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Melissa Preddy

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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Helping consumers spot phony ‘green’ claims on Earth Day and beyond

Earth Day is April 22 and it’s not just for environmental writers.  From solid waste to clean energy to careers and more, there’s an ecology claim to scrutinize on pretty much every business beat.

NASCAR

NASCAR and the Daytona 500 say they continues to look for ways to be environmentally friendly.

Even NASCAR, the embodiment of internal-combustion engine worship, tries an earth-friendly spin:  Its Race to Green initiative is encouraging tree planting to offset carbon emissions and installing electric-vehicle charging stations at tracks, among other tactics; the Twitter handle @NASCARGreen offers up other examples like racers helping schoolkids build nesting boxes.  The program bills itself as the largest sustainability program in sports and last year’s NASCAR Green Summit featured Al Gore among other environmental advocates.

If you cover the business of sports, or economic development, or anything related to large public venues like arenas and convention centers, why not check out the latest in recycling and econ-friendly initiatives at those mass gathering spots?  Are they for real or just damage control to deflect attention from polluting practices?

Whatever industry you cover, there’s a green story waiting to be investigated, like hotels that “go green” by asking you to re-use towels (thus saving on their own laundry costs) .  I’ve received self-congratulatory messages from a casino chain about their new “green” e-newsletter to replace a printed mailer.

If you’re in a skeptical frame of mind, you might even produce a round-up of your area’s most blatant “greenwashing” initiatives by local companies seeking green credit for shrewd business moves; you can model it after this 24/7 Wall Street feature “The Green Hypocrisy,” which exposes the polluting practices of 10 major companies that were spinning their sustainability story while in violation of EPA regulations, or actively lobbying against climate-change science, and so on.

Here, for example, is a Union of Concerned Scientists report from 2013 which claims that companies hide their climate-change denial lobbying by doing so through trade groups.  Might be interesting to see the trade and lobbying group activity for or against green efforts, relative to any eco-friendly image campaigns at the corporations you cover.

Sustainabilty without compromise sign at worksite

This company shares its green intent on the entrance to its worksite. Photo: Richard Eriksson

And here’s a site, GreenwashingIndex.com, that lets submitters call companies on suspicious green claims in advertising.  You might scope out local ads and direct-mail pieces; I’ve seen green claims lately from service firms ranging from carpet cleaners to diaper services.  Some years ago a lawn-care firm near me was touting itself as “organic” — for some reason it sounded fishy and I ended up with a front-page story after learning that the state natural resources department was looking askance at that claim, because the company was using the same toxic pesticides chemicals as every other turf care business.  (As a state official said to me, ‘Technically gasoline is organic, but I don’t think that’s what the consumer had in mind.’)  You might do a consumer-friendly piece about how to question the green claims of companies they hire, like these consumer caveats  from Environmental Protection magazine.

Even businesses can be harmed by false green claims; here’s a fascinating anecdote from the site Business Insurance about a commercial landlord who lost tenants — and whose property and financing were jeopardized — because of fake green claims by a construction firm she hired.   Avoiding misleading greenwashing claims — or pursuing action against those who do — is even a bit of a legal specialty, if that’s your beat:  Here is the American Bar Association’s guide to “Greenwashing: What your clients should avoid,” which outlines FTC rules and other curbs companies should beware of.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement portal includes an interactive map of closed enforcement cases and ZIP-code searchable database that will show you any company in your area falling under EPA regulations, when they were last inspect and violation.

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A new way to look at housing prices: NYT’s shows what a buck will buy

I always admire alternative storytelling, from video to maps to interactive graphics or just clever ways that writers use prose.  A a recent business story in the New York Times recently caught my eye and I think it’s just ripe for biz reporters nationwide to localize.

In “The buck shops here,”the NYT columnist Ben Schott came up with a really clever way to display relative housing prices by district or neighborhood.  If you click, you’ll see a series of little grey boxes labeled with the name of various New York City neighborhoods, along with a few in other cities nationwide like Dallas and Philadelphia.  What are those boxes?  In actual size, they show the amount of residential floor space $1 will buy in all of those area.

Buck Shops Here NYT real estate feature

Ben Schott's illustration (click the image to see the original) shows the actual floor space $1 will buy in New York neighborhoods.

The smallest box, less than one square inch, represents what four quarters will buy in New York’s Flatiron district; by contrast, about 64 of those tiny Flatiron squares will fit inside the space $1 bill buy in Memphis. (My eyeball estimates of the relative size of the boxes).

