution limit for flexible spending accounts for health care expenses (health FSAs) is $2,750, up $50 from the 2019 limit of $2,700.
Contribution limits for tax-deferred retirement savings plans will change slightly. The maximum amount that workers can contribute to a workplace retirement savings plan will increase $500 from $19,000 in 2019 to $19,500 in 2020. The additional maximum catch-up contribution for workers age 50 and older will increase by $500 to $6,500 from $6,000 for a maximum contribution limit of $26,000 for older workers. The 2019 maximum contribution of $6,000 for an individual retirement account will stay the same in 2020. With the $1,000 catch-up contribution, which also remains unchanged, the maximum traditional and/or Roth IRA contribution for workers age 50 or older at year-end is $7,000.
The 2020 Roth IRA income phase-out ranges will be $124,000 to $139,000 for singles and heads of household and $196,000 to $206,000 for married couples filing jointly. The 2020 Retirement Savers Credit income limits will be $32,500 for singles and married individuals filing separately, $48,750 for heads of household, and $65,000 for married couples filing jointly. The 2020 contribution limit for SIMPLE IRA plans will be $13,500, and the maximum annual pension plan benefit in 2020 will be $230,000, up from $225,000. The 2020 standard deduction amounts are $12,400 for singles and $24,800 for married couples.
The year 2019, like every year before it, presented both financial challenges and opportunities. Several disturbing trends that are expected to carry over into 2020 include rising credit card debt, increased car loan delinquencies, lack of emergency savings and retirement preparedness, low frequency of use of household budgets, and increasing student loan debt that has collectively reached more than $1.6 trillion.
Key take-aways from this year's annual review are:
- The TCJA led to 2018 tax filing season challenges (in 2019) with respect to tax withholding and refunds.
- Since few people now itemize deductions, new charitable donation strategies (e.g., QCDs) are needed.
- Some states are starting to pass laws to deal with issues that the federal government isn't addressing.
- Data hacks are a fact of life and people need to protect themselves with credit freezes and vigilance.
- There continues to be strong evidence of financial fragility (e.g., low savings and high debt) in America.
As always, financial planners need to stay current on the ever-changing financial landscape and how it affects their own personal finances and that of their clients.