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Hope to retire someday? See if you can answer these six simple questions

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Then try taking the following financial literacy test containing just three basic questions about interest rates, inflation and diversification. Despite being quite elementary, only 34% of adults aged 38 to 64 are able to answer all three correctly. Among millennials this percentage is just 16%.

Those results are sobering enough. But what’s even more striking is the disconnect between these low scores and investors’ self-perception. More than 71% of older adults rate themselves as having “high financial knowledge.” The comparable percentage among millennials is only slightly lower at 62%.

These results are reported in a just-published study, “Millennials and money: Financial preparedness and money management practices before COVID-19.” Its authors, all affiliated with the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University, are Annamaria Lusardi (the Center’s founder and director), Andrea Hasler, and Andrea Bolognesi.

Here are these three basic questions for which the researchers report “shockingly low” levels of financial literacy. They were devised a decade ago by Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and have been so widely used since then that many researchers now refer to them as the “Big Three” of financial literacy. (The correct answers, should you have any doubt, are listed at the end of this column.)

• Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After five years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? [More than $102; Exactly $102; Less than $102; Don’t know; Prefer not to say]

• Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account? [More than today; Exactly the same; Less than today; Don’t know; Prefer not to say]

• Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund. [True; False; Don’t know; Prefer not to say]

Since you are regular readers of MarketWatch and subscribers to Retirement Weekly, I have no doubt that you correctly answered all three questions. But can you answer the following three bonus questions as well? Only 7% of older adults could answer all six questions correctly, and just 3% of millennials. These three additional questions are:

• If interest rates rise, what will typically happen to bond prices? [They will rise; They will fall; They will stay the same; There is no relationship between bond prices and the interest rate; Don’t know; Prefer not to say]

• Suppose you owe $1,000 on a loan and the interest rate you are charged is 20% per year compounded annually. If you didn’t pay anything off, at this interest rate, how many years would it take for the amount you owe to double? [Less than 2 years; At least 2 years but less than 5 years; At least 5 years but less than 10 years; At least 10 years; Don’t know; Prefer not to say]

• A 15-year mortgage typically requires higher monthly payments than a 30-year mortgage, but the total interest paid over the life of the loan will be less. [True; False; Don’t know; Prefer not to say]

There are several reasons to focus on how few are able to answer these questions correctly. The most important is that there is a direct causal connection between illiteracy and reduced retirement financial security. This has been shown empirically, such as in this study by Lusardi and Mitchell. The authors of this recent report give a few examples, including the widespread use among millennials of “alternative financial services.”

“Alternative financial services are forms of short-term borrowing that fall outside of the traditional banking sector. It includes borrowing using auto title loans, payday loans, pawnshops, and rent-to-own stores. These are particularly expensive forms of borrowing, with APRs as high as 400% or more and, as such, have been defined as high-cost borrowing methods. In 2018, a staggering 43% of millennials reported using at least one form of alternative financial service in the [prior] five years.”

This surprising reliance on high-cost-borrowing methods becomes less surprising when we focus on millennials’ answer to the second of the bonus questions above—the one that asks about compound interest. Just 32% of them could answer it correctly. The researchers found that higher levels of financial literacy were correlated with less reliance on alternative financial services.

Another reason to focus on financial literacy is to warn you about the dangers of overconfidence. Chances are good that you rate your financial literacy to be higher than it really is. And overconfidence leads to pursue particularly risky behaviors.

The investment moral I draw from this new report is the importance of using the services of a retirement financial expert. Having someone to bounce your ideas off of is an excellent way of making sure you haven’t built your retirement financial security on a shaky foundation. Having this reality check is important for all of us, even if we are in that small minority of investors who can correctly answer all six financial literacy questions.

Most of all, be on guard against overconfidence. Humility is a virtue.

Correct answers to the 6 financial literacy questions

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2% per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow? More than $102

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After 1 year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account? Less than today

3. Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund. False

4. If interest rates rise, what will typically happen to bond prices? They will fall

5. Suppose you owe $1,000 on a loan and the interest rate you are charged is 20% per year compounded annually. If you didn’t pay anything off, at this interest rate, how many years would it take for the amount you owe to double? At least 2 years but less than 5 years

6. A 15-year mortgage typically requires higher monthly payments than a 30-year mortgage, but the total interest paid over the life of the loan will be less. True

Mark Hulbert is a regular contributor to MarketWatch. His Hulbert Ratings tracks investment newsletters that pay a flat fee to be audited. He can be reached at mark@hulbertratings.com.



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‘I could live on my Social Security and still save money’: This 66-year-old left Chicago for ‘calming’ Costa Rica — where he now plans to live indefinitely

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Editor’s note: This article was first published in September 2019.

A school break changed 66-year-old Martin Farber’s life forever.

In 2007, his daughter — who at the time was attending Illinois State University — decided she wanted to spend a college holiday volunteering in Costa Rica and staying with a local family, he explains. She came home raving about the experience, so, in 2008, Farber — who at the time was living in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, and selling cars — took his first trip there.

