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Study: Older consumers lack savvy

Too many choices and different rules lead many Americans over 45 into financial instability, an AARP report concludes.

By Associated Press
Published May 7, 2004

NEW YORK - Americans who are 45 and older are a growing economic force, responsible for more than half the nation's consumer spending, but they often lack the skills and information to make good financial decisions, according to a study released Thursday.

The AARP says in its Report to the Nation on Consumers in the Marketplace that older Americans often feel overwhelmed when confronted with tasks such as choosing a health care provider or selecting investments for a retirement account or sorting through telephone service options.

"With the growing complexity, the growing number of choices ... many consumers feel they have insufficient time to navigate through that," said John Rother, AARP's director of policy and strategy.

Ensuring that older Americans are good consumers is important because what they don't spend on goods and services can go toward important savings goals, the report said.

"The savings that accrue from effective shopping and financial management are vital to helping consumers, especially baby boomers, find adequate resources for myriad responsibilities, including financing their children's education, caring for older relatives and saving for their own retirement," the report said.

The study, which is based on federal data through 2001, is AARP's fourth annual report on the state of older Americans. AARP is a nonprofit advocacy group for Americans age 50 and older that is based in Washington.

Older Americans spend an average of $38,787 a year, with nearly a third going to housing, the study found. Other major categories include 13 percent for food, 7 percent for health care, 19 percent for transportation, 10 percent for insurance and pensions, and the rest for other purposes, such as entertainment, alcohol and tobacco, and personal care products.

But consumers don't necessarily buy the best products or get the best prices, the study said.

"The old rules of thumb, such as "you get what you pay for,' are often not applicable in today's marketplace, and consumers who use them are often shortchanged," it said.

It noted, for example, that even selecting basic checking and savings accounts can be confusing.

Consumers have to take into account the interest a financial institution is offering as well as late fees, service charges, monthly maintenance costs and other surcharges "that make it difficult for consumers to comparison shop and make informed decisions."

Selecting a mortgage can be equally complex. The study said that a single local newspaper's mortgage guide "listed 41 different loan types and 47 mortgage lenders for potential borrowers to compare."

Consumers acknowledge they're overwhelmed.

A companion telephone survey of some 1,900 older consumers found that 27 percent said they didn't have enough time to be good money mangers, while 7 percent blamed a lack of knowledge about finances. Too much information - and not enough information - were also cited as obstacles.

Poor money management has also contributed to growing debt, bankruptcies and mortgage foreclosures among older Americans, the study found. Some 210,878 people 55 and older were in bankruptcy proceedings in 2001, it said.

The AARP report recommends several steps that it believes will improve the lot of older consumers, including improving consumer information with disclosures consumers can understand; expanding programs to improve financial literacy; and providing better banking and credit services for low-income, minority and elderly communities.

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 01:03:18]

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