Millennials shooting for financial independence

via Millennials shooting for financial independence, clarionledger.com

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Perhaps more than any generation in history, millennials have been the subject of intense scrutiny. The millennial generation (loosely defined as people born between the 1980s and early 2000s) has been studied endlessly, stereotyped mercilessly and subjected to low expectations. While some of the common beliefs about millennials are probably true, many are likely not.

In an article in Forbes magazine in September, writer Caroline Beaton identified six prevailing myths about millennials that should be retired. Among them, Beaton suggested, are that they can’t live without their parents; that they’re chronically unemployed; that they’re lazy; that they’re sex-crazed marriage-phobes; that they’re born entrepreneurs; and that they shun the traditional workplace and just want to work from home.

Statistics, however, don’t seem to bear out all those preconceptions. In fact, most millennials are a lot more like previous generations than we previously thought. For example, research has indicated that, while millennials are living at home much longer, a lot of those are in college and many are living in college dorms (which are counted as “home” by the U.S. Census Bureau). Another example: While you wouldn’t have to look far to support a belief that millennials are lazy, look closer and you’ll find millennials putting their noses to the proverbial grindstone as they start their careers, some working longer hours than even their parents.

 

And in one area, many millennials are holding themselves to standards of financial independence that exceed their parents’ expectations. Bankrate.com commissioned a study of millennial attitudes about when they should be expected to become financially independent. When asked the age someone should be able to pay their cellphone bill, buy a car and cover their housing costs, millennials were more likely to give a much lower age than their parents.

For example, a majority of millennials think they should be expected to pay for their own housing at age 22, pay for their own car at 20 ½ and pay their own cell phone bill at 18 ½. In all three cases, millennials’ average response is about a year and a half earlier than what their parents feel is appropriate, noted the study’s authors.

“Millennials are often stereotyped as being entitled,” said financial columnist Sarah Berger, the “cashlorette” (cash+bachelorette, get it?) at Bankrate.com. “It’s refreshing to see that millennials really do have high expectations of gaining financial independence and getting off their parents’ payroll.”

There were a few regional and political differences. Republicans, on average, believe someone should be able to afford their own car a few months prior to their 20th birthday. That’s almost three years earlier than the average Democrat’s response. As for when they should be responsible for their own cellphone bills, the average answer from millennials was 18, while their parents felt their kids should pay their own cellphone bills around age 20.

Midwestern parents in general favored closing the “bank of Mom and Dad” for housing costs at 22 ½, two years earlier than for Northeastern parents (24 ½). Southern parents were at the lower end of the scale, saying they planned to help with housing until the age of 23.

But these are really just statistics. Individual results may vary, as each child is different and unique. I know parents whose kids left the financial “nest” just after high school, while others are still paying most of their kids’ bills well after they’ve left college. Some of that is probably due to the parents’ unwillingness to cut the apron strings, but the situation is often more complicated than it would appear at first glance. Most parents I know are generous to a fault with their kids (even to the point of enabling their continued dependence).

This seems clear: We parents are likely to bear the fruit of what we sowed when our kids were growing up, plus a generous helping of whatever unique traits God gave them. They learn our habits — good and bad — from watching us, but what they do with that knowledge is as unique as they are. As with any generation, this one will have its share of successes, its share of failures, times they’ll make us proud and times they’ll disappoint us. Chances are, they’ll one day have similar concerns about their own kids’ generation, and maybe they’ll realize we gave them our best.

Do what we say, not what we do?

Limiting-Kids-Screen-Time.png

Photo: Savvysassymoms.com

via Do what we say, not what we do? on clarion-ledger.com

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Most of us parents like to think we’re setting a pretty good example for our kids. We try to make sure they make the right decisions in every facet of life. I can still remember my parents reminding me to eat right, sit back from the TV, don’t read in the dark, and giving me a thousand other pieces of advice.

Most of the time, we convince ourselves we’re doing a pretty good job of modeling good behavior for our kids, but a new study has suggested many of us are just not setting a very good example when it comes to consuming media on screened devices.