Quite interesting and while the city-to-city comparison in enlightening, I think readers/viewers in a local market would love a more drilled-down estimate.  You could go street-by-street logging recent home sales — say, in the last six months or year — or block-by-block, by subdivision or by quadrant depending on the size of your market.   The NYT graphic is based on actual sale prices as of January 2014 and credits Zillow for the data.

And indeed, Zillow does offer a great search engine of recently-sold homes; I did a ZIP code search and then quickly zoomed in on my neighborhood; price and square footage of houses and condos involved in recently transactions popped up quite handily.  I would caution though — a recent sale right on my street reflected the accurate price – I was nosy and asked — but the listing represented on Zillow’s site referred to an older, smaller house that was on the premises before it was razed and replaced by a much larger dwelling.  So if I used the published square footage as the basis of calculations, it would be off.   You probably ought to double-check any recent transaction info with the real estate agent involved in the deal, or perhaps the title company.

Another good search engine is on Realtor.com, the site of the National Association of Realtors.  It reflected sales that closed as recently as two weeks ago and of the ones I recognized, the photos seemed more recent and the specificiations up to date.

With both new and existing home sales on the economic release calendar for the week of April 21, the topic will be at front of mind for a lot of consumers, and showing them this novel way to compare what a buck buys in area real estate will make for a useful and educational feature.   You can either drill down to the NYT’s “square inches per dollar” level or just illustrate the average price per square foot of living space for the examples you select.

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So just why is 4/20 a day to celebrate pot .. and other marijuana stories ideas

Not all of the grass enjoyed this coming weekend will be that bright green stuff cushioning dyed hard-boiled eggs.

In an interesting confluence of events, Easter Sunday shares April 20 with what’s come to be known as National Weed Day, when marijuana is smoked and publicly celebrated in parks and plazas nationwide; Wikipedia calls it a “counter-culture holiday” (wonder how long that moniker will hold up as legalization efforts spread) and explains the lore behind the notion that 420 (or 4/20 or4:20) is code for for marijuana.

Boulder 4-20 celebrations

Boulder's 2010 4-20 celebrations attracted a crowd. Photo: Colleen Whitfield

Just in time to meld the chocolate treats of Easter with some Rocky Mountain highs, the first marijuana- related vending machines are being unveiled that can dispense brownies or other pop products, and use biometrics to make sure the purchaser is of legal age.

It’s an opportune moment to review the legal status of smokers in your neck of the woods, any pending legislation that might open up the pot industry and quirky stories related to the sale and use of the plant.   The Cannabis Country enthusiasts site (which features a Buds of the Week photo contest) has compiled a list of …yes, 420 events that will commemorate what it prefers to call National Pot Smokers Day.  Gatherings range from legalization protests to public “smoke outs” and cover a wide range of the United States and beyond; check the list for organizers of the one nearest you.

The range of laws and attitudes toward marijuana varies widely by state; Maryland’s governor just signed two related bills; one resurrects the state’s medical marijuana program and the other decriminalizes owning small amounts of pot.  But in other jurisdictions, owning a few  can land you in prison for a dozen years or more.  Take a look at the advocacy group NORML’s interactive map of state laws.

We all know what the law is in Colorado, and you can bet pot is going mainstream when it gets its own newspaper blog;  the Denver Post jumped right on it with The Cannabist and I must say the blog is a trove of interesting angles, from a call for a new marijuana critic (yes, get paid to review weed — must authoritatively known marijuana) to an article about conflicts with neighbors who don’t like the odors emanating from your bongs.  More to the point for a business writer, the blog features roundups of products and small business profiles.

By Flickr user Laurie Avocado

And in Colorado they’re not just celebrating 420 day — they’ve got 4/20 Week coming up with concerts, pet expos and more.  (Canabist Tip: Out-of-staters, don’t leave your leftover smoke as a tip for the hotel housekeeper when you leave town; you’ll both get in trouble.)

Irreverence aside, you can see how legalizing marijuana sends financial and jobs creation tentacles throughout a community’s businesses, from tourism and hospitality to retail to health care.  Business leaders and lawmakers nationwide must be looking at Colorado and licking their chops at the potential tax revenue; Reuters just reported that Colorado will rake in $98 million this year in marijuana related taxes – 40 percent more than forecast — and of course that’s not counting the other forms of spending that locals and tourists are doing on everything from bed & breakfast inns to Girl Scout Cookies.  Are these industries lobbying in  your area for marijuana law reform, or are they worried that marijuana tourism might be siphoning interest in their offerings if it spreads?

