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Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.

When it comes to Americans' finances, the statistics paint a pretty grim picture. According to Northwestern Mutual's 2018 Planning & Progress Study, Americans are facing greater challenges than ever when it comes to their finances, and most don't seem to have the life skills needed to handle those challenges well.

One in five Americans have no retirement savings whatsoever, and a third of Baby Boomers have under $25,000 saved for retirement. With the increasingly dicey status of social security, this is going to mean a lot of older folks will be working for their entire lives. About 50% of Americans reported that they feel fear when considering their financial situation. The average personal debt rose to $38,000 in 2018 and that excludes mortgages, arguably the best form of debt one could have since its tied up with an asset. While mortgages are typically the most common form of debt, in 2018, credit card debt tied mortgages as the primary source of debt. And we don't even need to get into student loan debt.

These challenges aren't isolated to the lower class, either. Data from the Federal Reserve shows that all Americans aside from the top 10% are experiencing income stagnation. Upper-middle-class households are finding that the price of products and services are rising faster than inflation, forcing some to take on increasingly riskier forms of debt. In order to cope with this changing economic landscape, it's crucial that Americans master these financial skills.

Understand the power of compound interest

Compound interest refers to the exponential growth that happens when interest piles onto a sum over time. If you invest $5,000 at an interest rate of 7% per year, the next year that sum will increase by $350. If left untouched, the year after that, it will increase by $374.50. So long as that money remains untouched, it will grow at a rate that speeds up year over year, eventually reaching an impressive velocity.

Compound interest swings both ways: investing your money in a fund can be a fantastic way to build wealth, but leaving credit card debt to grow and grow is a fantastic way to give yourself an ulcer. If you have debt, it is vital that you pay off more than just the interest it gained. Consider the $5,000 example. After its first year of growing at 7% interest, you can't just pay $350 towards it — it'll never go away like that.

When it comes to student loan debt, programs like the Peace Corps can seem like a godsend. Joining volunteer programs like these often means you no longer have to pay your student loans for the duration of your service, but that doesn't mean your loan stops growing. Weigh all your options before letting debt accrue over time. Otherwise, you might be amazed at how horrifically large the beast has grown.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Understand retirement accounts

Though it might not seem too bad to put off saving for retirement until you've turned, say, 30, doing so means that your retirement account will be in fairly poor conditions. Because of compound interest, people who contribute more frequently and earlier to their retirement account will have disproportionately more money available when they retire.

Many people are not in the position to contribute to their retirement accounts. More immediate needs like groceries, rent, and other bills take precedence. But even small amounts can make a significant difference if they're started earlier rather than later. Even if you haven't been contributing for years and retirement looms nearer on the horizon then you'd like, remember that the best time to plant a tree is a decade ago, but the second best time is right now.

For those of you fortunate enough to be employed in a job with employer matching contributions, absolutely contribute the maximum percentage of your income that employer will match. If you can afford to do so, then meeting your employer's matching rate is literally free money.

Understand different investment vehicles (and when to use them)

Everybody wants their money to grow, but it may not be appropriate for everybody to invest in things outside of their retirement fund. Namely, if you have debt with a relatively high interest rate, investing in securities may not be worth your time. Stocks, for instance, don't have a guarantee rate of return, though the average return of the S&P 500 is 7% per year. The trouble is, this figure can vary tremendously in any given year.

On the other hand, your credit card or student loan debt will always remain the same in fair weather or foul. So, if that debt carries a particularly high interest rate, you can in effect become wealthier by paying it down.

If you've got money left over after contributing to your retirement account and if your debt has a low interest rate or you're fortunate enough to have no debt whatsoever, then it can be beneficial to invest in another investment vehicle, like an index fund. Index funds track some financial index such as the S&P 500 and enable you to buy a small portion of everything in the index they track. If you invest in an index fund tracking the S&P 500, you can expect a 7% return on average — though it's important to remember the golden rule of investing: Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. It's also important to look at the expense ratio of a given fund, or the amount that fund charges investors for its service. Funds with high fees can seriously hamper your returns.

That's not to say that this is necessarily the best option for you. Just as every investor is different, every investment vehicle is different, each with its own upsides and downsides. It's important to consider factors like your risk tolerance and goals when selecting an investment vehicle. Investopedia offers a great deal of information, like this page covering the basics of different kinds of investments. There are also many excellent books on investing, such as Benjamin Graham's classic The Intelligent Investor, which is reliably found on lists of the best investing books, and The Essays of Warren Buffett.

Financial management is an essential life skill, especially in 21st century America. Obtaining financial security is difficult, but it is even more difficult without the knowledge of how to go about these things. It can be tempting to avoid considering these kinds of things when things are tough, but those moments are precisely when thinking about your finances is essential. Understanding the three items discussed above can help navigate America's choppy financial waters.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

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