In a first-of-its-kind study released this week, parenting organization Common Sense Media found that, on average, parents spend more than nine hours a day with screen media (smartphones, TVs, computers, tablets, smartwatches and other devices). Most of that use is personal (not work-related). Interestingly, while the vast majority of parents believe we’re setting a good example for our kids when it comes to devices, we’re concerned about their use of technology. And about a third of us are concerned our kids’ use of these devices is keeping our children from getting enough sleep.

“These findings are fascinating because parents are using media for entertainment just as much as their kids, yet they express concerns about their kids’ media use while also believing that they are good role models for their kids,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “Media can add a lot of value to relationships, education, and development, and parents clearly see the benefits, but if they are concerned about too much media in their kids’ lives, it might be time to reassess their own behavior so that they can truly set the example they want for their kids.”

The study, titled the Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens, pointed out that many parents are so worried about their kids’ use of media that more than two-thirds believe monitoring their media use is more important than respecting their privacy. It also had some interesting findings about how parents from different races, income levels and educational backgrounds differ in their use of screen time, and the level to which they’re worried about their kids’ device use.

The findings should be a wake-up call for all of us; there’s little doubt that all of this screen use must be having some effect on our children. And while we are justifiably concerned about the potential negative effects of all of these media interactions, it appears many of us just aren’t applying the same logic to ourselves. And — of course — actions speak much, much louder than words.

“Children are great mimics, which is why it is so important that parents introduce real boundaries and balance early on,” Steyer said. “Media will always be a part of life, and every family is different, but in general, we recommend that parents set rules and clear plans so that kids understand what is appropriate.”

One interesting finding from the study might help us rediscover a tradition with which many of us grew up — family dinner time. More than three of four parents who participated in the survey reported that electronic devices are prohibited during family meal times.

Common Sense is trying to encourage that trend with a multiyear national media campaign, #DeviceFreeDinner (#CenarSinCelular in Spanish), to encourage families to stop using their mobile devices at the dinner table. The organization reports that thousands of people have taken the challenge, which will be promoted during the holidays in advertising messages.

So, while we parents are rightfully concerned about all the screens that constantly seek to draw our children’s attention, it might be a good idea to look in the mirror and have an honest conversation with ourselves about the type of example we’re setting. The result could be actually getting to know the people sitting across from us at the dinner table.

How to avoid pitfalls of co-signing loans

Businessman and woman hand signing agreement in office

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via Bill Moak: How to avoid pitfalls of co-signing loans

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160611_A002_2

Being asked to co-sign a loan is not as common as it once was, but is still an option in many cases as people with poor (or unestablished) credit seek to borrow money. It may be a nice thing to do, but a new survey has found that co-signing is loaded with potential pitfalls, and you should give careful consideration to the possible implications before you sign on the dotted line. Often, co-signers get burned and if things don’t work out as planned, can be on the hook to pay back the debt, see damage to their credit scores or maybe even suffer from a damaged relationship.

Co-signing allows a third party to agree to take on some of the responsibility for the loan for someone who can’t get enough credit by themselves. According to a recent survey by Creditcards.com, about one in six adults have co-signed a loan or credit card application for somebody else. Most commonly, the co-signer is over 50, helping a child or stepchild obtain a car loan. Co-signing can help your friend or family member get through a tough time, or establish a credit record for the first time. But, a new survey points out, there are many potential hazards that should be investigated before signing.

“Once you co-sign, you are legally responsible for the debt,” said Michelle Dosher, consumer engagement program manager for the Credit Union National Association. “It can be hard on you, and it can be hard on family and friends if that situation doesn’t work out as it was intended.”

Creditcards.com surveyed 2,003 U.S. adults about their experiences with co-signing, illustrating the potential pitfalls. Here are a few of the results:

  • Nearly four in 10 co-signers had to step up to pay some or all of the credit bill because the borrower didn’t follow through on his or her obligations.
  • Twenty-eight percent reported their credit scores dropped because of late payments or nonpayments.
  • About a quarter of respondents said their relationship was damaged because of the arrangement.

“If you co-sign and the person you are co-signing for missed a payment, that amount of debt and any missed payments can become part of your credit history, lowering your score,” Dosher said.

Dosher adds that a default can make your credit score plummet without you even knowing unless you have arranged with the borrower beforehand to keep you apprised on the loan.

“It’s your name on the line,” Dosher added. “You might have excellent credit now, and someone else’s default could ruin your credit score and affect what you are able to do on your own in the future, like refinance a home or buy a car.”