Miracle Gro Marijuana business

In 2011, Scotts Chief Executive Jim Hagedorn said he was exploring targeting medical marijuana to help boost Miracle-Gro sales.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are due for another look, too, and if it’s legal in your state, check around for any publicly traded companies like Medical Marijuana Inc., or other opportunities for those who want to get in on the ground floor; one analyst calls it the “single best investment opportunity for the next 10 years.”  You might talk with local brokerage firms, investment advisers, financial planners — are they getitng any inquiries from institutional or individual clients?  And what are pension funds pondering about pot?

Another grey area as pot slowly loses its stigma — what happens to people who’ve been imprisoned for using or selling the drug, and what happens to the legal practices of attorneys who specialize in that area?  Talk with your area’s bar association and niche lawyers about their profession’s concerns regarding those and other issues stemming from a contradictory patchwork of  state, federal and local laws. Other professional practices — like this firm of CPAs that specialize in legal marijuana – are springing up as well.

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Money Monday: Making sense sense of the financial advice industry

We’re midway through National Financial Literacy month and our look at resources and story ideas for addressing personal finance coping skills at various life stages.  This week, middle-age — the group that’s coping with myriad financial concerns from their kids’ (and perhaps their own) student loans to elder care to planning for their own old age, while juggling current expenses, job worries and real estate issues with one wary eye on the stock market, as well.

personal financeIt’s a lot to digest and few people are financially literate enough to step back and objectively evaluate their own financial picture.  It may not make sense, for example, to bail out struggling adult children if it jeopardizes one’s own retirement — the younger set has more time to work and recover than their Baby Boomer parents, but many moms and dads are doing exactly that sort of bailing as we speak.  Same with retirement savings — you can borrow funds for education but you can’t make up lost time in building a nest egg, or borrow to fill it.  And we know now that many households that “lost it all” in the economic meltdown of 2008 really would’ve rebounded quite well if they hadn’t sold off investments in a panic.

But people respond emotionally to money-related situations, and don’t always pick the sensible path.  So one service you can do for middle-income, middle-aged readers is a primer on finding the most cost-effective financial advice for their situation.

KEEP IT BASIC

Start with the basics — an info-box defining the credentials various advisors use, and what they mean. It’s easy for consultants to toss out Securities & Exchange Commission terms like “Series 7 license” and such that sound impressive — but the fact is many employers that require such a credential spend more time training their reps in sales tactics than in fiscal expertise.   And contrary to what some consumers assume, there is very little government oversight of people operating at the general “financial adviser” level.  As this  U.S. Government Accountability Office report points out, what regulation that does exist covers products, such as insurance, but not necessarily the education and quality of advice given by consultants.

CNN Money reported that there are 100 or more credentials used by financial advisers and some of those initials are no more than marketing tools doled out by trade groups.   Most personal finance writers will agree that the most reputable credentials, which require substantial education, exams and adherence to ethics codes, are the Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Financial Analyst.  I would include those in any list you create, and point out that many advisers also are lawyers, CPAs or have other credentials as well; it’s up to consumers to find someone with the right mix of skills, expertise and education.  This U.S. News & World Report piece, “How to find a financial adviser if you’re not rich,” may be the tack to take;  though it does seem to focus on commission-oriented investment advisors.

SNAPSHOT & RESET

Sometimes, rather than ongoing money management, all a middle-income household needs is a one-time or two-time snapshot of where they are, some changes they can make (shift IRAs to lower-cost index funds, for example, and adjust asset allocation to match their age & goals) to maximize their returns.  The adviser should be able to provide advice about must-do steps like wills and health-care powers of attorney, a forecast of retirement income based on current savings rates and an evaluation of the household debt picture, as well.  Talk with some reputable advisers about what this sort of financial check-up should cost, and what services should be provided — as well as a checklist of questions/topics consumers should be prepared with.  The Garrett Planning Network is a professional associaton of fee-only financial advisors that aim to be accessible to people at many income ranges; use their search engines to find local members as experts for your story.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ON ONE CARD

 

NON-PARTISAN ADVICE

Here’s a (PDF) booklet called “Know your financial adviser” from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau you might use as a template for sidebars; it’s aimed at older consumers and makes the point that people in specialized situations, such as military retirees, need to seek out specialists in that area.  And as we have seen over the past year, financial and estate-planning advice for same-sex couples, whether they are legally married or not, is a complex issue and one that is becoming a growing niche for experts.

