Interest rates on home mortgages are rising rapidly across the United States, which seems to be slowing most housing markets. (Some, like the market here in Corvallis, have been less affected. Give it time.)
The average mortgage rate for a 30-year loan was about 3.0% at the start of the year; today, it's at 6.245% — even for somebody with an excellent credit score over 800.
Kim and I are fortunate that we bought our home in 2021 instead of waiting until 2022. Mortgage rates weren't actually a factor during our deliberations last year; the historically low rates were simply an added bonus for buying when we did.
When we purchased our home last August, we took out a $480,000 mortgage at 2.625%. We didn't hit the precise bottom of the mortgage market (that was early January 2021, when we might have had a loan for 2.5%), but we came close.
Here's a chart from the Federal Reserve that shows mortgage rates from the past 2.5 years.
And here's a chart that shows mortgage rates for the past 50+ years:
Mortgage rates have hovered at historic lows since the Great Recession of 2007-2009. And rates fell even further during the COVID pandemic. (These low rates are partly responsible for the blazing-hot housing market of the past two years.)
What do these rising mortgage rates mean to actual home buyers? Let's use our situation as a representative example.
Last month, the Federal Reserve released a new report: Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021 [PDF]. This annual survey gauges American financial health and attitudes. The 2021 edition was conducted last November.
Here are some highlights from the report:
- Seventy-eight percent of adults were either doing okay or living comfortably financially, the highest share with this level of financial well-being since the survey began in 2013.
- Fifteen percent of adults with income less than $50,000 struggled to pay their bills because of varying monthly income.
- Fifteen percent of workers said they were in a different job than twelve months earlier. Just over six in ten people who changed jobs said their new job was better overall, compared with one in ten who said that it was worse.
- Sixty-eight percent of adults said they would cover a $400 emergency expense exclusively using cash or its equivalent, up from 50 percent who would pay this way when the survey began in 2013. (Note that this survey is the original source of this oft-quoted statistic.)
- Six percent of adults did not have a bank account. Eleven percent of adults with a bank account paid an overdraft fee in the previous twelve months.
These little nuggets of info are interesting, sure, but what I find even more interesting are the charts and graphs documenting long-term trends.
The older I get, the more interested I am in history.
When I was young, history and myth seemed to be interchangeable to me. To ten-year-old me, there was little difference between, say, Abraham Lincoln and the Greek gods sitting atop Mount Olympus. All of it was abstract stuff that happened to imaginary people long ago.
Somewhere along the way — in my late teens, I think — history began to seem relevant. During my junior year of college, I took a course on Pacific Northwest history and my eyes were opened. I could see in my own life how events decades ago (or hundreds of years ago or thousands of years ago) created the actual world in which I lived my day-to-day existence.
Now that I'm firmly entrenched in middle age, history has never seemed more relevant.
J.D.'s note: Last September, I wrote that I didn't believe the world of personal finance needed more politics. I acknowledged that there were vast systemic issues that hold people back, but I argued that personal finance is personal.
While I still believe that individual action is (and always will be) the primary driver of financial success, my "no politics" stance has softened. No, that doesn't mean that Get Rich Slowly is suddenly going to change into a politics blog. That's not who I am. But it does mean that I'm willing to address political issues that affect our finances. (And, to be clear, I'm open to addressing these from both liberal and conservative perspectives.)
Right now, at this moment in time, it's important to talk about the issues black Americans face. It's important to talk about why there's so much anger -- and how a huge portion of our population has been disadvantaged for so long. (And continues to be disadvantaged!)
To that end, here's the amazing Lynnette Khalfani-Cox -- The Money Coach -- with a lesson on economic violence in the United States. (This originally appeared as a post in Lynnette's Facebook feed.)
The tragic murder of George Floyd highlighted the heinous reality of racism, police brutality, and the legacy of racial violence in America. But if we're going to truly address this country's ills, we must name, condemn and fix economic violence too.
First, a definition.
Economic violence occurs when one party disenfranchises, subjugates, or financially abuses another party. Any person or entity in power can commit economic violence. This includes individuals, companies, organizations, governments, institutions, or systems.
Clearly, many individuals and groups may be subjected to economic violence, such as LGBTQ people, immigrants, or women.
But today I want to talk specifically about the economic violence that African-Americans have endured for more than 400 years in these United States.
Over the past month, I've read a lot of articles about the virtues of investing in gold. Especially in Facebook forums, there's a lot of talk about how gold makes a great long-term investment. (Fortunately, I haven't seen any comments like this in the GRS community on Facebook.)
Whenever the economy gets turbulent, the goldbugs come out in force. They shout from the hilltops that the world is doomed and that the only safe haven is gold. And I'll admit, their arguments can sound pretty convincing.
When I started this site in 2006, I felt unqualified to comment on gold. I hadn't read much about it, and I didn't feel educated enough to offer an opinion. That's changed.
Now, after fifteen years of reading and writing about money, I know enough about economic history and I know enough about gold as an investment to have what I believe is a (somewhat) educated response to this subject. And that response is this: Gold makes a lousy long-term investment.
Today, let's have a discussion about the pros and cons of investing in gold while using my own opinion as a starting point. (And note that this article contains my opinion. It's backed up by some facts, but it's still my opinion. Don't take everything that follows as gospel.)
Put simply: I'm not a fan of precious metals. I have 0% of my investment dollars in gold and silver, and I expect that to hold true for the foreseeable future. It's my opinion that gold is a bad investment right now. Let me explain my reasoning.
Before we dive into the meat of this article, it's important to understand that I'm not an economist, and I'm not a gold expert. But for the past fifteen years, I've made a career out of personal finance, and gold is one tiny part of that subject. The core of this article was originally published here on 10 May 2011, the last time the goldbugs were out in force. This update contains substantial revisions. Also, please note that many of the comments on this article are from its original publication in 2011.