Rebecca Schreiber, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Pure Financial Education, notes that co-signing has declined over the past few decades, probably because people are becoming aware of the potential problems, but some may still decide to take the risk because they want to help out a loved one. “Co-signing is a sign of faith in another person. Sometimes we just see a financial transaction and we forget about the message behind that transaction. But co-signing is making a statement that you believe the other person will behave in a responsible way and you have faith in them.”

According to the CreditCards.com poll, co-signers tend to be:

  • Older than 50. Twenty-four percent of 50- to 64-year-olds have co-signed a loan or card for someone else, followed by 22 percent of those older than 65. Only 14 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds have been co-signers.
  • Wealthy. Of those who earn more than $75,000 annually, 24 percent have co-signed for someone else, compared to only 11 percent of those who earn less than $30,000.
  • Helping a child or stepchild. Nearly half (45 percent) of co-signers have done so on behalf of a child or stepchild. Co-signing for a friend was a distant second at 21 percent.
  • Signing for an auto loan. Auto loans accounted for 51 percent of all co-signings, followed by personal loans (24 percent), student loans (19 percent) and credit cards (16 percent).

“If you could help an adult child go from a rental situation into homeownership and they just don’t have the credit score built up yet, (co-signing) can be great way to get them started,” said Karen Lee, an author and financial planner. When it comes to helping out a child or stepchild, 58 percent of 50- to 64-year-old co-signers have done this as well as 53 percent of co-signers older than 65.

Having to pay a loan for which one co-signs can put a serious strain even on the strongest relationships. To avoid the pitfalls, here are a few red flags that might make you think twice:

  1. The person has a pattern of not meeting financial obligations. “We all know people who are financial train wrecks,” Lee said. “If one of your financial train-wreck friends comes to you for help, but they’ve ‘turned over a new leaf,’ I would still avoid that situation.”
  2. You’re not financially stable yourself. In addition to evaluating the person you may co-sign for, you need to evaluate your own financial well-being. Do not sign on the dotted line if you are feeling financial strain. “If you don’t have (the funds) to literally give away right now, don’t do it,” Lee advises.

For the complete survey results, visit www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/co-signing-survey.php.

Baby monitors allow hackers, voyeurs into homes

baby-video-monitors

babble.com

via Moak: Baby monitors allow hackers, voyeurs into homes, clarionledger.com, 1/27/2016

PDF: Baby monitors

New parents (and even experienced ones) spend a lot of time worrying about their babies. And with good reason; there are a lots of things to be worried about. You can’t be there 24/7 to watch your baby in the crib or as they play in their room, so technology came to the rescue a couple of decades ago with the introduction of the baby monitor.

At first, these were just pretty walkie-talkies, which allowed you to have a base unit in the baby’s room and a monitor elsewhere in the house to let you hear what was going on. Later came video monitors that provided real-time feed through Wi-Fi and made the feed available online. Now, you can keep an eye on your little one from your workstation anywhere.

But many parents might be lulled into a false sense of security when they use this technology; that feed might not be secure. Back in September, the trendy blog Fusion Network published an article revealing the results of security tests done on nine video monitors, and the results were not promising: eight of the nine monitors tested got an “F,” and Fusion awarded one a “D-minus.” It turns out that hacking into the monitors and hijacking the feed were child’s play for hackers.

All of this scrutiny comes after increasing reports of baby monitors being used to remotely spy on people, verbally abuse infants and bring embarrassing attention to the camera manufacturers (and highlight the problem) by posting live feeds from 1,000 baby monitors on unsecure websites. All this creepy activity has led to increased concern from parents and privacy advocates, who worry that the monitors could not only lead to sick voyeurism, but also could allow hackers a doorway into the home networks and lead to identity theft.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission reported that it had tested five baby monitors to determine their level of security. They found two of the five didn’t encrypt the feed to make it more secure and only one required a complex password.

