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The Age of Reason: Financial Decisions over the Life Cycle and Implications for Regulation

From: Brookings Papers on Economic Activity
Fall 2009
pp. 51-117 | 10.1353/eca.0.0067

Abstract

Abstract:

Many consumers make poor financial choices, and older adults are particularly vulnerable to such errors. About half of the population between ages 80 and 89 have a medical diagnosis of substantial cognitive impairment. We study life-cycle patterns in financial mistakes using a proprietary database with information on 10 types of credit transactions. Financial mistakes include suboptimal use of credit card balance transfer offers and excess interest rate and fee payments. In a cross section of prime borrowers, middle-aged adults made fewer financial mistakes than either younger or older adults. We conclude that financial mistakes follow a U-shaped pattern, with the cost-minimizing performance occurring around age 53. We analyze nine regulatory strategies that may help individuals avoid financial mistakes. We discuss laissez-faire, disclosure, nudges, financial "driver's licenses," advance directives, fiduciaries, asset safe harbors, and ex post and ex ante regulatory oversight. Finally, we pose seven questions for future research on cognitive limitations and associated policy responses.