“It was a big surprise to me — bumpy roads, dogs barking in the streets,” he says. “I wasn’t enamored at first.”

But as his daughter began traveling there more and eventually moved there for a year, he took additional trips to Costa Rica. It quickly grew on him — in particular, the people. “The Costa Rican people are warm, open and friendly. I felt less invisible in a strange country in a strange town where I didn’t speak the language than I did in Evanston.”

And the more time he spent there, the more it impacted him: “On one of my trips there, I thought: My daughter’s life makes more sense than mine,” he says. “There was nothing wrong with my life, but I felt that my life was out of context with who I’d become. … I would have bills and make money to pay them, but that had ceased to be satisfying,” he recalls. “I knew I needed to change my life — there was no more joy in what I was doing.”

What’s more, when he’d return from his Costa Rica trips, people noticed. “I would come back, and my friends and therapist would say: You seem better after you go,” he says with a laugh.

A view from the hot springs near Martin Farber’s home in Costa Rica.


Martin Farber

So in 2014, he packed up and moved to Orosi — a picturesque, lush small town with waterfalls and hot springs a little over an hour’s drive from San Jose — promising himself he’d stay for two years. It’s been five, and he now plans to stay in Costa Rica indefinitely. (Though Farber notes that, to him, “it’s not a retirement; it’s a chance to lead a new and different life.”)

Here’s what his life is like, from costs to health care to residency to everyday life:

The cost: While many expats spend way more living in Costa Rica, Farber says: “I could live on my Social Security and still save money.” He says “a person can live on $1,200 per month, two people on $2,000.” The key, he says, is to live more like he does and as the Costa Ricans do — in a modest home, eating local food and purchasing local goods.

Indeed, Farber himself spends just $300 a month for rent (he rents a home from a friend who moved recently and gave him a good deal), roughly $225 a month on groceries and just $50 a month total on water and electricity (the temperate climate in Orosi means you rarely need heat or air conditioning). The veteran Volkswagen
VOW,
+0.96%

 
VLKAF,
+0.98%

salesman saves money by not owning a car (those over 65 ride municipal buses for free), which can be a significant expense in Costa Rica; for his cellphone, “I pay as I go … roughly $10 may last me a couple weeks or more,” he says, adding that “many people handle there their cellphones this way. You can get them recharged anywhere.”

His major expense is travel: He goes back to the U.S. to visit his mother in Florida several times a year and lately has spent part of the summer in Chicago helping out a friend with a dealership there. He also spends a good amount of money on health care. He says that while flights can be had for as little as $350 roundtrip during offseasons, the cost can be much higher the rest of the year.

In the saddle.


Martin Farber

Health care: Farber, who has permanent resident status in Costa Rica, says he pays about $90 per month to participate in the country’s health-care system — adding that the health care he’s received has been very good. (A 2018 study of health-care quality and access in more than 190 nations ranked Costa Rica No. 62.)

When he developed a detached retina, though, he paid for the procedure out of pocket so that he didn’t have to wait for the required surgery, he says — adding that the entire procedure cost him about $5,000. “I would have had to have waited four days,” he says, if he had not paid to expedite matters. “That might have been fine, but it might not.” And he adds that the quality of care depends on where you get it in the country.

Lifestyle: Though Farber says that he “moved here with no goals and no agenda,” he’s found plenty to do. “I take Spanish lessons two days a week for two hours a day. It’s been great. I never thought I would acquire a usable language in my 60s,” he says. He also rides his bike all around the area, does some writing and belongs to a community group that undertakes projects to improve the area.

And he often simply takes in nature, which he says has been an essential part of why he feels calmer and more relaxed in Costa Rica than in the U.S. “I live at 3,000 feet but in a valley surrounded by coffee fields and lime trees and water. At night, if I open the windows, I can hear the river rushing by,” he says. “It is very calming … hundreds of trees everywhere … you know the Earth is alive.”

The historic Iglesia de San José de Orosi.


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Cons: “I don’t want to overglorify. It’s not without its problems,” Farber says of Costa Rica. “There are social problems and downsides.” He notes that crime and petty theft can be a problem (“I am cautious,” he says of his approach) and seem to have increased since he moved there, and adds that he misses out on some cultural things because of where he lives. And, he says with a laugh, “I can’t order Thai food at 9 at night.” But, he adds: “These are trade-offs — in the afternoon, I get to walk in the coffee fields and see flocks of parrots.”

Residency: To qualify for Costa Rica’s pensionado visa, expats must prove that they have a pension of at least $1,000 coming in each month. (Here are the details of that program.) Once you have lived in Costa Rica for three years, you can apply for permanent residency. Farber used a lawyer to help him figure out the ins and outs of residency options; his entire path to permanent residency took about a year, he says.

The bottom line: “After five years I am still amazed and surprised that I made the decision to lead a life I never thought I would,” he says. And while he may not stay in Orosi forever — “the town doesn’t have an ambulance, [and] I don’t know what it will be like to be 80 there,” he says — he does plan to stay in Costa Rica in no small part because of the people and sense of community. “I have the feeling that life is good here,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes, but we are all in it together.”



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