So, how can you protect your baby and your family from unwanted intrusion? The FTC’s Seena Gressin offered these tips:

  • Make the monitor’s security features a priority.When shopping for a baby monitor, look for ones that use strong security protocols to transmit audio and video feeds to your home wireless router and to the internet. WPA2 is a standard wireless security protocol for home routers. To protect the feed on the internet, make certain the monitor uses an industry standard encryption protocol, such as SSL or TLS. Check the package or contact the manufacturer to find out.
  • Use the monitor’s security features. Once you’ve purchased a monitor with good security features, use them! Keep the monitor’s software current and check its password settings to make certain it requires a password. Then, choose a strong password and enable the monitor’s security features so that it encrypts information transmitted via the internet.
  • Access the monitor securely. When accessing the monitor from a mobile device, confirm that your app is up-to-date and consider password-protecting your mobile device as well.

Other experts advise you consider unplugging the unit when it’s not actively being used, such as when no one is at home, and change the passwords often on your home’s Wi-Fi network as well.

Back-to-school shoppers taking their time

Published in the Clarion-Ledger print edition on 8/27/2015. 

PDF: Back-to-school shoppers taking their time

Where did the summer go? While many Mississippi adults wax nostalgic for the “good old days” when we didn’t go back to school until after Labor Day and point out to today’s “coddled” generation that we managed to make it to adulthood without having air-condi­tioned buses — or even air-conditioned classrooms — the reality is that today’s back-to-school experience is a far cry from what it was back then.

Today’s parents must navigate a maze of required supply lists, lab and workbook fees, back-to-school meetings and endless fundraisers.

When my Mom went to the local dollar store with her back-to-school shopping list for elementary-school me, it was indeed a lot simpler. The list consisted mostly of nonspecific essentials such as “loose-leaf paper,” “lunch box” and “Elmer’s glue.” It was also a far shorter list; much of a student’s supplies were provided at the school (often by the teacher out of her own pocket).

By contrast, the required supply list for a second-grader at one of our Jackson- area schools has 19 separate items, many specific — i.e., “8 folders with pockets and brads 2 (1 plastic, 1 paper) each color — red, blue, yellow, green.” And a note at the bottom reads: “Note: Additional supplies may be requested by your child’s teacher when school begins.”

If you’ve gone to the local big-box retailer recently, the school-supply area can be a zoo. Shopping for your kids has become a stressful event, and it seems at least some people are taking their time to finish. A recent study commissioned by the National Retail Federation bears that out. According to the NRF’s Back-to-School Spending Survey, the average family with children in grades K-12 has completed just half of their shopping at this point.

“As expected, families are carefully measuring where, when and how they should spend on fall apparel items, school supplies, electronics and other necessities,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Late summer promotions and sales tax holidays around the country are likely contributing to the delay in back-to-school shopping this year, which means the next few weeks could be exceptionally busy for retailers large and small.”

Mississippi held its sales tax holiday on July 31 and Aug. 1, with many families taking advantage of the opportunity to buy certain items without having to pay sales tax.

And if you look around, many retailers are still holding sales and promotions to get you into the stores. “Retailers, hoping to strike a chord with both budgetconscious and valuefocused parents, will roll out hard to pass up promotions designed to capture the attention of those last-minute shoppers,” Shay noted.

The survey found about one in five parents admit to not having even started their shopping, but that’s down a bit from last year’s 23.6 percent. A few families (about 13 percent) say they’re done.

Here are a few more findings from the survey:

  • Coupons and promotions continue to resonate; those who have already started shopping indicate about half of their purchases (51.3 percent) were influenced by coupons, sales and promotions, down from 58 percent last year.
  • When it comes to classroom needs, the survey found parents are on the hook to contribute several items. On average, parents say 64.4 percent of their purchases of pencils, folders and other school supplies are influenced by classroom lists or school requirements. In addition, 45.9 percent of their electronics purchases for back to school are influenced by the lists and requirements of their family’s schools.
  • As for where consumers will finish their shopping, discount stores will see the most traffic (53.4 percent), while 46.8 percent will shop at department stores, 36.6 percent at clothing stores and 12.8 percent will wrap up at electronics stores; 27.2 percent will check out retailers’ best online deals, up from 24.8 per­this time last year.

But before we complain about the anarchy in the school-supply aisles or gripe about having to write that check for the lab fee, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that most teachers still pay for at least some supplies out of their own funds and school administrators are trying to stay ahead of a bewildering array of laws and regulations, while they’re all simultaneously trying to help our kids grow and succeed. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess some bias here; I was raised by a teacher, herself the daughter of educators.)

