What we know about the holiday blues

depressionRegardless of one’s religious affiliation, the holiday season often inspires feelings of warmth, joy and belonging. But for some people, this time of year can evoke feelings of loneliness, stress and anxiety. [Read more…]

Debt and your health

loan debtU.S. consumers carry more than $11.6 trillion in debt – money owed to outside lenders such as banks and credit card companies. What does that mean for the average American family? A total of $15,000 in credit card debt, $154,000 in mortgage debt and $33,000 in student loans.  While those numbers are certainly harmful to our financial health, there is new evidence that all of this debt is also bad for our physical health. [Read more…]

Can we fend off chronic disease? The evidence says yes

We have all heard that physical fitness is an important factor in health, but how important a factor?  And is it ever too late to get fit?

A study published earlier last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that becoming fit in middle age, even if you haven’t previously exercised, can stave off illness later in life.

In the study, researchers collected medical records for more than 18,000 healthy middle-aged men and women who’d visited the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas for a check-up since 1970. Each subject took a treadmill test to determine their aerobic fitness at their first check-up. Then the researchers checked their Medicare records from 1999 through 2009.

The study found that people who were least fit at the time of their initial check-up were the most likely to developed chronic conditions such as heart disease and cancer early in the aging process. Those who were most in middle-age developed the same conditions, but significantly later in life compared to the less fit.

The take-home message of this study actually parallels a lesson shared in Karl’s book 30 Lessons for Living, which shares advice from America’s elders. The lesson is: It’s not dying you should worry about – it’s chronic disease.

This study provides evidence that you can actually do something to help prevent chronic disease later in life – exercise!

The study is backed up by several systematic reviews. One published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found physical activity helps prevent heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Another published in Obesity Reviews found individual who are overweight but have good aerobic fitness are at lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared with individuals with normal weight and poor fitness.

The bottom line: Physical fitness can help you lead a healthier, happier life no matter what your age.

The simple facts on layway – and a grateful reminder

During undoubtedly the biggest shopping week of the year, several major retailers  – including Walmart, Sears and Toys R Us – are bringing back a purchasing tool of by-gone days: layaway.

The concept is simple.  If you can’t afford a purchase, the store will set it aside for you (for a fee, or course) and allow you to make payments on it.  Once you’ve paid off the item, you’re free to take it home. The system was set up before credit cards were common-place in American homes.

But there’s a problem with layaway. Compared to credit card interest rates, layaway fees are exorbitant. Louis Hyman, an assistant professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, explains in a New York Times column:

“Imagine a mother going to Walmart on Oct. 17 and buying $100 worth of Christmas toys. She makes a down payment of $10 and pays a $5 service fee. Over the next two months she pays off the rest. In effect, she is paying $5 in interest for a $90 loan for two months: the equivalent of a credit card with a 44 percent annual percentage rate, a level most of us would consider predatory.

“In comparison, even a card with an 18 percent A.P.R. would charge only half as much interest — and she could take those presents home the same day.

“Then consider what would happen if she couldn’t finish all the payments. Walmart would give her the money back, less $10. If she borrowed that $90 and paid $15 in interest for two months, she would have the equivalent of a jaw-dropping interest rate of 131 percent.”

The bottom line is that most layway program don’t pay.  Instead, it’s better to save up for your holiday presents.

***

During this week of Thanksgiving, we’d also like to remind you that the feeling of thankfulness or gratitude is actually good for you.  Before you head out the door for those Black Friday sales, take a few minutes to remember what you’re grateful for.

The evidence on U.S. debt

As the federal government struggles this week to raise the federal debt limit, we thought it’d be a good time to review the evidence on household debt over here at EBL. 

A business columnist at the Detroit News made the point this week that American families actually hold more debt than the federal government, with households owing more than $2.4 trillion of credit card debt alone. (That compares to approximately $1.4 trillion in the total debt for the U.S. government in 2011.)

What else do we know about Americans and debt?   Family Economics and Resource Management, a project by Cornell Cooperative Extension to people achieve more  secure financial situations, compiled an interesting list of facts about Americans and debt management.  Among them:

  • 40 percent of U.S. households live beyond their means.
  • the net worth of the average middle-class American household after accounting for debt is less than $10,000.
  • and 48 percent of American credit card holders only pay the minimum payment amount each month.

Essentially, the evidence shows that Americans are no more responsible with their borrowing habits than the federal government.

But there is a way out.  Rutgers Cooperative Extension has compiled 20 tips for smart borrowing, such as:

  • Borrow as little as possible by making the largest down payment you can afford.  This will help you to avoid becoming “upside down” or owing more than your purchase is worth.
  • Shop for credit, just like other purchases. Compare at least three different banks for the lowest interest rates and fees.
  • Always pay more than the minimum monthly payment. For example, send 6 percent of a $5,000 outstanding balance on an 18 percent APR credit card, instead of 3 percent, and you’ll save 9 years of payments and $2,975 in interest.

