Speedier payment systems could curb your costs

Here’s an illustration of the many ways slow payment systems can inconvenience you and cost you money.

Let’s say Homer is two days from payday. The family checking account at First Bank of Springfield is on fumes. There’s just enough in the account, Homer thinks, to gas up his Plymouth sedan and buy Bart a Squishee at the Kwik-E-Mart.

But Marge checked the account balance too, and thought she could safely buy groceries. Because Homer and Marge didn’t realize they were spending the same money, one of the transactions triggers an overdraft fee. Plus, they forgot the power bill is due, and utility owner Mr. Burns charges a wicked late fee.

Homer hits up Lenny and Carl for a loan, but Lenny uses Venmo, Carl uses PayPal and Homer uses only Zelle. Lenny writes Homer a check, but it’s from National Bank of Springfield, so First Bank puts a hold on the deposit. Desperate, Marge breaks into Lisa’s piggy bank for money to pay the power bill, but has to pay a fee to “expedite” a same-day bill payment.

The animated “Simpsons” television show might use this scenario to get laughs, but it’s not funny for Americans who pay billions of dollars in overdraft charges and late fees , thanks in part to antiquated payment systems. The most vulnerable people turn to high-cost payday loans to bridge cash flow gaps, and some leave the banking system altogether because of high, unpredictable fees.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how a change at the Federal Reserve could speed up payments dramatically.

What the Fed rate hike means to you, and your wallet

For everyone who has been saying interest rates can only go up, well – now is their time. But what does the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates actually mean for your wallet?

Probably not much for the near-term.

One small interest rate hike of one-quarter of a percentage point is unlikely to have much impact on your budget, but that does not mean you should ignore the Fed’s first rate increase since 2006.

In my latest for Reuters, what to expect as a result of the hike.

In my latest for MoneyWatch, three money resolutions for 2016 – and how to keep them.

What a Fed rate hike will mean for your finances

percentageThe Fed’s decision to boost interest rates – when it finally happens – will not significantly impact your household budget, at least not immediately. Instead, take it as a signal to get your finances ready for the increases to come.

“It’s like the first snowfall,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com. “The first snowfall is not what closes roads and cancels school. But it’s a sign the seasons are changing.”

The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank typically changes the influential federal funds rate in a series of moves over time rather than all at once. The Fed’s last sequence of 17 quarter-point rate increases over two years ended in June 2006, while 10 subsequent cuts between September 2007 and December 2008 left the rate near 0 percent.

Future increases may well be more gradual given the challenges the economy faces, McBride said.

“This is going to be different than last time,” McBride said. One increase “doesn’t mean the second will be on its heels.”

In my latest for Reuters, a look at what an eventual boost in the rates will mean for your finances.

Secret Fed recordings should scare you–a lot

watchdogPeople remember where they were when they heard about big historical events, like the planes flying into the World Trade Center buildings. Finance geeks remember where they were in September 2008 when they heard that the Prime Reserve Fund had “broken the buck.” A money market fund’s share price had just dropped below $1 for the first time, and this was a huge deal. Money market funds were supposed to be safe–I almost said “safe as houses,” but given the subsequent real estate recession, maybe not. Anyway, it wasn’t hard to envision this news triggering a Depression-era run on the funds where individuals and institutions stored trillions of dollars of cash. The funds wouldn’t be able to meet all the demands for withdrawals and the banking system would grind to a halt. From there, the collapse of the whole financial system would no longer be a fantasy of end-of-the-world preppers. Of all the bad news that fall–and there was a ton–that’s the story that really made it clear how close we were to the brink.

We avoided the worst, but our close call should have put every financial regulator on his or her toes. Unfortunately, secret recordings made by a now-fired Fed attorney make it clear that watchdogs are instead cuddled in the arms of the financial institutions they’re supposed to regulate. This is a gigantic story, one that financial author Michael Lewis calls “The Ray Rice video for the financial sector.”

Listen to the This American Life podcast here, and read ProPublica’s story here.  This is news you really need to know.