As parents, while it might be hard to navigate the back-to-school maze, it’s part of holding up our end of the partnership to help prepare our children for the day they’ll be the ones doing the back-to-school shopping. So, take some comfort in that truth as you search frantically for that last box of “Crayola fine-tip classic colored washable markers.”

Millennials delay milestones due to student loans

via Moak: Millennials delay milestones due to student loans.

If you’re a parent trying to help your college student navigate the choppy waters of financing college, it can be daunting. The Federal Financial Aid form, known as FAFSA, is itself tricky and often infuriating because of the maze of online security you must navigate. And if you happen to be selected for random “verification” of your FAFSA data (as we were this year), that can add even more gray hairs to your head.

Unless your student is among the lofty few who cries when she gets anything lower than an “A” or if you’re either independently wealthy or below the poverty line, you might not be stressing out over it. Scholarships, savings and grants will usually fill the bill in those cases.

Some of us were smart enough to start putting money aside when they got their little bundles of joy home from the hospital. But for most middle-class families, paying for college usually requires an eclectic mix of scholarships, mason-jar funds, largesse from family and friends — and loans. Today’s average college graduate will have barely had time to unpack boxes in their new apartment (or their parents’ house) before they get their first bill from their student loans.

Increasingly, that debt is putting a substantial crimp in their plans. While they may be young and idealistic, they may have to put off saving the world for a while because they have to pay back those loans.

A new study released by Bankrate.com shines some light on this disturbing trend. More than half of millennials with current debt from student loans are reporting they have “delayed major life events” because of that debt. Those milestones include rites of passage such as buying their first home or car, starting a retirement nest egg or even getting married and having children. The trend is not just present among millennials; older Americans are also likely to be carrying student debt well into middle age, where it can potentially crash into retirement.

Economists and policy makers should worry about this, because the longer new graduates wait to enter the economy, the longer it takes them to start contributing, investing in the economy on a larger scale and paying taxes.

“Student debt is often portrayed strictly as a millennial issue, but the truth is that Americans of all ages have put their lives on hold due to student debt,” said Steve Pounds, Bankrate.com analyst. “Delaying major life milestones such as buying a home or saving for retirement doesn’t only affect the individual and his or her family; it also has ill effects on the overall economy.”

A key finding about the study is that many people with student debt never really received good information about the risks and responsibilities of student loans in the first place. As with any credit, responsible borrowing also carries with it the necessity of understanding just what you’re getting into. Deferral, (which allows students to defer making any payments until after graduation) can provide a false sense of security, and is really just kicking the can down the road. But eventually, the bills will come.

More than half of student loan borrowers in the Bankrate.com survey say they didn’t receive enough information or advice about the financial risks of taking on education loans. Sixty-six percent of millennials, more than any other age group, have this complaint.

A lot of people are in this boat, and it is getting a lot of attention. Famously, one man named Lee Siegel decided earlier this year he’d had enough after being hounded by bill collectors trying to collect on 40-year-old student loans. He announced in a New York Times op-ed that he was not going to pay any more, and urged others to do the same.

His stance garnered him near-universal (and justified, in my view) outrage from nearly all quarters, but does point to an increasing frustration with a system that encourages people to finance skyrocketing education costs with loans against their future earning potential. And the aforementioned study details some of the implications of encouraging young people to begin their careers in a financial hole.

The fact is, though, there are alternatives to financing your college education with unmanageable debt:

Make sure you exhaust all alternatives. Many sources of funding, such as grants and scholarships, don’t have to be paid back. You don’t necessarily have to be in the top tier of your class to qualify, and some programs are specifically to help students from a particular geographic area, course of study or other criterion.

A four-year college may not be necessary. Mississippi has one of the best community college systems in the country, many of which offer programs to qualify you for all types of careers — many of them lucrative. And community colleges can be more affordable than four-year institutions, and have exclusive financial aid offerings as well. Consider military programs as well — many of them will finance college for you in exchange for a specified commitment after graduation.

Shop wisely. If you are getting a loan, shop around. Some private lenders have programs that offer excellent interest rates and options.