"What a crazy day," Kim said yesterday after she got home from work.
"Coronavirus?" I asked.
"Yeah," she said. "My schedule fell apart, which I figured it would. But I did see three patients in the morning. All three were doctors. Obviously, they thought it was safe to see the dentist. A lot of others stayed home though. Staff too. Meanwhile, people are pissed."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, it looks like our practice is going to have to shut down for a while. The Oregon Dental Association sent everyone a letter today that explained we're in high-risk professions. They recommended shutting down except for emergency procedures, except for cases that involve pain. So, our office is probably going to close for a while, and that means nobody's going to get paid."
"That makes sense," I said.
"It does," Kim agreed, "but people aren't happy about it. Some of the people in the office need each paycheck. They can't pay their bills if they don't get paid. They think the dentist should keep paying them -- out of his own pocket, if necessary."
"Whoa!" I said.
"I know," Kim said. "They don't understand that if we don't see patients, the practice doesn't make money. And if the practice doesn't make money, it can't pay employees. They just figure dentists are rich, so he should be able to pay us anyhow."
Naturally, this will have a ripple effect.
- Fewer people are going to the dentist (and the O.D.A. has recommended closing anyhow), so the practice isn't making money.
- The practice isn't making money, so it can't pay employees.
- Employees aren't being paid, so they can't buy things. Some can't even pay their bills.
- And, of course, the businesses that rely on payment from the employees then lose revenue -- and cannot pay their employees.
This morning in The New York Times, Neil Irwin calls this the one simple idea that explains why the economy is in great danger. "One person’s spending is another person’s income," he writes. "That, in a single sentence, is what the $87 trillion global economy is."
It's as if the global economy is a perpetual motion machine. It's a virtuous cycle. I buy from you. You buy from Jim. Jim buys from Jane. Jane buys from me. In a very real way, money makes the world go round.
When money stops changing hands, the world stops spinning. Markets crash. People panic. It's as if we've stopped the motor of the world.
How quickly things change.
Last week, the coronavirus (or Covid-19, if you prefer) was a distant problem. It was something other people in other places had to wrestle with. Sure, there was a looming sense that maybe this runaway train was steaming our way, but it still seemed distant enough that maybe it'd stop before it reached us.
Not anymore. Now it's clear that the coronavirus isn't just headed to the U.S., it's already here in our communities.
Can you feel it? There's panic in the streets! We're in the middle of a stock market crash and the hysteria is starting again. As I write this, the S&P 500 is down six percent today -- and 17.3% off its record high of 3386.15 on February 19th.
Media outlets everywhere are sharing panicked headlines.
All over the TV and internet, other financial reporters are filing similar stories. And why not? This stuff sells. It's the financial equivalent of the old reporter's adage: "If it bleeds, it leads."
Here's the top story at USA Today at this very moment:
But here's the thing: To succeed at investing, you have to pull yourself away from the financial news. You have to ignore it. All it'll do is make you crazy.
When I discuss American spending habits, I try to cite specific numbers. Sometimes people write to ask where I get my info. Simple. Whenever I cite figures about American earning, saving, and spending, I get them from the U.S. government. In particular, I use the Consumer Expenditure Survey (or CEX) from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Here's how the BLS website describes the Consumer Expenditure Survey:
The Consumer Expenditure Survey program consists of two surveys, the Quarterly Interview Survey and the Diary Survey, that provide information on the buying habits of American consumers, including data on their expenditures, income, and consumer unit (families and single consumers) characteristics. The survey data are collected for the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau. The CEX is important because it is the only Federal survey to provide information on the complete range of consumers' expenditures and incomes, as well as the characteristics of those consumers.
The Consumer Expenditure Survey is the only reliable source I've found about actual spending habits. Most similar projects have much smaller sample sizes and/or provide theoretical numbers. The CEX is a great way to develop a descriptive budget (one that deals with real behavior) instead of a prescriptive budget (one that pushes an agenda).
Naturally, the CEX has its drawbacks. As always, averages (and medians) only provide a limited view of a dataset. Plus, what might be true for an entire population (a country, in this case), probably isn't true for a small subsection (your state or city, for instance). Still, for looking at the Big Picture, nothing I've found beats the Consumer Expenditure Survey.
Because I'm a money nerd, I get very excited when the new Consumer Expenditure Survey numbers are released each year. And guess what! The 2018 data was released two weeks ago. I spent some time yesterday sitting in the hot tub and geeking out over U.S. spending stats on my iPad. Then I updated my personal CEX spreadsheet. (What? You don't have one of your own?)
Let's take a closer look at the Consumer Expenditure Survey -- and what we can learn from it.
Note: I've added a short addendum to this piece in an attempt to clarify some things. This may or may not have helped.
Earlier this week at The Washington Post, Helaine Olen wrote that the world of personal finance needs more politics.
Olen specifically calls out FinCon, the financial media conference I attended last week. I love FinCon. She doesn't. She's disappointed that so many members of our community emphasize personal action and responsibility instead of directing our efforts toward changing the systemic and societal issues that make it difficult for some people to succeed.
Spending a few days at FinCon 2019 shows the limits of the nonpolitical approach to improving your financial life...Over and over again, the systemic problems facing Americans are simply accepted as a given and unfixable, and tossed back onto the individual for him or her to solve.
Rarely mentioned are the political system’s many contributions to common economic troubles.
Olen is concerned that there are larger societal and systemic issues that hold some people back and prevent them from achieving financial success. I agree.
I disagree, however, that FinCon is the place to address these issues. And I disagree that we, the financial media, should turn our attention from the personal to the political.
Personal finance is personal. It's right there on the label.