People who aren’t in a position to save might need a different sort of assistance; try to offer help to them, to, always keeping an eye out for helpers without a profit motive.  Credit unions sometimes sponsor low-cost budget counselors and volunteer tax assistance organizations might help families with tangled back-tax problems.  Also check with your state’s financial regulators, attorney general and other agencies about any ongoing enforcement actions or examples of prosecutions they can point to, which you can use as narrative examples for readers.

 

 

 

 

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Quicktips: Mad Men kitsch, real-estate glitch, Passover product pitch

We’re amid one of those stimulating times of year when the seasonal news pegs are so numerous it’s hard to keep up.  I missed National Love Your Produce Manager Day and going to have to take a pass on National Garlic Day; hoping to squeeze in some Earth Day ideas but meanwhile here are a few quicktips on upcoming stories you just might want to spin into local biz features:

Mad Men.  The beginning of the end of the popular retro soap kicks off Sunday, April 13as the first half of the oddly birfurcated final season begins; hard to believe that seven years have gone by since Don & Betty Draper and their swingin’ 60s circle created such a martini-fueled stir.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in Episode 6 Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in Episode 6 Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

The show’s aesthetic launched calendars, cocktail recipes, a Banana Republic fashion line, fan books and more.  Now some of those items have become collectibles – and the very name of the show now is appended as a keyword to unrelated products on sites like eBay and Etsy to convey a certain vibe, much like the Shabby Chic trademark phrase was co-opted by sellers of other vintage goods.

Newsday got a neat little feature out of “Where to find Mad Men fashion and décor on Long Island.”  You could do the same and perhaps delve a little more into the supply and demand of vintage and retro-style goods.  Talk with bartenders, liquor store operators, e-cigarette and smoke shops and more about how consumers get into emulating the dressier era of decades gone by.  And here’s a just-published Upstart Business Journal piece about “How Mad Men inspired an architecture student to start a fashion firm.”

If you want to tackle something a bit meatier, how about a sit-down with your region’s marketing and advertising gurus; how has the industry changed in the past few decades?  Is copywriting still in demand or would Peggy Olson be mastering search-engine optimization skills and the new business of targeted Twitter ads – what are the skill sets aspiring gurus should be mastering and how has the billing/business model changed in the past decade for advertising agencies?

Passover.  The Jewish observance runs March 15-22 this year and commemorates, as Chabad.org explains, the emancipation of Israelites.  Although a period with very solemn origins, its traditions have not escaped the attention of the same marketeers who have co-opted other religious observances; this year for some reason seems particularly ripe with products capitalizing on Passover’s prohibition on leavened goods and many grains and legumes.

That includes high-fructose corn syrup, one reason why Coca-Cola and other drink makers produce a special sweetened-with-sugar version for Passover consumption; it’s turned out tobe a hot item with Coke fans of many heritages.  Now Ad Age reports that packaged food makers are producing kosher versions of cake mixes, potato pancake batters and other goods that individuals on gluten-free diets are snapping off store shelves.  Why not talk with grocers and with people on restricted diets about the growing availability of and appeal of Passover foods for Jews and non-Jews alike?

Real estate RIP.  Tired of perky real-estate stories about sellers wooing buyers with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and neutral wall paint?  How about a site that lets easily creeped-out would-be owners check on the dark side of the houses they like?  DiedInHouse.com is a for-pay search engine that lets property seekers (or sellers, I suppose) plug in an address and find out who’s on public record as having died there.  It would be interesting to run the report for a number of current listings or recent sales and talk with the parties about how a ghoulish event or even an ordinary death might affect the transaction.

On a more serious note, disclosure notice requirements vary from state to state; some really do mandate that deaths (violent ones, anyway, or crimes) be disclosed to potential purchases.  Why not a story on the local legal requirements, along with tips for making the best of your home’s image problems (known as “stigmatized property in the trade) and otherwise checkered past?

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Follow-up ideas to the gender-wage gap headlines

President Obama commemorated Equal Pay Day by inking an executive order that addresses the wage gap between men and women, at least at federal contractors. 

And while Equal Pay Day (the day a female worker catches up to a male worker’s total wages for the previous year) has come and gone, the issue remains along with a number of other developments regarding women in the workplace. 