Mississippians have an excellent program that helps link Mississippi families and students with information and advice about going to college. Get2college.org can be reached at (601) 321-5533, in central Mississippi; (228) 875-4441 in south Mississippi; and (662) 349-2789 in north Mississippi. It’s a must-visit for any family who is trying to navigate the college-financing maze, and is well worth your time.

Watch for children in cars, MDOT warns

via Moak: Watch for children in cars, MDOT warns.

It happens with disturbing regularity. Somewhere in America, a busy parent leaves his or her child in the car, with tragic results. Sometimes, it’s done knowingly but without realizing the danger. “I was just going to leave them alone for a few minutes,” is often the devastated parent’s response. Other times, a parent or caregiver forgets about their child in the back seat, and goes in to work or pursue other activities, oblivious to the danger.

On June 2, according to news reports, Panama City, Fla. teacher Jamie Buckley got out of her car and proceeded with her day’s activities, forgetting about her 18-month-old daughter Reagan sitting quietly in the back seat. When she got in the car to leave for the day, she found the child unresponsive, and authorities pronounced her dead. Authorities are investigating the case, and a decision whether to file charges against Buckley hasn’t yet been announced.

Just this week, an 11-month child died in Lauderhill, Fla. after being left in a hot SUV when the family went grocery shopping.

Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident. According to the website kidsandcars.org, eight kids have died of heatstroke so far in 2015 after being left in vehicles. Thirty-two kids died under similar circumstances in 2014, according to the site. Although lower than the average of 38, the numbers don’t matter; each case represents a child’s life lost, and a family forever faced with the consequences. And it’s not just kids; many pets die each year after being left in vehicles.

Here in Mississippi, it’s happened many times before; with our stifling summer heat, the probability is good that it could happen again. And just because we’ve had moderate temperatures lately, parents shouldn’t assume that means it’s OK to leave your kids in the car – even for few minutes.

“On an 80 degree day, the temperature inside a vehicle can rise to deadly levels in a matter of minutes, even if the windows are left cracked open,” said Melinda McGrath, Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. “It’s important to know that children are much more vulnerable to heatstroke than adults. When a child’s temperature reaches 107 degrees, the child dies.”

MDOT issued a news release (http://1.usa.gov/1dOlvhX) on Thursday to remind parents of the danger. McGrath notes that kids can quickly develop hyperthermia, in which the body’s core temperature rises greatly above normal. If left untreated for too long, it can lead to heatstroke, which can affect brain cells and cardiac rhythms, causing permanent injury, such as vision or hearing loss, or death.

MDOT notes that, while it would be easy to blame irresponsible parenting, even the best parents fail sometimes. I, and most of the parents I know, have had absent-minded moments with our children, most of which thankfully didn’t result in tragedy. “In a majority of heatstroke cases,” MDOT noted, “a child was mistakenly left behind by a caregiver who was not accustomed to having a child with them as a part of their normal routine. In other cases, a child climbed into a car and became trapped, because the car door was unlocked and the vehicle left unattended.”

When it comes to leaving the child in the back seat, a variety of approaches have been tried, including attaching a tether to the driver when you get in the car; various types of apps and proximity sensor devices; simple reminders hanging from the rear-view mirror; and adopting simple habits such as leaving your purse or briefcase in the back seat with the child. Whatever works for you, do it.

Here are some more tips, courtesy of MDOT (These tips apply for pets as well):

  • Never leave a child or pet unattended in a vehicle – even with the windows down, engine running or air conditioning on, it’s dangerous.
  • Look before you lock: make it a habit to check your backseat before you leave your car.
  • Take action if you notice a child or pet alone in a car: call 911 and remove the child or pet if possible.
  • Keep your car locked with the keys in a safe location when you are not near the vehicle.
  • Teach children that a vehicle is not a play area.
  • Always check the back seat before you lock your vehicle.

To learn more about the dangers of leaving children in vehicles on hot summer days, visit MDOT’s YouTube playlist entitled “Kids in Hot Cars,” or follow MississippiDOT on Facebook, Twitter (#Checkforbaby) and Instagram.

Consumer watch: Raising kids in South averages more than $230,000

via Consumer watch: Raising kids in South averages more than $230,000.

