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A Real Saint

Greg Spears

Greg is HumbleDollar's deputy editor. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. After leaving journalism, Greg spent 23 years as a senior editor at Vanguard Group on the 401(k) side, where he implored people to save more for retirement. He currently teaches behavioral economics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia as an adjunct professor. The subject helps shed light on why so many Americans save less than they might. Greg is also a Certified Financial Planner certificate holder.

A Real Saint

Greg Spears  |  Nov 6, 2021

I’D ALWAYS THOUGHT that saints were long-ago martyrs, those people shown in paintings in the Louvre or the Prado.
That’s why I was surprised to find a plaque honoring a 20th century saint at the church I attend in Newcastle, Maine. The saint, Frances Perkins, had worshipped at that very church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, until her death in 1965.
Who was Frances Perkins? My friends often draw a blank at the name, although she helped shape our lives.

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Sludge vs. Nudge

Greg Spears  |  Nov 5, 2021

IF YOU WANT PEOPLE to do something, make it easy. That’s the big idea behind a nudge, which helps people do the right thing for themselves. It turns out that nudge has an evil twin, called sludge. Sludge makes the right thing harder to do. If you look around, sludge is everywhere.
“If you cannot get financial aid without filling out a twenty-page form, then you have been subjected to sludge,” behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write in the new “final” edition of their bestselling book Nudge.

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Rich Pickings

Greg Spears  |  Oct 28, 2021

THE NEWSPAPERS ARE full of reports that a new tax on billionaires may be uncorked. The Washington Post even ran an article estimating what the 10 richest Americans would pay over the next five years should it pass.
I take no stand on the politics of the proposal. But I have seen enough trial balloons to be skeptical that Elon Musk will soon write a 10-digit check to the U.S. Treasury. As Chuck Collins has written in The Wealth Hoarders,

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Vanguard Reverses

Greg Spears  |  Oct 10, 2021

I’M A FAN OF SUSPENSE novels. But the latest mystery keeping me awake at night isn’t a work of fiction.
On Monday, Oct. 4, Vanguard Group announced it was cancelling a long-promised benefit, a health insurance subsidy for its retirees, which includes me. The very next day, the investment management company abruptly reversed course. The benefit was extended through 2022. Vanguard said it would “take a step back and recalibrate” its decision.
What prompted the reversal?

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Promises Broken

Greg Spears  |  Oct 5, 2021

VANGUARD GROUP is renowned for its rock-bottom investment costs, including announcing last week that it was lowering expenses on its target-date retirement funds. As a former Vanguard employee, I just learned how the company is, in part, paying for such cuts. Yesterday, Vanguard emailed retired “crew members” like me to say it was shutting down its retiree medical account program.
When my old newspaper company’s pension plan collapsed last year—it was underfunded by $1 billion—my payments were picked up by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

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Oldies but Goodies

Greg Spears  |  Sep 28, 2021

IF YOU’VE EVER wanted to own antique furniture, now is the time to buy. The cost of “brown furniture” has plummeted. That old-money mahogany is deeply out of fashion with today’s tastemakers, who prefer mid-century modern set out in spare, white rooms.

I won’t claim that 18th century goods are better aesthetically. That’s my personal preference, and probably an East Coast sensibility. Rather, I’d say that old furniture is better value. The fact that a table or desk has survived for two centuries is a testament to its durability—and it may cost less now than flat-pack furniture made of particle board.

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401(k)s Aren’t Free

Greg Spears  |  Sep 18, 2021

DO YOU KNOW WHAT you pay for your 401(k)? Over time, even seemingly small charges can take a big bite out of your retirement savings.
That’s why a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report is so surprising. Fully 41% of people surveyed think their 401(k) is free. And I’ve got a unicorn tethered in my backyard. Not only are they incorrect, but also it suggests that those required fee disclosure documents from plan providers are written in ways investors just don’t understand.

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The New Economics

Greg Spears  |  Sep 9, 2021

FROM THE TIME I started covering Washington as a reporter in 1980, politicians have been condemning the federal budget deficit. Ronald Reagan was running for president that year. He excoriated his opponent, President Jimmy Carter, for increasing the federal debt by—brace yourself—$55 billion in 1979. These days, that wouldn’t pay a week’s bar tab for Uncle Sam.
With the sole exception of Bill Clinton, every president for 40 years has added to the federal debt,

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Running on Empty

Greg Spears  |  Sep 2, 2021

THE GOVERNMENT will be able to pay full Social Security benefits only until 2033, according to the latest trustees’ report on the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. After that, Social Security’s trust fund will be depleted—and it could only cover 76% of scheduled benefits with the money it collects in payroll taxes.
The timetable is even worse for Medicare Part A, which pays for inpatient hospital care. Its trust fund will be empty in 2026.

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College in 72 Hours

Greg Spears  |  Sep 2, 2021

OUR NEPHEW JESSE, age 19, took a gap year after high school to explore meditation and work for UPS. He’s a great kid. But he had worn out his welcome with family friends in Florida, so he decided to sleep in his car.
That was in May—and that’s when we invited him to live with us in Pennsylvania.
Jesse hasn’t had an easy life. His mother died of cancer when he was four years old.

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Quaint at a Cost

Greg Spears  |  Aug 18, 2021

WE OWN AN OLD WHITE farmhouse in Mid-Coast Maine. When I have work done, I tell contractors to make it look exactly the same, as if the house were sealed in a snow globe.
Up here, the rural past seems close at hand. The artist Andrew Wyeth painted one peninsula over. His depiction of the Olson farm perfectly captured the rustic ideal. Christina Olson and her brother Alvaro sold vegetables out of their kitchen door.

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Runs in the Family

Greg Spears  |  Aug 16, 2021

MY 28-YEAR-OLD wanted to know how much to contribute to her retirement plan at work. As a father, this was a text that I loved to get.
In May 2020, we toasted Genevieve over Zoom when she graduated with a master’s degree in social work. Within a week, she’d landed a job helping children in foster care and their families. Now, nearly a year later, she was invited to join the retirement savings plan at work,

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Flawed Judgment

Greg Spears  |  Aug 13, 2021

ONE FUN FACT I TELL my students about Daniel Kahneman: He won the Nobel Prize for economics without ever taking an economics course in college. Kahneman is a psychologist whose discoveries laid the foundation for the new science of behavioral economics.
One of his most important findings is that loss feels twice as painful to us as gain feels good, so the emotional scales aren’t balanced when we make economic decisions. For instance, workers will wait years to join a 401(k) because contributions can feel like a loss in spending power.

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Rising Tide

Greg Spears  |  Jul 28, 2021

YOU CAN ADD ANOTHER item to the list of things in short supply: Up here in Maine, used boats are hard to find.
“You can’t buy a house, a car or a boat this summer,” said Sean, manager of the local lobster dock in Bremen, Maine. Luckily, you can still buy lobsters from Sean, though they’re mighty pricey.
Every afternoon, scuffed-up boats with names like Chomper and Sandollar glide up to the dock to winch their catch up to Sean’s lobster tanks.

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Getting My Due

Greg Spears  |  Jul 7, 2021

A 156-YEAR-OLD newspaper company filed for reorganization in bankruptcy court last year. The company said it just couldn’t come up with the millions it owed to its pension plan. Some 24,000 current and future retirees were promised payments from that plan—and I’m one of them.
This is the story of what happened to our benefits after the pension plan failed.
For 10 years, I was lucky enough to cover Washington, DC, as a newspaper reporter.

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