Women at work Tshirt

Women at work on a Habitat for Humanity project in Miami. PHOTO: El Gringo on Flickr

So, I’ve compiled a variety of resources and story ideas you might use now and over the next few weeks; the issue likely will be highlighted again in May when Mother’s Day typically shines new light on parenting/workplace matters.

On the equal pay front, the White House itself was dinged this week for what critics claim is its own wage-gender gap; critics say female workers at 1800 Pennsylvania Ave. are paid only 88 cents for every dollar that male workers earn.  The awkward moment for the White House highlights what some analysts say are reasons for the gap that go beyond simple discrimination; when you mix in hours worked, the higher likelihood that women will take a career hiatus at some point and other factors, it’s a very fraught subject to report. 

For example, this PolicyMic report uses the same 77-cents-to-one-dollar figure the White House uses to describe the female/male pay discrepancy, noting that can add up to a $400,000 deficit over a working woman’s lifetime.  And as PolicyMic notes, citing the National Women’s Law Center fact sheet from November 2013, the gap is even worse for women in some demographic groups, especially Hispanic and Latina women.

The National Partnership for Women and Families also uses the 77-cent figure as a national base line and offers an interactive map of the state-by-state wage gaps; click on your state for more detailed info and analysis. 

On the other hand, some analysts disagree with the oft-cited numbers and the conclusion that women are being unfairly paid.  This Slate article, “The Gender Wage Gap Lie,”  delves into factors like education, occupation and hours worked and says the gap is as narrow as 9 cents on the dollar (meaning women earn 91 percent of what men do.) The article cites this Freakonomics analysis of MBA-d workers, which says starting salaries are on par but maternity leave, part-time work and other choices eventually led to a 40-percent pay gap between men and women.   

Obviously getting real-time wage-by-gender information from your area’s employers is going to be difficult but you might be able to obtain some stats from unions.  Perhaps taking a look at the proxy statements now emerging from publicly traded companies would be interesting; at least you can compare the salaries and fringe benefits of female senior managers to their male counterparts, and ask about any discrepancies. Bloomberg last year analyzed proxies of the S&P 500 companies and found that female execs were earning 18 percent less than men.  Why not do the same analysis for your local public companies and then ask them a) why and b) if the trend holds true among their rank-and-file workers. 

A new report CBS News cited, by the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) points out the long-term effects of the pay gap, including a fascinating state-by-state chart of women’s earnings and eventual Social Security benefits, which of course are pegged to wages.  This is an interesting angle because a common reason women give for dropping out of the workforce to care for their children is the cost of day care which often is nearly the same as the family’s second income. 

You might talk with financial advisors about the pros and cons of biting the bullet for a few years in order to stay invested in a career, even if it means treading water until the kids are in school.  It may be that the eventual gains realized by staying employed outweigh the seeming futility of working in the pre-school years – not just in terms of closing the wage gap during working years, but for a woman’s old-age security.  And this would be a very timely approach in light of the just-out Pew research which finds that the percentage of mothers who do not work outside the home was up to 29 percent in 2012, after decades of declining.

It might be interesting to see what your area’s major employers say about the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill in the Senate that would change how discrimination suits are handled.  Many critics say it would be more of a boon to plaintiffs’ lawyers than to actual workers and some trade groups like the National Retail Federation are publicly opposing it. 

And here as context is the World Economic Federation’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report.

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New state tax revenue data gives insight into consumer spending

New numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau on state tax revenues are just out for the fourth quarter of 2013, with the annual summary for the full year also due out April 8.

Because these figures are broken down into categories ranging from property tax to alcohol purchases, you might consider using them as a launching pad for a look at not just overall consumption of goods and services, but industry-level fiscal health, as well.

Nebraska state run horse racingFourth-quarter results of the survey “indicate the economy is improving,” as Bankrate.com reported recently; the financial site points out that property taxes, in particular, are up about 3 percent over the last three months of 2012.  More important, it’s the first time since 2009, Bankrate noted, that the total property taxes collected by states broke the $180 billion mark — a sign that real estate prices are heading up.

Here’s the link to the bureau’s latest quarterly report, and here’s a link to the page for the annual survey summary.  And while the major categories like sales, income and property taxes can provide an overall snapshot of state fiscal health — here, for example, is a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis from 2013 that focuses on big-picture issues, it’s the 25 subcategories that might be ripe for interesting local angles that reflect consumer spending, confidence and income.