Be sure to understand the facts about any money you borrow or credit cards you hold.  Smart borrowing will help you achieve financial success over the long run.

Evidence-based house hunting

Since my daughter was born this spring, our family has felt a bit crowded in our three-bedroom ranch home.  So we decided to put our house on the market this spring and look for a new place that will provide more space.

Like most things in life, we’ve found house hunting is a fairly subjective activity.  There is a range of features we’re looking for: a nice yard for the kids to play in, a modern kitchen, storage space, a two-car garage, and a friendly neighborhood.  Of course, we haven’t found one house with everything we want, so we’re weighing the pros and cons to make the best choice for us.

But there are some elements of house hunting where the evidence comes into play. It’s these items you don’t necessarily think about when you walk into a house for the first time, but seem to be those important basics that can cost a lot of money, or can make living in a new home a miserable experience. 

To find out what I needed to know, I turned to Cornell Cooperative Extension.  They have a whole topic area dedicated to home, including some useful information about buying a home.  Their research-based fact sheets on mold, lead, and radon have helped us to keep an eye out for potentially hazardous conditions.  Thanks to the information they provided, here are a few specific actions we’re taking in our house hunt:

  • If we find a house that was built before 1978, we plan to test for lead-based paint.
  • No matter what house we find, we will have a radon test to make sure that it doesn’t have high levels of this dangerous gas, especially since Tompkins County is considered a high radon-risk zone.
  • Moisture in closets and basements will be a sign for us to check for mold in potential new homes.

In addition to these safety aspects, the Internet now provides financial histories of houses with only a few mouse clicks. Most county assessor’s offices offer background such as previous sale prices, tax bills and a list of renovations made. While this has always been public information, it’s now much easier to access. In addition, web sites like http://zillow.com and http://trulia.com  compile assessor’s data to provide neighborhood averages and comparisons.  

When making a large purchase like a home, it’s wonderful to have all of this data – literally at your fingertips.

Financial education: Behavior change is possible

One-third of U.S. adults report that they have no savings. More than a quarter of them admit to not paying their bills on time. And more than half of American households don’t have a budget.

Given these figures, it’s not surprising that more than 40 percent of U.S. adults would give themselves a grade of C, D, or F for their personal finance knowledge.  These figures come from the 2009 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey by HarrisInteractive, which surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. adults last year.

Given this dim view of personal finance in our nation, it’s clear that many households would benefit from programs that provide financial education.  But do these programs actually help families improve their financial situations?

A new study reveals the answer is yes. Two researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison pulled together evaluations from 41 financial education and counseling programs in a systematic review. Their article is published in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Affairs. They used a research process called a qualitative systematic literature review to summarize evaluations that measured financial education and counseling’s impacts on financial knowledge and behavior.

The majority of studies cited in their review conclude financial education and counseling are beneficial and hold the promise of improving financial knowledge and facilitating behavior change. But the study also notes that many of these evaluations share methodological weaknesses including selection bias and measurement issues.  Many of the programs also do not utilize an explicit theory or framework for behavior change, which would lend precision to both program development and the measurement of program impacts, the authors wrote.

They encourage researchers and educators who run these programs to pay more attention to theory-based evaluations and invest in randomized field experiments may be fruitful.

Here at Cornell Cooperative Extension, we offer classes to help families develop a household spending plan, save energy and reduce their energy bills and use credit wisely through a program called EmPower New York. The free workshops are offered in 46 counties and sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

EmPower is doing its  part to collect viable data on the programs’ effectiveness.  This year, they’re conducting phone surveys with the Survey Research Institute at Cornell to determine the extent of behavior change for those who’ve participated in the workshop.  They’re expecting results sometime in June.

Behave! Using the science of behavior change

There are some problems we can’t do much about — hurricaines and earthquakes, for example. But a vast amount of things that make life tough — and sometimes miserable — relate to the choices human beings make and the way we behave. For this reason, a whole science of behavior change has grown up, focusing both on theoretical models and empirical studies of how to change damaging human behaviors, ranging from smoking, to crime, to overeating, to taking excessive risks.

A very helpful new article reviews models to promote positive behavior change that are highly relevant to people designing or implementing interventions. The authors note that getting individuals to make lasting changes in problem behaviors is no easy matter. They synthesize various models of behavior change “to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how educators can promote behavior change among their clientele.”

The authors apply their framework to the issue of financial management. Very interesting reading, available here.

(While you’re at it, take a look at other issues of this free on-line journal, called the The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, published by North Carolina State University Extension — many interesting articles related to program development and evaluation.)

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