Beyond the Headlines: Buying Happiness, Risks for ‘Pandemials,’ and Retirement Fools

Personal finance news and research you may have missed

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The country’s new president has dominated even the top financial news of late, with his ambitious economic agenda—including a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief proposal (part of the government needing to “act big,” according to his Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen) and immediate extensions on various government relief for renters and student loan borrowers. 

Then there’s his choice to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the watchdog agency charged with protecting against abusive lending) and a drumbeat of bad news about joblessness 10 months into the pandemic. 

But did you know that some scientists now think money actually can buy happiness, and that men are more likely to overestimate their knowledge about retirement planning than women? 

To reach beyond the biggest headlines, we scoured the latest research, surveys, studies, and commentary to bring you the most interesting and relevant personal finance news.

What We Found

Men Are More Likely to Fool Themselves

Feeling financially secure about retirement is tricky enough without fooling yourself about what you know.

While most men and women in a recent survey failed a retirement literacy quiz, the men tended to overestimate themselves while the women were more realistic about their level of knowledge, and in turn, more open to working with a financial advisor, according to findings published this month by the American College. 

The online survey, given in April and May, found that men claimed to have higher levels of knowledge and then tested poorly, while women’s self-reported knowledge was more aligned to their actual poor scores. Respondents took a 38-question quiz about retirement planning, life insurance, medical care, and related topics, and on average, women got a dismal 38% of questions right, and men, 47% right. 

“Women will admit when they don’t know and prioritize professional financial education and advice,” the researchers wrote in a report. Women were more likely than men to report an ongoing relationship with a financial advisor by a margin of 61% to 54%. 

Given their more realistic, modest tendencies, perhaps it’s best that more than 90% of women with partners or spouses reported either leading the way in financial and investment decision-making in their households or sharing the responsibility equally. 

The survey polled 1,509 people ages 50 to 75 who had at least $100,000 in household assets outside of their primary residence.

Turns Out Money Does Buy Happiness 

The old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness may not be true, if an analysis published in the January issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is any guide.

While past research suggested happiness plateaued for people with annual household income of more than $75,000, Matthew Killingsworth at the University of Pennsylvania found that there’s no such ceiling. Higher incomes are associated with both feeling better day-to-day and being more satisfied with life overall. 

Killingsworth used data from a mobile app called Track Your Happiness to collect 1.7 million real-time reports from 33,391 U.S. smartphone users ages 18 to 65 and employed. He then examined the relationship to household income. When he plotted the data on a graph, Killingsworth found happiness rose linearly with income, with an equally steep slope above incomes of $80,000 as below it. Positive happy feelings included feeling confident, inspired, and proud, while negative feelings included feeling afraid, angry, stressed, and sad. 

Borrowers Treat Forbearance Like a Safety Net 

Besides stimulus checks and extra unemployment benefits, many households have been offered a break from loan payments to get through this pandemic economy.

But you might be surprised to learn only 10% of eligible mortgage borrowers requested forbearance relief, and of those, about a third kept paying in full anyway. This is according to January research from Stanford University, Columbia University, Northwestern University, and the University of Southern California, which posits that forbearance acts like a line of credit, allowing the borrowers to “draw” on payment deferral if needed.

Still, between March and October of last year, an estimated $2 trillion worth of household debt with 60 million people—including mortgages, student loans, auto loans, and credit cards—entered some kind of forbearance, and by the end of the first quarter, $70 billion in debt is likely to go unpaid.

The study, highlighted in a non-peer-reviewed working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, relied on monthly data from more than 20 million U.S. borrowers tracked by the credit bureau Equifax.

Those Paid Basic Income Work Hard Anyway

The job-decimating pandemic has driven researchers and policymakers to take a second look at the idea of the government providing people with a “universal basic income” regardless of whether or not they have jobs. But critics of the long-debated concept say people wouldn’t work as hard if they were given money unconditionally.

A team of Spanish academics put this criticism to the test in an experiment. Nine hundred people, mostly college students, were asked to count letters in a text and add up numbers, and were paid according to how much work they did. Some of the subjects were also given a “basic income” equal to about one-fifth of the median pay of the others.

Comparing the performance of the two groups, it turned out that workers whose pay was supplemented by basic income were just as productive as those who did not receive the bonus.

“Universal basic income protects the income of workers without making them less productive,” the researchers wrote in an article published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications in December.

‘Pandemials’

It was only about a decade before the pandemic that the world was reeling from a financial crisis, and this double whammy may have a particularly profound impact on young adults ages 15 to 24.

In fact, the World Economic Forum (WEF)—perhaps best known for its annual conference in Davos, Switzerland—has coined the term “pandemials” for the group, warning in its 2021 Global Risks Report that they are at risk of becoming the “double lost generation of the 21st century,” facing threats to their education, economic prospects, and mental health. 

Pandemials have not only grown up during the financial crisis, but seen rising inequality and disruption from advancing technology. In their short lifetimes, there has been increasing social unrest, a worsening climate crisis, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, the WEF said in its report.

With the pandemic economy exacerbating the threat of increasing automation, many are entering the workforce during “an employment ice age,” the WEF said. And any job loss now could hurt their future earnings. Even one month unemployed between ages 18 and 20 can cause a permanent income loss of 2% in the future.

A Different Kind of Commuter Benefit 

If you dread the possibility of going back to a commute later this year, there are upsides, say economics professors at RMIT University in Australia.

Commuting to and from work may be a tedious chore you’re happy to have given up during the pandemic, but it serves as a buffer, providing much-needed psychological benefits, the professors wrote this month in an article in The Conversation.

“Commuting can be a ritual that helps us psychologically separate home life and work—switching off from personal concerns in the morning, and then detaching from work worries in the evening,” they wrote, citing decades of research.

Almost 42% of the U.S. workforce was telecommuting this fall, according to an Upwork survey of hiring managers, and even after the pandemic (hopefully) recedes, it’s expected to be far more popular. By 2025, some 36.2 million people are estimated to be working remotely—an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels, Upwork said. 

Thankfully, the RMIT researchers say there are ways to mentally cordon off home and work without actually commuting, so don’t fret if you’re not planning to go back to an office. Try going for a morning walk or changing into work clothes.