Hunting and fishing licenses, tobacco sales, motor fuel consumption — all are areas that are tracked by license or sales tax data.   And “severance taxes,” as this National Conference of State Legislatures graphic explained, pertain to natural resource harvesting — taking a look at historical figures can paint a picture of how materials like coal, natural gas, oil, ore, precious metals and more are being harvested.

You want to look for State Tax Collections by State; the Census Bureau’s site offers historical data searchable by year and quarter depending on which periods you want to compare.  (A chart showing quarterly collections by selected categories going back to, say, third-quarter 2008 would be quite interesting)

For example, if your region is home to a horse-racing track, check out the ebb and flow of pari-mutuel tax revenue — a timely topic with the sport’s centerpiece Kentucky Derby coming up.  Check out any pending legislation pertaining to racing — Kentucky hopes to tax online wagering, for example — and any other changes that may boost or reduce the state’s take.

Tax revenue from alcholic beverages is another area to look at; what’s behind any change?  Are consumers tippling more or less, or are new businesses adding to the tax receipts; this Reno Gazette-Journal reports that start-up distilleries and breweries are boosting Nevada’s state coffers.   The amusements category is intriguing as well — definitions seem to vary by state, with some including nightclub admission fees, others taxing pool tables and juke boxes.  Kiddie rides and pinball machines also are mentioned on some state treasury websites, though I believe this category doesn’t include casino machines.   How fascinating in this day of Candy Crush and ubiquitous slot machines to take a look at the more venerable and nostalgic business of coin-operated devices (do gumball machines count, too?) and the companies still in the business of running them.

 

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Money Monday: Staving off student loan woes

As National Financial Literacy Month unfolds, we’re taking a look at story ideas pegged to various life stages; last week we pondered personal finance topics for young children and their parents.

Next up, a look at money issues that are front and center for young adults. This is the life stage at which establishing good habits and avoiding major pitfalls can make the difference between financial stability and decades of pasting one Band-Aid after another on one’s fiscal wounds.

hire me on mortar board

Photo: AU blog

Student loans and career choice are, of course, a big worry with this generation and perennial story topics abound.  But I do sometimes think student debt woes are overhyped; yes, some professionals graduate with six-figure debt, as do some students who choose to join elite programs that don’t generate much of a return on investment. But the average student debt of graduates is less than $30,000 – about the size of a typical car purchase – and should be manageable (assuming the grad is able to find a job.) 

Here’s a handy interactive map by the Project on Student Debt that shows the average debt and the proportion of students graduating with debt; the related database operated by the Institute for College Access and Success allows you to run all sorts of interesting tables on costs and debt by actual institution, including community colleges and trade schools.  Here’s an OregonLive take on the numbers, as an example.

Why not a comparison of the costs, debt and placement/salary rates for various degree programs across a number of institutions?  Nursing, engineering, business administration, etc. – find some real readers still mulling their options and enlist a financial planner to help them weight the dollars and cents factors of their choices.  (I once had a planner run numbers for a student who had reluctantly passed on his dream school to accept a full scholarship at a respectable but not legendary college; the planner figured that at minimum, that choice would have a $600,000 positive effect on the young man’s net worth by age 60.) 

You also might write about the pros and cons (according to financial advisers, human resource managers, etc.) of creative approaches to paying for college, including: taking a couple of years off to save before matriculating; the leap-frog approach of alternating work years with school years, borrowing from family members rather than bank, and doing as many credits as possible via advanced placement or local community college programs (like this one in Ann Arbor that helps student earn a high-school diploma and college certificate simultaneously.)

Help your audience understand  earn-as-you-learn opportunities via local skilled trades unions, including machinists, electricians and plumbing.  The U.S. Department of Labor oversees apprenticeships and operates a searchable database; I randomly selected Marion County, Ind., and got hits on more than 100 “registered program sponsors” listed with training programs ranging from boilerhouse mechanic to animal trainer to paralegal.  (A number seemed to be related to a jobs re-training program and not all are presently offering training berths but it’s a lead you can follow up on to guage the availability of apprenticeships in your county or region.)

Student debt forgiveness programs might be of interest to readers, as well:  As USA Today reported, as many as one-quarter of American workers might be eligible for debt forgiveness or an income-based repayment program.  And check out your area’s big employers – are any offering student-loan help as hiring incentives, or paying for grad shool degrees for existing workers? 