A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the findings of an annual report that showed it would take $245,340 to raise a child to adulthood in the average middle-class, two-parent American household. Here in the “urban South,” that number is a little lower ($230,610), and is significantly lower in rural areas. The cost represents an increase of about 2 percent since last year’s report.

“In today’s economy, it’s important to be prepared with as much information as possible when planning for the future,” said USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Undersecretary Kevin Concannon. “In addition to giving families with children an indication of expenses they might want to be prepared for, the report is a critical resource for state governments in determining child support guidelines and foster care payments.”

If a couple is considering adding a child to their household, that sweet little bundle will cost an average of $13,500 a year, with the cost steadily increasing until they leave the nest. For a generation that’s increasingly waiting later to have children (a 2012 Pew study found that nearly a third of 18- to 34-year-olds are postponing marriage and/or childbirth because of economic concerns), it’s enough to give them pause.

The report doesn’t consider the costs of pregnancy and childbirth, or later expenses like college. But they do give some idea of what new parents can expect to spend. The figures have been tracked annually since 1960, and the total is of course higher than ever before. The figures show that – when adjusted for inflation – the average family spends about 24 percent more than did my parents raising children in the 1960s. But family incomes have also risen during that time, because of the influx of working mothers and rising salaries.

What’s surprising in the numbers is not that the costs are rising; but that what makes up those costs is changing. For example, although food prices seem to be rising steadily and food is one of the “top three” expenses, today’s parents will probably spend less on food as a percentage of the total than our parents did. The report attributes that to the lower costs of food to advances in agriculture during the last five decades.

Housing costs were the biggest expense in 1960, and still take the biggest chunk of funds (about 30 percent of the total). Healthcare expenses are a major contributor to the cost factor, jumping by about 50 percent since 1960. The report also concluded that the cost of rearing children plummets as more children are added (largely because of the “hand-me-down” effect); adding a third child can reduce the per-child expenditure by about 22 percent.

Of course, there is much more to raising children than paying for it. The old conventional wisdom says that if you wait until you feel you can afford to have children, you probably never would. That’s probably true.

But — simply put — children are far too important to come down just to a financial decision. As a parent, I’ve often counted the cost and found that the sheer delight of raising children far outweighs the monetary costs. Sure, it’s tough to pay for diapers, emergency room visits, braces, clothes and thousand other things, especially if those expenses are surprises. But we’ve found ways to make it work, as have most of the parents I know.

Being a parent is a unique mix of terror and joy, often occurring the same time. But it’s also the single most rewarding thing most people will ever do.

Online safety: protecting your kids

Originally published on clarionledger.com on 8/26/2013

PDF: Online safety – protecting your kids

With school just having started across the country, a lot of kids are meeting new friends, discovering new things, and using new technologies. It’s an exciting time, full of rich possibilities. Many schools have embraced technology, and many are including Internetbased tools and services to help teach. Some schools are already replacing traditional textbooks with tablet computers and websites.

But with all of the good that’s done by technology such as the Internet, there are also a lot of bad things as well. The Internet is a virtual Wild Wild West, where just about anything is possible. In recent years, problems such as cyber bullying, “sexting” (sending inappropriate photos via text messaging) and online sexual predation have exploded onto the scene.As a parent, I sometimes find it seems overwhelming. But, just as with protecting your kids from other types of crime, your best ally is information.

Among those fighting to catch the bad guys and help stop cybercrime is AttorneyGeneral Jim Hood and his staff of investigators. In the 9 1/2 years of Hood’s tenure in the office, stopping cybercrime has become a major part of his work.

I sent him some questions, and here I’ve summarized some of his responses.

Social networking can lead to dangers. Hood noted that the biggest threat to kids is rooted in the explosive growth of social networking, which provides avenues for threats like cyber bullying to exploitation of kids. “The inherent dangers are that children tend to overshare information on these sites and accept friends or chat with people they have only distant links to,” he said. “The Internet is a forum where people are not always whom they present themselves to be. Today’s technology allows people to see your real time location, which makes kids more vulnerable to potentially being located by someone up to no good.”

Photos can reveal location clues. Posting of photos can allow predators to get clues to the child’s location. “You have to consider that allowing your kids to roam the Internet with no boundaries is very similar to letting them loose on the street or leaving the front door of your house wide open,” he said.

Parents need to be involved. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of parents in protecting your kids, Hood noted. That may mean being nosy. “Parental involvement is key,” he insists. “Don’t let technology get in the way of your interaction with your kids. If your kids are using Instagram, you should use Instagram and learn about it. Have discussions with your children about the good and the bad on the internet.”

There have been many cases in recent years of “cyber bullying”, the practice of using the Internet to harass, threaten or intimidate peers. In some tragic cases, suicide or other types of violence have resulted.

“Caution your children not to share certain information over the Internet,” he said, and teach your children not to react or retaliate to cyber bullying.”

Other tips include showing your kids how to delete and/or block harmful messages before they read them, teaching them about respect and privacy and about the consequences of cyber bullying, and report abuses or threats to the Attorney General’s office and your Internet Service Provider.

Security begins at home. How can parents know if their kids are seeing things they shouldn’t? “Check your internet history logs,” advised Hood. “Place computers in — and restrict use to — general open view areas in your home. Look for warning signs such as closing the lid on the laptop when you come in or putting the phone away quickly.”

Finally, I asked Hood whether he believes parents are generally naive when it comes to policing their kids on the Internet.

“This is more of an education issue,” he said. “Parents who have become familiar with the technology are comfortable discussing issues about the internet with their children. Parents who don’t understand tend to distance themselves and do tend to be more naive about what their kids are doing on the internet. The more we educate parents about the dangers and the benefits of the internet the more we can prevent cyber crimes related to children.”

Here are a few other resources to help protect your kids:

  • Cyber-safety brochures are available at the Attorney General’s website at http://www.agjimhood.com.
  • Netcetera is a really good comprehensive resource, posted by the Federal Trade Commission, about keeping your kids safe online.
  • Cyberbully411 is a resource site specifically designed to provide resource related to the growing threat of cyberbullying. Safekids has good general information about the topic.

Kids and Cell Phones

Originally published at Clarionledger.com, 3/11/2013.

Last week, I asked some parents about what was the right age for your child to have a cell phone. The results were all over the place, but there seemed to be a common thread: this decision should be tied to the specific child’s needs, responsibility and safety.

In the survey, which asked for a specific age, the most popular answer was, “depends on the child”, followed by 15 and 12 years old. “When they can pay for it,” said several parents responding on Facebook; “When they start driving,” said others.

Giving your kid a cell phone these days is not like it was even five years ago. Today’s smartphones are a window to the world. The phone has been transformed in short order from a device useful for only voice communications, to a multi-talented companion without which many of us would be lost (literally, in some cases!) They serve as fully-functioning computers, a portal to the Internet, camera, calendar, games platform, and on and on. The function is only limited by the apps you can put on them. But parents would be wise to remember that — for all their beneficial qualities — you are also giving your child access to everything and everyone who might not have the best intentions. Also, the alarming rise in cases of “distracted driving” should concern any parent.

The website Commensense.org, which has a lot of advice geared towards helping parents make good decisions about the media, recommends answering the following questions before deciding whether to give your child a phone:

How independent are your kids? If they have shown you they can be reliable, perhaps it might be reasonable to get them a phone.
Do they need to be in touch for safety reasons, or social reasons? For example, if you have to be late picking up your daughter from ballet practice, you might want to give her a way to communicate with you.
How responsible are they? Will they follow the rules you set, as well as those set by others (school, coaches, etc.)?
Can they understand what it means when they download an app, or reach their texting limit?
Do they really need a do-it-all smartphone, when a basic phone might better suffice?
Do they understand the possible dangers from sharing information, such as “checking in” on Facebook and other apps? Many apps share your location so anyone can find out exactly where you are.

Other things to consider:
Be aware of the social ramifications of not “fitting in”. Some kids want a phone just because of social pressure they feel. Those concerns loom large to a teen. Some kids handle it better than others.
Consider a basic phone at first, to see if they handle it responsibly. Some parents start kids out with a “pay-as-you-go”, or prepaid, phone.
Are you ready to take it away, should the need arise? If you tie the phone privilege to something specific, such as getting good grades or not getting in trouble, you should be prepared to follow through.

Bottom line: most parents agree that his decision should be driven by the parents, not the child. “We’re still the parents,” says Commensense Media editor Liz Perle, “And it’s our job to say “no, not yet.