Personal finance basics

Some young adults may be learning about compound interest, budgeting and so forth the hard way as they juggle the above-mentioned loans, but it never hurts to include sidebars and infoboxes about basics like how compounding works and the concept of dollar-cost averaging.  CreditCards.com reports that “Millenials have unhealthy credit habits,” including the use of cards for revolving debt.  Again, you might use these concepts as a springboard to ask local financial planning experts (I like those with the Certified Financial Planning credential) and credit-union advisors, as well as counselors at debt-management agencies, to explain how little amounts of either debt or savings can add up substantially over time. 

It’s important for the young-adult cohort to manage what they have well; this Businessweek article “Millenials mired in wealth gap as older Americans gain,” illustrates how the housing market collapse has cost this group more than other demographics.   (As an aside, strive for balance.  Articles like this tend to portray their subjects as victims; one might also pose the question “are 30-year-olds ready for a $350,000 house in any circumstances?”  What was their rainy-day fund like, for example, and why did a plunge in the home’s value – which wouldn’t affect the monthly payment – drive homeowners into bankruptcy?  Get all the details you can to provide a well-rounded report for readers.)

And here’s a neat New York Times interactive graphic “Is it better to buy or rent?” real estate; it might make some Millenials feel better about not being able to afford property right out of the starting gate.

 

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High-tech carts, speedier play: Golf industry courts new players

Golf’s premiere tournament, the Masters, will be swinging into action in a few days, and it’s a great peg for a look at the fiscal health of your region’s golf industry – from resorts and courses to equipment sales and lesson.

As fewer time-pressed Americans opt for a slow stroll around the links, and demographics takes its toll on an aging crop of enthusiasts, golf facilities and related businesses are hurting.

woman in yellow skirt on green golf course, blue sky

Photo: Grand Cayman Golf

This just-out article from industry publication Golf Club Management says “Golf ‘desperately needs to change its image’” and in a recent Harris poll, only 2 percent of adults picked the game as their favorite sport, according to an online report by USGolfTV.com.

This report by the National Golf Foundation, “Golf Participation in America, 2010-2020,” (PDF) is worth a read; it says that after finishing the 20th century on an upswing, the pastime has been in decline with participation rates dropping yearly since 2000.  The group forecasts a 1 percent annual growth rate, mostly among high-income people, and expects as many as 1,000 golf courses to disappear this decade.  Clearly golf is falling out of favor among middle-income people for economic and lifestyle reasons.

Here’s an article from the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, “Taking a mulligan,” that features a list of defunct courses and even an anecdote about a public pension fund’s disastrous investment in golf facilities.

But golf is big business and important to many tourist and resort economies; CNN reported last year that an industry estimate puts the game’s total economic impact at $177 billion a year in the U.S. alone.  So checking in on what courses, clubs, coaches and related businesses are doing to reach a new generation of players is fodder for some interesting business stories.

golfer shot from the ball's point of view

Photo: Phillip Ritz

The Sioux Falls (Iowa) Argus Leader says “Country clubs adapt to survive,” and notes that fitness facilities are one way that private clubs are trying to appeal to a new clientele; eased dress codes, on-premises sports bars and kiddie pools are other tactics. Speeding up the pace of play is another aspect of modernizing the sport; GolfBallsUnlimited – which bills itseslf as a resource for bulk, used and recycled balls (an interesting angle for a story – you could expand it to recycling of gear in other pastimes as well) just issued a press release saying slow play is “killing golf,” and hinting that better-quality balls are part of the solution.

Another tech angle:  Golf carts with GPS.  It would seem difficult to get lost on the average suburban cart path but who knows?  What other amenities do the latest models feature?  Lots of aftermarket fans and air-conditioning systems are out there, and Golf Car News, the industry publication, offers other potential story nuggets.

I also see a lot of thriving driving ranges and wonder, are time-deprived would-be players substituting a quick dash to the range for full-scale play?  How are the ranges adapting; they used to be no-frills facilities and now seem to feature nicer amenities; I even saw one that appeared to have air-conditioned bays.  It’s an entire industry that might make for a new twist on the business-of-golf story; seek out story leads at the Golf Range Association trade group site and its related industry magazine.

Also worth a look at trends in corporate and fundraising golf outings; are these staying in favor or falling prey to more family-friendly events?  Check bookings at local courses or clubs and ask corporate organizers about trends they’re seeing on their end.

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